Monday, November 26, 2012

"I'll hum it for you: Da-die da-die da dum"

Casablanca turns 70 this year, and TCM celebrated by bringing it back into commercial theaters across the country for one night in March that sold out so quickly that they brought it back for one more night in April, which I got tickets to. I am a life-long fan who never saw it on the big screen. I first saw it on a very small black & white TV set, whose small scale heightened the power of its intimacy. But it was created for the larger-than-life scale of old Hollywood, and I was thrilled to be able to experience it in its original vision.

The universe seemed to be happy about it too: I live on Humphrey Bogart Place, designated by a plaque and street sign by the city in 2006 with Lauren Bacall in attendance because he was born on my street and lived there until he was 23; and two days before the film I had a blog visitor from, well, Casablanca, Morocco.

A 2012 Audience for a 1942 Film
The theater in Manhattan was the behemoth AMC complex on 42 Street, and the particular theater itself was large and sold out. I was sitting toward the back of the stadium seating, when shortly before the TCM/Robert "making of" started, a group of 7 friends filed in next to me and in the row behind. They were college kids or just-grads, 5 guys & two girls. They were loud and boisterous, mocking lines: "I bet there's going to be something about Paris" yadda yadda yadda. I wondered, what are they doing here? Why would they bother? I guess it could be just be a big goof for them, to come and mock and talk back to the screen. Unfortunately, there was no place for me to move.

And then the TCM short started. It was talking heads about the making of, along with a lot of clips. And so we all saw Bogart for the first time. The a**holes were still fidgeting, hushed talking and giggling to each other.

Then the film started, and slowly, little by little, the gang settled down. My impression was that whatever they thought this film was--a bunch of old people and a lot of cliches---was shattered by its spell. Bogart is so cool, in every age, that he cannot be mocked, even by 21st century teenage knuckleheads. These boys think they know how to drink? It's lightweight Candyland compared to a worldly sentimentalist scotch drinker with a broken heart. They have never seen a movie couple as deeply sexy as Bogart and Bergman kissing.

Beyond the knuckleheads, I was surprised by the enormous age range of the audience. There was a 16 year old girl next to me, plugged into her ipod until the opening credits rolled, who wept during the Marseilles and at the end, who clapped at the "New York" line, and I got the impression this wasn't the first time she was seeing it. I'd say middle agers were less than 1/4 of the audience, and it was more racially balanced than many first run movies. The film has been retransferred for its birthday: the blacks and whites are piercing and there's no hint of graininess that would signal an "old" movie, which also helped today's audience connect with it.

Civil War, Jesus, Titanic. . . . and Casablanca
So much has been written about this film, it's daunting to say anything. But when you are convinced that it is the finest movie ever created, you feel compelled to try to explain why that is so, so that the unenlightened, who don't get it—poor sots that they are—have a chance to understand.

Part of its power and charm comes from it being completely un-selfconscious. Citizen Kane, to which it is often compared, is brilliant, but Orson Welles was trying to create great art, and that desire pushes against the seams of the film, like in the exaggerated camera angles. Casablanca began as run-of-the-mill Warner Bros. factory output, with not an ounce of strain toward something "artful." And of course, irony of ironies, it poignantly, intimately brings the viewer into the biggest themes possible—Man, Woman, Love, War, Peace, Sacrifice—in extremely artful ways.

Umberto Eco, the great Italian semiotician, brought his own over-desconstructed treatise to bear on the film. But he seems to have had a similar thought: "Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making. For in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it."

Much is made about this being Bogart's first romantic lead, but I thought he was pretty sexy as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, which came out the year before. Still, Rick Blaine is a more compelling man than Spade: he wears a white dinner jacket with elegant ease and authority; he exerts control over everything in his saloon; and he has loved too well and lost. The club is glamorous, with an air of unpretentious sophistication that all emanates from Rick.

