Thursday, April 2, 2009

Movie Kiss of Taste, 3: As Time Goes By

Can't write about movie kisses without mentioning Cinema Paradiso (Italy, 1988, written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore), even though I don't love it. (Movies about Sicilians make me anxious.) But I do love the heart of the story--a tribute to the romance of movies. A film director goes back to the town in Sicily where he grew up but hasn't visited in many years. When he was a boy, he hung around the movie projectionist at the local theater--Cinema Paradiso--and among other things, helped edit out movie kisses, which the local priest insists on. The projectionist has died and left a reel of film for the film director. When the director watches it, at the end of the movie, we see the reel is all the footage of the censored kisses, spliced together.

I chose this still from Cinema Paradiso because of the iconic image on the wall from Casablanca, which is on my Top Ten list. I watched it again last night and love it as much as ever, more, maybe, but for some reason it struck me how little sense much of it makes--and how little that matters.

Everyone knows the story, right? Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) runs a gin joint in Casablanca during WWII. One night in 1941 Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a hero of the underground resistance, walk in.
Ilsa and Laszlo have been secretly married for a couple/few years, but a year or so earlier, in Paris [cue hat change] thinking Laszlo had died in a concentration camp, Ilsa had spent a lot of time with Rick, dancing, drinking, arranging flowers, kissing, and listening to Sam (Wilson Dooley) play "As Time Goes By" ("You must remember this..."). Especially kissing, which they do instead of telling each other about themselves. Really, that's their deal: no questions.

Ilsa stands Rick up just as they were supposed to leave Paris together to escape the Nazi occupation. Rick, a big softie, takes this badly and has since been behaving badly toward everyone and his liver.

Many tears and cigarettes and hat changes later, Rick gets a grip and helps Laszlo and Ilsa escape to carry on the resistance work in America, even though Ilsa is willing to stay in Casablanca with Rick. And Rick goes off with Captain Renault (Claude Rains) to join the resistance.

Almost everything in the movie is a McGuffin--the name Hitchcock gave to the vague but necessary plot device he hangs his movies on. The less defined, the better--it's just an outline of an idea. In North by Northwest, for instance, it's "government secrets."
In Casablanca, it's ...practically everything. The central McGuffin is a pair of "Letters of Transit" that everyone wants to get their hands on--the refugees to escape, the Germans to stop them escaping, the middlemen to make a fortune. Like the names on the letters of transit, many plot details are left blank.
Like, why would a resistance leader want to go to America--what's he going to do there? How dumb does Laszlo think the Germans are that he believes keeping his marriage a secret will protect Ilsa? What about Sam? What's he doing with Rick anyway, and why does he call him "Mr. Richard"? Why would Ilsa leave Oslo for Paris in the first place? Why do the impoverished and desperate refugees wear spotless white linen? Does Ilsa have a personality, or does she just glow? Is Rick bi-polar? How come...
The correct answer is, who cares?

The biggest McGuffin of all is love. Ilsa and Rick love each other--they say so, the music says so, the soft focus lens says so, and we totally accept it. Why not? Passion's like that.
Hitchcock's right--details don't have to make sense, they can even be nonsense, if you get the audience on your side.

You can even make a sad ending a happy ending, or a satisfying one anyway, if you do it right. I'd mentioned in yesterday's post that Rick was right to send Ilsa off with Laszlo--and not just because of his stated idealistic reasons ("the problems of three people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world").
The lovers are tragically parted at the end; but their parting is not all that tragic because on some level we sense that Laszlo and Ilsa actually have a pretty good marriage. Unlike Rick, Laszlo knows Ilsa very well, knows her past, trusts her to help with his work, which at one point she even refers to as "our" work (she' such an ill-defined character, you don't really know her role), and instead of drinking himself to death over her indiscretions, he tells her, "I know what it is to be lonely." And he doesn't scare the horses, either.

It's the opposite of a Merchant/Ivory Forster movie, where the main character ends up with the object of their sexual desire. I predict that Ilsa and Laszlo will have a profoundly meaningful and happy marriage (with the old secret sadness, never referred to, to add a touch of poignancy). And Rick and Renault, the two adventurers, are going to have a ball smuggling arms across the Sahara--a business they will be able to run for different factions in North Africa for many, many years to come. So, really, everyone's going to be happier than A Room with a View's Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson are going to be.

That's how it seems to me now. Would I have said this when I was twenty? That shared work is more attractive than passionate kisses? I think not.
But that's the thing about McGuffins: if the storyteller makes them strong enough and vague enough--like "government secrets" or "Paris"--and if the actors convey belief in them, they stand up over time, through historical political shifts (Communism? Islamism? Vegetarianism?) and the shifting perspectives of personal life.
Because, after all, a kiss is still a kiss, as time goes by.


bink said...


deanna said...

You say it all well. Suffering, poignancy, doing the right thing. Sigh.. They wear better with age, I guess, than kisses.

fresca said...

Me too, Bink!

Hi, Deanna--Of course I didn't mean to imply that kisses don't count! One reason Ilsa is going to go on to have a happy life is she has known this grand passion, so she won't be left always wondering, feeling she has missed something. Kisses might not last, but memory does...

Rudyinparis said...

Oh, I am catching up and I love, love, love this post. I've seen this movie, as well, probably 100 times (when I worked at a video store in high school I played it continuously in the store because it couldn't offend, so, seriously it probably has passed in front of my eyes 100 times.)

Anyway. Love this post.

fresca said...

Rudy: I'm glad this post pleases someone who's seen the movie 100 times (I'm probably only in the teens)!
We should talk more about it sometime--maybe you have an opinion on the pressing matter of white linen as a suitable material for fleeing Nazis?