Casablanca Is Not a Great Film

CasablancaIn 1992, I went to the Cinema 21 in Portland, Oregon to see Casablanca. It was the 50th anniversary release of the film and the place was packed. I had never seen the film in the theater, so that was very nice. But I remember walking out afterwards, and hearing a guy say, “I never knew it was such a funny film.” That really annoyed me. Most people really do need a bunch of other people around to know that something is funny. It was written by the Epstein twins—some of the best comedy writers of the time. And it is filled with great one liners like when asked what kind of man Captain Renault is, Rick answers, “Oh, he’s just like any other man, only more so.” But I should have been more forgiving; after all, there is that oh very serious ending where Rick says, “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.” And I think that’s the problem, because that isn’t a very serious ending.

This afternoon, I watched the film again. I watch it a lot when I don’t want to think. It’s like candy. But this time, I realized something about it: it isn’t like a Snickers bar; it’s like cotton candy—there’s really nothing to it. Now, this isn’t exactly a sudden realization to me. On director Michael Curtiz’s birthday, I wrote:

To this day, I do not know why the film works so well. Yes, it’s very funny. Yes, it has some of our favorite actors. And yes, it’s great anti-Nazi propaganda from a time when most people didn’t know their full villainy. But there are all kinds of things in the film that normally I would hate. I think Ilsa behaves very poorly at the beginning, not giving Rick any space to be angry when he is clearly way over the legal limit. And then she acts like she’s a schoolgirl. Rich is too clean as the antihero and Laszlo is just too perfect generally.

I added that it was still one of my favorite films. I think I may have crossed some kind of line with it. Because this time it really bugged me. Let me go over a few things.

The flashback scene, which was written by Howard Koch, is really almost unwatchable. It was a mistake regardless. The film could have provided all that information via dialog in the present. It’s almost nine minutes to tell us two things: Rick and Ilsa were lovers in France (which we already knew) and Ilsa stood him up when they were supposed to leave together. It’s lazy writing too. And then the follow-up just makes it worse. Ilsa finds Rick drunk out of his mind, and he is mean to her and bitter. So she spends the next half hour of the film angry at him, when we finally learn what happened. That wouldn’t be so bad if 25 minutes earlier Rick hadn’t apologized and asked her to explain. Rick comes off pretty well in all this, but Ilsa comes off alternatively as spiteful and juvenile. Feminists should hate this film.

Speaking of feminists, are we really supposed to like Renault? Here is the most corrupt man in the world who is a Nazi collaborator. He blackmails pretty young women into having sex with him in exchange for allowing them to get out of the country. And his turn into a good guy suddenly at the end is not convincing. But the worst of it is how Rick plays him to allow Laszlo to escape. Rick’s plan is so pathetic, a child could see through it. And then in the end, by letting Rick go, you know someone else will just get set up for the crime.

I don’t think so. Rick is supposed to be the most noble character in the film, yet he makes all his money swindling desperate people who are fleeing the Nazis. When he quits the business, he sells it to an even more unethical person. He shows a very slight regard to Ugarte when he learns about his impending arrest, but that’s about as far as his care goes for anyone else. He seems to ship Ilsa away with Laszlo more to stick it to Major Strasser than anything (and maybe as a form of suicide). He claims that Sam is his friend but he abandons him.

Other than Rick’s staff—who all seem more like his slaves—there really are no characters to like in the film. And the only acting done in the film is by Peter Lorre as Ugarte. I have always felt that the film took a great hit after Ugarte left—there isn’t much vitality. And his capture always seemed to be a bit too pat, “But we know already who the murderer is.” Please! What’s more, Ugarte is the only major character who is honest. At least he isn’t conning people with a rigged roulette wheel. The only bad things he does is steal from and kill Nazis. In the context of the film, that makes him a good guy.

Other than Lorre, the acting consists of a lot of mugging and thoughtful poses. And that, I think, is what most bothered me watching it this time. Everyone just seems to be waiting around for that moment in the film when whatever is supposed to happen happens. It’s no surprise that the film has never been successfully redone (as remake or just by trying to do the same kind of thing, like Passage to Marseille). It only works because we all agree that we want it to work. It is like watching a play at Boy Scout camp. All our friends are in it, it has some laughs, and it seems like it is about something.

Certainly Casablanca manages those first two, but the last? No. And I think the whole thing being a metaphor for America’s entry into World War II is really pushing it. As I discussed with Ken Burns’ Cold War The War, the idea is a bit pumped up. But regardless, it wasn’t the United States joining up with France. At least we do have some Russian characters in the film, most notably the charming Sascha who seems to be in love with all women. But other than the ugly tourists, there are no English characters in the film at all. What’s that all about?

