Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Casablanca: Truth is Great, But No Need To Be a Fanatic About It

Having written about Bea Arthur yesterday, and focusing on the truth in her work, I was put in mind of Casablanca. Casablanca is my favorite movie of all time (I said I was thoughtful, not original) and I have seen it many times over the years. The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA used to show it every year, and may still. I hope so.

One year, a few friends and I went to visit another friend up there for law school, and we were there the night Casablanca was showing, so we went to see it. All of us had seen it before, some more than others, but it was still a popular choice. No small feat among a group of people who can't agree on what time it is. The movie ended, everyone clapped (except me...I never clap at movies because I always feel silly. They can't hear you, you know?) and we left. And my friend Steven said to me, "It's a very well-made movie, and it's fun, but it's completely preposterous."

I asked what he meant, and he laid out the implausibilities of the storyline. Without going into the details too much, so as not to bore those of you have seen the movie or spoil it for those of you who haven't, he talked about the silliness of the "letters of transit" signed by DeGaulle, which would mean nothing in French Africa, the coincidences of the plot, and the remarkable good fortune of the central characters on at least two occasions. It was quite a well-reasoned critique, and having listened carefully, I responded as appropriately as I could, by saying, "So?"

Every good drama (or comedy, for that matter) should be based on truth, but that doesn't mean a strict depiction of reality. Hitchcock said drama is life with all the boring parts cut out, and you can't forget to make those cuts. I asked Steven to forget the plot for a moment. "Did you believe in the people?" The story is only there to give the characters something to react to, something to get them started at showing us who they are. Casablanca has truth in the relationships it depicts, and that's one reason people have gone back to it for nearly seventy years. Rick's transformation from idealist to cynic and back again is utterly believable. Who cares if the details of the events that sparked those transformations are hard to swallow?

Casablanca also trades in the deeper truth of allegory. Rick represents, depending on your interpretation, America before World War II, America all the time, all men, or all people. If you find something true about the human experience in the story or the characters, then it doesn't matter whether the plot reflects reality.

It still has to make sense. There still has to be internal consistency. Murder, She Wrote is a great example of this caveat. Murder, She Wrote is not a realistic depiction of life in Maine or of the experience of middle-age widowhood in the late 20th century. No one thinks it is realistic, and that is part of its charm. But there still has to be internal consistency, or it's dissatisfying. Good Murder, She Wrote episodes function on that unrealistic plane, but still have clues and plots that follow logically. Bad Murder, She Wrote episodes fall victim to the fantasy nature of the premise and the stories don't work.

Casablanca is not realistic, but it's consistent. In the real world, Signor Ferrari probably wouldn't have told Ilsa and Victor where the letters were. Doesn't hurt the movie. If Rick had hidden those letters with a trained monkey we never saw before, that hurts the movie.

Truth is not the same thing as reality, and fantasy is not the same thing as inconsistency. So if your friend says your favorite movie is unrealistic, feel free to use my "So?" line.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please share any thoughts, views, stories or disagreements you think are relevant.