Monday, May 06, 2013

Straying From the Party Line # 7: Goals and Structure in Casablanca

This is universally regarded as one of the most perfect movies every made, but it has its peculiarities…
  • Deviation #1: We don’t understand the hero’s goals.
  • The Potential Problem: We’re always at somewhat of an arm’s distance from Rick. We don’t meet until ten minutes into the movie, and then we can’t quite read him.  When Renault wonders about his past and beliefs, we wonder, too.  Does Rick want to leave Casablanca or not?  We don’t know.  When Ilsa comes back, does he want her back, or want to hurt her, or both?  Ultimately, this pays off in a very tricky climax, in which we are encouraged to misunderstand what the hero is doing for about ten minutes of screentime, and then be shocked that he is sending Ilsa away.
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Certainly, yes.  This is a partially a tribute to Bogart (He does it again in our next movie), who excelled at playing appealing inscrutability.  After ten years on the Warner’s lot, they knew he could pull it off and he did.  Also, as with Bridesmaids, they knew that we would be more likely to forgive the hero his vacillations because he represented real world suffering and uncertainty.  It was easy to guess what he was going through, because the country was crippled by those same doubts.
But wait, what about…
  • Deviation #2: That big-ass flasback
  • The Potential Problem: Starting at 39 minutes in, we get a massive 10 minute flashback.  This one breaks the cardinal rule for flashbacks: it isn’t new information for anyone in the movie, it’s merely new to the audience.  We feel shock at the reveal of these events, but no one onscreen does, so we break our identification.
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? This is a major violation of the rules, but yes, they get away with it beautifully.  I think that this is because we see that Rick has so thoroughly banished these memories from his mind that these scenes are almost new to him.  Think of his anger when the song is played (don’t trigger that flashback!), and then Sam’s reluctance to play it when Rick does want to remember later.  The look on Rick’s face at the beginning and end of the flashback show the fresh wound it has given him, and maintains our identification with his emotional rollercoaster. 
This is a movie that knows exactly what it’s doing when it breaks the rules.

1 comment:

Bill Peschel said...

And the reaction that bookends the flashback is something that depends on the actor's ability to convey. You can write it, but that doesn't mean it'll appear on the screen.