Don’t get me wrong. Casablanca is a nice and fun film. But it is no more serious than The Incredibles. It should never be held up as a great film. But there is a long history of people holding up what are nothing but passable entertainments as great movie making. Another is The Graduate. And I say that while proudly proclaiming that It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday are great films. But a film just can’t be great when it tries to be serious (And even important!) but is just silly.

Matt Continetti and the Conservative Id

Matt ContinettiEd Kilgore brought my attention to a rant by Matt Continetti in the Washington Free Beacon, Dialing It In. Basically, Continetti is upset that President Obama is continuing to have a good time and not spending all his time wringing his hands about all the fake scandals that Fox News and idiot writers at the Washington Free Beacon are obsessed with. It’s really quite a silly article.

This is especially true, when you consider that this is almost a journalistic genre. Around the same time in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Richard Restak wrote an OpEd arguing that Reagan wasn’t suffering from senility, “[I]f the president can be faulted for his mental performance, it is entirely likely that the flaw results not from dementia but from laziness.” And note, this was when Reagan was embroiled in a very real scandal: the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran. But what’s a journalist to do? You write the same stuff over and over because these websites aren’t going fill themselves!

What struck me was Continetti’s imagination of what the president talks to his liberal friends about at these cocktail parties that he goes to rather than dealing with the fact that Susan Rice said something that turned out to be wrong on some Sunday news shows. Get ready for the unleashing of the conservative id:

Does it take a few drinks to get things going? I imagine that there is plenty of hesitant and anodyne talk about children, about movies, about basketball, about the weather. When the discussion turns to domestic or foreign affairs, though, the cliches must be stifling: how can the Republicans be so obstructionist and rude and Luddite, what happened to the nice moderate conservatives they used to have in the Eisenhower and George HW Bush administrations, have you seen the latest essays by Ezra Klein and Michael Tomasky and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who cares what the media says, EJ Dionne says you are doing A-OK, what’s it like to hold the nuclear football, have you been to Eric Ripert’s newest restaurant, weren’t the Afghan and Iraq wars terrible mistakes, people have got to recognize America can’t go its own way in today’s integrated, global, flat world, the Wire is Shakespearean, what are you going to do about the polar bears, we need to appreciate the value of other cultures, America doesn’t have such a clean record itself you know, my son just took a job in Dubai, wasn’t Sheryl Sandberg brilliant in her City Colleges of Chicago commencement speech, let’s touch base on the new youth outreach project Mark Zuckerberg is standing up, do you watch Mad Men, politics is a relay race and we just have to keep going until we hand the baton to the next person, where do you come up with all of those beautiful words, we leave for Beijing next week, Putin doesn’t understand how we do things in the twenty-first century, God that Bibi is so unreasonable, who are your favorite authors, it’s time for a real conversation about race, is Homeland like real life, this is the sushi place to go to in Los Angeles, you are a real role model for young men not only in this country but all around the world, I watch House of Cards but my wife prefers Orange is the New Black.

Let’s leave aside the stupid political talking points. I know that both Democrats and Republicans do that kind of thing when they are together. The focus here isn’t on politics. It is on cultural signifiers. Eric Ripert and the litany of television shows that appeal not to liberals but to urbanites. Continetti is doing the regular guy conservative rap, but in reverse. Instead of “I’m into fast cars, guns, and big boobs” he gives us “They’re into Volvos, lattes, and sushi.” How does he know they talk about The Wire and Mad Men and Homeland and House of Cards and Orange is the New Black? Because all his friends are into them. After all, he’s the Columbia University graduate who has worked for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Financial Times. I’m sure he watches those shows. I’ve only seen a single episode of House of Cards and none of the other shows. I’m sure he has eaten at one or more of Eric Ripert’s restaurant. I’d never heard of him before. How can it be that he is the real American and I’m the America-hating liberal?

That’s the thing about conservatives: they are elitists. The majority of the rich vote Republican except in California and New York. They drive more Volvos, drink more lattes, and eat more sushi. A big part of their appeal to poor is this kind of social identification, even though it isn’t true. And someone as smart as Continetti knows this. But he’s more than willing to spew this nonsense to other conservative elites at the Washington Free Beacon, which I assure you is not read by blue collar workers in Mississippi.

Notice also the implication that Obama is out of touch. This is coming from a political movement that when it isn’t talking about keeping women pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen, is only interested in how much more money can be given to the rich. But no, it is Obama who is only listening to Ezra Klein and Michael Tomasky and Ta-Nehisi Coates and EJ Dionne—all men who have been rather critical of the president. But again, these are urbane intellectuals, and the point is to associate Obama with the not-real America—with that place that Sarah Palin does not represent.

This is what we get from a fairly serious conservative journalist. And it highlights what I wrote about last week, Hopeless Search for Honest Conservative. Because Matt Continetti is smart—there is no doubt of that. But he is not honest. He knows exactly what he’s doing. And it is indicative of the total vacuousness of conservative intellectual thought. They have nothing but made up scandals and claims that Democrats are out of touch because they watch the same television shows the Republicans do.

