Showing posts with label Casablanca. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Casablanca. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Common Cause

In my last entry I wrote about Casablanca (1942) as an example of wartime propaganda, about how the film enacted the ideological need to value (public) duty over (individual) desire, which corresponded to the wartime need for sexual abstinence and fidelity. I don’t claim any originality in this insight, as I think the film’s ideological purpose, given the virtue of “20/20” hindsight, is rather “obvious” in this regard, as many critics have observed. However, it occurred to me that it is probably worth mentioning that the film, seen also with the clarity of hindsight, also enacts America’s wartime sense of ideological purposelessness. Historian Paul Fussell, in Wartime, argues that the reason why Americans fought the Germans was even less clear than why they were fighting the Japanese (the reason for fighting the latter was revenge against the attack on Pearl Harbor). Although Victor Laszlo refers to Nazi concentration camps when addressing the Nazi military commander, Major Strasser, the death camps were not widely known about in the late summer of 1942 when the film was made, as the U. S. government had downplayed the brutality of Nazi anti-Semitism before the war. Hence there’s no clear sense of the nature or extent of Nazi criminality in Casablanca—they are, simply, the villains. Major Strasser seems confident that the victory of the Third Reich is inevitable. He and his fellow officers sing one (traditional) German folk song in the film, and his villainy is defined by whatever sort of (undefined) act of brutality he perpetrates on his captive, Ugarte (Peter Lorre). Victor Laszlo is wanted by the Nazis because he is a resistance leader fighting Nazi tyranny, and hence is a figurehead (but not a Jewish one). He has been tortured (as indicated by his reference to the “more persuasive methods” used when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp), but the word “torture” is never used. (The question of whether Ugarte is tortured is unclear, but his death is highly suspicious. He was murdered, but was he tortured? We're never explicitly told.) When Rick has finally made his decision to help Laszlo (and Ilsa) escape from Casablanca by giving them the "Letters of Transit" to board the plane to Lisbon, Laszlo praises Rick’s return “to the fight”—they are now fighting on the same side, for the same cause. In his chapter in Wartime entitled “The Ideological Vacuum,” Fussell argues that since Americans didn’t have a positive reason for fighting the war, they fell back on sheer pragmatism—the belief that “common cause would somehow substitute for formulation of purpose or meaning” (139). Hence Rick is told by Laszlo, “this time I know our side will win,” meaning they are now fighting together for a common cause. They are now on the same “side,” but there still remains, to use Fussell's phraseology, an “ideological vacuum.” Outside of common cause, there remains no clear purpose or meaning in fighting the war.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hill of Beans

In my blog entry yesterday, I wrote about the effect of World War II on jazz music, and how it rendered the modernist values jazz had come to represent in the 1920s and 30s—“individualism”—unfashionable. As a consequence of the need for personal sacrifice during the war (personal sacrifice was required to win the war), individualism was no longer as highly valued as group cohesion and communal harmony. I referred to Paul Fussell’s observation, in his book Wartime, that the most popular songs during the war were about sexual depravation or pleas for fidelity—think of the Glenn Miller Band's “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me).” Fussell also noted that if the songs were not about sexual abstinence and the virtues of self-denial, they were about nothing at all (“Little Brown Jug”).

The opposed values of individual expression and group cohesion were often enacted, dramatically, as duty vs. desire. A classic wartime film in which the tension between duty and desire is dramatically enacted is, of course, Casablanca (1942). In the film’s climactic scene, Rick is faced with a choice that also happened to correspond to the need to resolve an ideological contradiction: should he allow Ilsa to go with her legal husband, Victor Laszlo, or keep her with him in Casablanca? The film demands the audience choose between love and romance (desire) or duty to a higher cause (getting Laszlo to Lisbon).

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.
ILSA: But what about us?
RICK: We’ll always have Paris. We didn't have. We lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
ILSA: When I said I would never leave you—
RICK: And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. 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.

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—in other words, the woman must be sent away. Rick’s “hill of beans” line is a virtual restatement of the quotation by Eileen M. Sullivan that Fussell cites in Wartime: “There was no room in this war-culture for individual opinions or personalities, no freedom of dissent or approval . . . .” (195). Interestingly enough, the ideological need to value social duty over individual desire corresponds to the wartime need for sexual abstinence and deprivation, yet another form of personal sacrifice that was needed to win the war.