Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Casablanca Critique I Did Not See Coming

Amazon.com: Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism eBook: Noah Berlatsky: Kindle Store

Excerpt from Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism by Noah Berlatsky

I went to an anniversary screening of Casablanca a couple years back and was stirred, moreso for being in crowd that was also keen for it, by the "La Marseillaise" scene. Utterly, I confess, blind to its hypocrisy. It was anti-Nazi, so the subtext Berlatsky highlights remained below my threshold of recognition. Likewise, Rick's contempt for Ugarte and his paternalistic attitude towards Sam seemed like relatively tame bits of period racism. The obvious fact Laszlo was the proper hero, and the Rick-Ilsa romance is a slap in the face to not only the character, but what the character (ought to have) stood for, was obscured by Henreid's dutifully dull characterization of Laszlo and Bergman's luminescent screen presence. Yes, Laszlo gets the girl in the end and so is rewarded for his heroics, but the film does not recognize Laszlo is a better man than Rick. Rick's sacrifice is the real act of heroism in the cinematic world where the problems of three (but especially two) white people clearly amount to more than a hill of ethnic types.

Berlatsky's critique is much-needed eyewash. Compare the excerpt I screencapped above with this passage from Ebert's five star review:
What is intriguing is that none of the major characters is bad. Some are cynical, some lie, some kill, but all are redeemed. If you think it was easy for Rick to renounce his love for Ilsa--to place a higher value on Laszlo's fight against Nazism--remember Forster's famous comment, “If I were forced to choose between my country and my friend, I hope I would be brave enough to choose my friend.
His analysis is literate, thoughtful, and insightful in its way but Ebert is blind to the film's moral failings.

I'll never look at Casablanca the same way again, and there's a feeling of loss that comes with that, because I, like most (I suspect), love to be stirred by anti-Nazi resistance; I get the appeal of sympathizing with the noble sacrifice of the martyr for love. But even at this late date, I recognize that I need to keep growing up and not holding on to my old favorites simply because they are my old favorites. We'll all be better off if we appreciate Casablanca for what it is, not for what the kid who first watched it wanted it to say about him.

"Why are you promoting a trashing of Casablanca? Why read so much into a love story set amidst the battle against Nazism? The Nazis are bad guys, the French Resistance are good guys: this is enough to know or care about ... nobody watches a romantic drama for insights into the North African colonial experience," is a reaction I sort of expect I'd get if anyone were to actually read this post. It's a reaction I sympathize with to an extent. But, if that's your gut reaction, my simple ask is that you interrogate it just a little. Why are you invested in defending Casablanca against leftist criticisms? Why not imagine what kind of movie it might have been had it treated Sam like a complex, authentically human character? If you knew a Capt. Renault in real life, would you befriend him, or would you think his corruption and exploitation of vulnerable women was just a rakish fun? If you wouldn't, what does that say about Rick? If you would, um, what does it say about you? Maybe also consider how French patriotism in light of its opposition to Nazism is a backdoor  whitewashing of French colonialism -- erasing the history, and humanity, of the people who lived in Casablanca before the imperialists rolled in and set up shop. It's great that the film's sentiments anti-Nazi, I'm not suggesting we lose sight of that, only that we deal honestly with what the French ideal of freedom actually looked like? You might not know much, or care much, about French imperialism, but what you think about it in this movie might inform how you watch later movies like The Quiet American, or maybe even the whole genre of Vietnam War movies.

I'm not saying it's time to hate Casablanca, only that it's well past time to temper the reverence we have for it with a consideration for what anti-racist, feminist, and other leftist perspectives bring to bear. Like it or not, praising Casablanca is a political act, in addition to being commentary on the art of filmmaking. How we praise it, what we identify as its virtues and its flaws, matters because we don't appreciate it in a vacuum.


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