Bernard Frouchtben at the Antiques Roadshow

Antiques RoadshowThe Antiques Roadshow is an interesting operation. They stagger the people going to it and there is an enormous army of people who come. It really is nothing more than a place that people can come to get instant appraisals of work. If there is anything particularly interesting, they take you to their little studio and film it for the show. We were there primarily to get an appraisal on a painting by Bernard Frouchtben that we have had in the family for the past 15 years. Over the past 5 years, I’ve been trying to find out as much as I could about this fascinating painter. And I do know rather a lot about him, so I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new about him—except for one thing: if any of his paintings had sold at auction.

I was right to expect this information, because the experts at the Antiques Roadshow pretty much only have that in their arsenal of weapons. So the expert that I spoke to informed me that none of his work had been auctioned. She could not “find him in the database.” That was unfortunate, because I really did think that over the years a least some of his work would have found its way onto the market. But the appraiser’s attitude I’m afraid is very typical of the art market in general. Paintings are worth what they’ve sold for. Had there been just two or three rich art collectors in the past who recognized Frouchtben’s brilliance, he might be worth millions now.

The appraiser did provide some other information. She noted that if the painting had been taken care of, it would now be worth at least a couple of thousand dollars—in fact, she claimed that she would buy it right then if it were in that condition. As it was, it might sell for a couple of hundred. That’s interesting, but I don’t personally care about what people would pay for the work. It doesn’t belong to me anyway—it is my father’s painting. (Not that I would mind him becoming a millionaire art collector!) But she said that the damage was so severe that a restoration would change the painting. It would be a collaboration between Frouchtben and the restorer. That was stinging, although hardly surprising because I had wondered before how one could really restore it given that it has very large gaps, especially in the rendering of the focus of the painting: the World War I soldier on top of a giant bird (hawk?) on top of the capital building.

What I would now like to do is have the painting cleaned and remounted. Even with all its damage, it is a very compelling painting. I would love to have it on the wall to look at. I think that is what Frouchtben deserves. And I keep coming back to something that John Fabian Kienitz wrote about him, “He has rare ability… He is a man worth saving.” Indeed he is.

And my fascination with him goes right along with what I admire so much in other works of art—from literature to music to painting. I love things that people create that could only be created by them. To me, Frouchtben is like Herman Melville. If it wasn’t for a fluke, Melville would today be considered a minor 19th century American writer. Moby-Dick was rightly ignored when it was first published; it is too idiosyncratic. The same could be said for Don Quixote, except that Cervantes was such a funny writer. All three men created works that were deeply personal, but Frouchtben got the usual treatment: few cared. But I still hold out the hope that this will not always be true. And there is precedent: a number of painters were ignored or dismissed for hundreds of years before people noticed that they were great.

From here, I plan to contact museums and galleries all over the nation (especially in the northeast) and find out if they have any Bernard Frouchtben. It would be nice to at least write a magazine article about the man and get some more examples of his work. I would love for the world to know about this man. But if I am very honest, I will admit that my ultimate goal is for myself to know more about this great artist. And all the time and effort of going to the Antiques Roadshow was a small price to pay to get just a little more information about the man and his work—even if it is mostly a null result.


For those interested in the financial side of things. The expert said it would probably cost about $2,500 to properly restore it. But because of the extensiveness of the restoration and how it would in large part harm Frouchtben’s work, it would only be worth about $1,000. That is why I would like to do only what can be done to make what remains the best that it can be. But even that is going to cost more than the painting would probably sell for. But I still think it is worth it.

The Progression of Paul Gauguin

Paul GauguinOn this day in 1848, the great painter Paul Gauguin was born. As a human being, he was troubled. It isn’t surprising that he was close to Vincent van Gogh. So I think we can look past the fact that he lived a questionable life, most especially in Tahiti. But let me just yield the point that Gauguin was probably a horrible human being. Now we can get onto his art.

It is interesting to compare Gauguin with van Gogh. This goes back to something I talk about a lot: the eclectic and non-eclectic artists. There are great artists who have a singular vision that they do variations on. It seems that van Gogh could only paint in that one way that he did. And as an expression of himself, there is great value in his work. But really, a little van Gogh goes a long way. Gauguin was of the eclectic variety of artist. He did amazingly varied work, which should put an end to any thought that his primitive period was anything but exactly what he was trying to do.

Here is his painting from 1879, The Market Gardens of Vaugirard, which strikes me as rather like Pissarro:

The Market Gardens of Vaugirard - Paul Gauguin

And then here is his painting from 1903, Landscape on La Dominique, which strikes me as rather like no one else:

Landscape on la Dominique - Paul Gauguin

Happy birthday Paul Gauguin!