The plot has a beautiful economy to it and the forward motion never flags. But you do have to pay attention. It's not like it's The Big Sleep, but Ilsa's story has twists. Ingrid Bergman claimed she didn't know who she was supposed to be in love with, but there's really no question that it's Rick. Victor Laszlo was hero worship, as her character says.

Bosley Crowther, who reviewed it in 1942 for the NY Times, had trouble following the story:

"But Rick loves the girl very dearly, she is now married to this other man—and whenever his Negro pianist sits there in the dark and sings "As Time Goes By" that old, irresistible feeling consumes him in a choking, maddening wave."

I guess he didn't hear Ilsa outside of the Blue Parrot tell Rick, "Victor Laszlo's my husband, and was, even when I knew you in Paris."

But then Crowther isn't the brightest of reviewers.

That leaves us with a list of what are now cliches: the onscreen chemistry between Bogart and Bergman, Claude Rains's conflicted Frenchman, Dooley Wilson's wise and cool musician, Sydney Greenstreet's black market magnate, Peter Lorre's desperate player: all part of the "happy accidents," as Eco called them, that produced a perfect film.

And then there are The Words
It's almost hard to remember that none of the dialogue of Casablanca was a cliche BEFORE the film. But so many of the lines are perfect—either in their specific context, or not—that they are part of that small club, started by the Bible and greatly amped by Shakespeare, of phrases and sentences that enter our language.

Of course delivery of a line is equally important. But I saw a Bogart/Ann Sheridan movie on TCM the next day, It All Came True, that was just awful: Bogart as a gangster hiding in a musical boarding house. He delivered many of the lines in a way similar to "Rick," but the context was so ludicrous and the specific lines so stupid, that his delivery couldn't save them.

And so we thank the brothers Epstein for this glorious list:

Rick: "There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade."

Rick: “Here's looking at you, kid."

Rick: "I wouldn't bring up Paris if I were you, it's poor salesmanship."

Rick: "The Germans wore grey, you wore blue"

Rick: If it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?

Rick: Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

Rick: Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You're part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. We'll always have Paris. We didn't have it before...we'd...we'd lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.

Rick: “Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.

Renault: You mustn't underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they "blundered" into Berlin in 1918

Renault: Round up the usual suspects.

Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.

Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.

Ilsa: Play it once, Sam, for old times' sake.

Rick: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Skyfall: Giving Thanks for Bond, from Thy Bounty and IMAX

"Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky" Luke 10:18

Since it's nearly Thanksgiving, I frame my experience of this new Bond as I was very grateful to see Skyfall yesterday in an IMAX theater.  The cinematography at that scale is truly breathtaking, delivering a glorious visual transcendence for the viewer.

I didn't read any reviews beforehand, but you bring your own relationship to the character and the films with you as you climb the steep IMAX stairs.  For me, it's Connery. Full stop. Moore and Dalton not at all; Lazenby because of Tracy; Bronsan, catching each film years later on TV.

And then Craig, who got me to enter an actual movie theater. I loved Casino Royale and liked Quantum more than many.

Quick Side Thought: What Timeline Are We On?
Can someone point me to an understanding of the Bond character timeline? I believe that Casino and QOS are the character before we meet him in Dr. No. That's why he's not the bantering, ironic 007 we know. He hasn't become that person yet, we are learning about his earlier years. I think that Skyfall is also pre-Dr. No., emphasized by the introduction of Eve, but confused by bringing out the "old" Aston Martin. Any thoughts?

Hail, Britannia & Hooray for Hollywood
For me one of the joys of watching Skyfall was its unabashed celebration of British culture, and the sheer artistry of big-budget Hollywood. These are both deeply flawed institutions, but as I looked around the packed theater, I was impressed, not for the first time, by the power of storytelling——a phrase that has become trite in overuse, but which makes it none the less true. (One missed opportunity for the complete British cultural orgy: they should have shown a little of Bond's funeral so that we could have had a bit of the great choir of St. Paul's, offering the highest art of choral singing that there is.)

