Friday, February 13, 2009

My Great Movies: Casablanca

I cannot think of how one is supposed to go about summing up Michael Curtiz's 1944 masterpiece, this movie which you can sometimes hear referred to as the greatest American movie ever made. It's a task, I think, that most film critics don't enjoy taking on because, really, what are you supposed to say? What hasn't been said? If you do say something will it sound like something that's already been said? Everyone knows this movie, even if they haven't seen it. If someone claims they know nothing of "Casablanca" look at them and say, "We'll always have Paris" or "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." They will know those lines. You will tell them they come from "Casablanca". (I wonder how many people my age know from where the movie title "The Usual Suspects" came?)

And so I sit here today at my keyboard about to add my voice to the throng in regards to the wonders of this (I look at my thesaurus but no adjective is worthy) movie. I don't just want to drone on about the acting or the writing ("What's your nationality?" "I'm a drunkard.") or how the direction is perfect because while the movie is happening you never even once think about the direction. It feels inadequate to simply add to the chorus of already-used words and phrases and paragraphs. I truly want to get to the core of this (again, no adjectives are worthy!) movie. I want to make you understand. I want to make myself understand.

In the biopic "The Promise of Bruce Springsteen" author Eric Alterman described the eminent album "Born to Run" this way: "Unlike other rock milestones to which it is often compared, 'Born to Run' cannot be a considered an artistic or even a musical advance beyond what appeared before it. It is no 'Sergeant Pepper', no 'Highway 61', no 'Tommy', no 'Pet Sounds'. Rather it was – and remains – perhaps the most powerful explication of the pure spirit of rock 'n roll that any artist has been able to capture since the night in July 1954 at the Sun Records Studio in Memphis, when an unknown nineteen year old kid with the unlikely name of Elvis Presley let loose on Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup’s 'That’s All Right'". Alterman goes on to write that "'Born to Run' somehow managed to evoke the whole rock story line, both musically and lyrically, in the ultimate rock ‘n roll synthesis.”

That is precisely why "Casablanca" is to cinema what "Born to Run" was to music. "Casablanca" was not an artistic or cinematic advance beyond any films to appear before it. It did not revolutionize the way in which movies were made. It was not "Birth of a Nation", or "Citizen Kane", or "Breathless". But "Casablanca" was and still is the most powerful explication of the pure spirit of moviemaking of all time. There is no "That's All Right" in the cinematic world because "Casablanca" is it. The movie evokes the whole cinema story line, as far as direction, writing, and acting goes, in the ultimate filmmaking synthesis.

What about flaws, you say? Are there flaws in the movie? Ah, jesus, come on. Seriously? You want to sit and pick at this movie? You want to be one of those people? You're gonna' stand on the moon but then bitch that the lunar surface is scuffing up your moon boots?

This movie is one of mankind's greatest achievements. It is. Light bulb. Indoor plumbing. "Casablanca". Not necessarily in that order.

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