Watching the stunning opening credit sequence was like experiencing a video art installation, but instead of there being a handful of people in an art gallery, we were hundreds strong. We were a legion of average looking people, enjoying those exquisite bodies, clothes, and locales, seeing our own daydreams writ large, with a great soundtrack on a great sound system. This was truly the first time as a moviegoer I felt a real sense of escape from personal and world problems that I cannot control. Thanks, James.

Herein I Learned the Word "Recusant"


No one goes to a Bond film for the plot, but there was buzz that this film had more to offer in that vein than the rest of the franchise. Whether it does nor is wildly divergent, from yes, to no, to boring.

I did find the forward motion more coherent than the predecessors. WHY DID BOND DROP THAT NECKLACE IN THE SNOW? WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Sorry, quantum of frustration holdover.

What I found the most intriguing in Skyfall were the religion undertones, something not lost on the Catholic blogosphere.

M is asked to think about her sins; Silva asks Bond what his hobby is: "Resurrection"; Bond twice has a baptismal rebirth by water; the above quote from Luke may be pushing it a bit, but Skyfall is an unusual phrase. The stag statue at the entrance to Skyfall is symbolic from Medieval times/tapestries:

"The stag is a symbol for Christ, who tramples and destroys the devil. As the stags crossing a river help each other, so should the Christian crossing from the worldly life to the spiritual life help others who grow weak or tired. As the stag is renewed and sheds its horns after drinking from the spring, so those who drink from the spring of the spirit are renewed and shed their sins."

Hmm. And then there's the priest hole & the chapel at Bond's ancestral home, evoking the history of Recusancy. Lots of info over at Wiki, but basically after the Reformation, Recusants refused to attend Anglican services, and could face penalties and prison if found out. The harshest penalties were for Catholic priests, and so landed Recusant families build priest holes to hide them, which often had underground passages for the priest to escape the home unnoticed after saying Mass for them.

So our dear Bond is from an old Scottish Recusant family, and we see from the shot of her tombstone that his mother was French—Monique nee Delacroix Bond—likely French Catholic. Now, this is a very specific, somewhat odd creative choice from the writing team of Purvis, Wade, & Logan, wouldn't you say. They could have gotten M & Kincaid out of that house in many other ways that would not have raised the idea of his religious background.

The scene in the chapel gives us a reverse Pieta of the son cradling the dying mother in his arms. Again, a very specific creative choice. Or we have wondered unknowingly into a Graham Greene novel.

(This blog has a lot of interesting information of the real-life models for the Bond manor house with the priest hole.)

Suspension of Disbelief
The film has a lot of unnecessary holes. Someone pointed out that Kincaid says "all we have is your father's rifle" when it's clearly a shotgun. My favorite is there is no way a criminal of Silva's stature would not be in chains, and under video surveillance.

But that's the poetry of it all: willing suspension of disbelief.

I don't know what the series's new-found spiritual side may mean for the future. The sense that life is cheap and disposable in the spy game is still at odds with the tenets of any organized religion.

But it adds an interesting dimension to this cultural touchstone, something I am culturally thankful for.

Happy T-Day everyone! Definitely go see Skyfall!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Armistice Day in New York City

Ninety-four years ago today at 11:00 a.m., in a railroad car in the forest of Compiegne, France and Germany signed the armistice ending World War 1. That was to be the war to end all wars. Sadly, not.

The Commonwealth celebrates Remembrance Sunday today, which will find me at that little faux acre of Anglia that is St. Thomas’s Church on 5th Avenue for evensong for the occasion.

Of course Armistice Day for us is Veterans Day. This commemoration hasn’t had much character in my lifetime. On the “secular” side there are no barbecues, and lots of Veterans Day sales. In recent years it has become a more "active" holiday, to really focus attention on the living veterans and their families, as opposed to Memorial Day which focuses on the dead. Some of that attention has been fueled by social media and and the internet, from the amazing Wounded Warrior Project to American Widow Project.

There is a parade in NY, and the VFW chapters throughout the country do hold ceremonies at town memorials. [And as our attention is Civil War focused by the film Lincoln, it's a reminder that VFW or Veteran of Foreign Wars was a distinction that had to be made at the time and never left. For now at least,  all the homeland wars are still cultural.]

Today's Veterans Day parades and commemorations are greatly impacted by Sandy. Reuters headline: "New York Readies for Veterans Day as region struggles."

But there is little sustained, daily physical presence of WW1,  unlike Britain and Europe, where every town and university has a public monument with the names inscribed of the townsmen and boys who died. There is a shared formality to the British sense of remembrance of those who serve that has no counterpart in America. Even after WWII, when nearly every American family was affected by death on the battlefield, communities did not respond to that grief with marble and stone statuary.

The tradition of “two minutes of silence” at 11:00 a.m. precisely is also distinctly British. It’s too hard to get Americans to stand still en masse for anything. But it’s so ingrained in the British soul that Dorothy L. Sayers used it as a plot device in the Lord Peter Whimsey novel, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. The murderer relies on the fact that no one is going to move for 2 minutes on Nov. 11.

World War I in New York City

The city of New York is not completely without public tributes to those who fought in the Great War.

Laura Canon has catalogued and photographed a good deal of them, from the very first WWI memorial in the U.S—the clock in the tower of Pier A in Battery Park, dedicated in 1919—to the Doughboy statues in Park Slope and in Chelsea (9th Ave. and 28th street) to the official Brooklyn memorial in Prospect Park of a solider and an angle. I see one every day on the way to work—an enormous piece with seven, larger-than-life figures on 5th Avenue and 67 street, a block away from the 7th Regiment’s armory. There is so much motion in the statue that it looks like the men are charging out of Park, ready to defeat anyone in their way.

There is a stained-glass memorial in the NY Athletic club; a carving/relief in St. Thomas, which commemorates the US entering the war and lists the name of the dead of the parish; Father Duffy in Times Square; and a stylized memorial to soldiers of the 77th Division—known as the "Lost Battalion"— killed on October 3, 1918, Argonne Forest, France, by Pablo Tauler in the Woodhaven Boulevard/Queens subway station as part of the MTA Subway Arts project.

This past year New York has had a little more remembrance of World War I with War Horse at Vivian Beaumont, if you overlook the fact that that story of the war has no Americans. I wrote about that here in The Great War & Modern Memory: The Sublime Gash of War Horse.

Still, it is our generation’s responsibility to those who came before not to squander the life and liberty they bought for us with their blood. And to remember.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

(The Childe Hassam painting Allies Day, May 1917, captured a parade on 5th Avenue to celebrate the US entering the war in 1917.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day 2012

Good luck and best wishes to all our neighbors who in the midst of the suffering of the loss of homes and lives, and the continued struggle with no power, heat, or running water, make the effort to stand on lines for the shuttle buses to where they can vote, stand on line to vote, and get back on the shuttle bus to go home. No one said democracy was easy, but many bear the burden to a much greater extent than others.

Some levity from a simpler time, when Josh Lyman voted for Bartlet's second term.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Drowned Dreams

The Tristate area joins New Orleans and Florida in the deep knowledge of how nature can tear apart everything that man can build. 

Brooklyn Recovery Fund
Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York
Salvation Army
United Way Sandy Recovery Fund

"Brooklyn Bridge Park is now home to an historic and beautifully restored carousel, a gift of Jane and David Walentas.  Built in 1922 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the carousel was purchased in 1984 and painstakingly restored to its original condition.  The carousel is located in the Empire Fulton Ferry section of Brooklyn Bridge Park, housed in an extraordinary new pavilion, designed by Pritzker-prize winning architect Jean Nouvel."

Photo:  Brian Morrissey