Asleep in Hollywood

My wife and I watched Casablanca at the movie theater in San Jose's Santana Row Wednesday night; there was a pretty good-sized crowd in the theater joining us. (We saw the revival of West Side Story at the same theater a couple of weeks ago; Homer Simpson could have counted the audience on his fingers.)

In 1992, as part of the film’s 50th anniversary, Roger Ebert, who passed away yesterday, penned a beautifully written take on Casablanca, in which he wrote, “There are greater movies. More profound movies. Movies of greater artistic vision or artistic originality or political significance. There are other titles we would put above it on our lists of the best films of all time.” Nonetheless, for Ebert,  “It is The Movie:”

Movies are, in a sense, immortal. It is likely that people will be watching "Casablanca" centuries from now (and how wonderful it would be if we could see movies from centuries ago). In another sense, however, movies are fragile. They live on long flexible strips of celluloid, which fade, and tear, and collect scratches everytime they travel through a movie projector. And sometimes films burn, or disintegrate into dust.

There’s another element about moviemaking that’s fragile as well: the culture that makes them. Casablanca was filmed in the summer of 1942, when World War II could have gone either way; the meat grinder battle of Stalingrad, which in retrospect sealed the Nazis’ fate, didn’t begin until after filming was complete.

The Hollywood culture that made Casablanca would age rather poorly and exhaust themselves in another kind of battle; in his 2009 interview with Peter Robinson, the late Andrew Breitbart chided the aging conservative executives who created the industry for handing it over to the cultural left without a fight in the late 1960s, as the book and accompanying documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls explores:

30 years prior though, in May of 1939 even before WWII had officially begun in Europe, a tough and confident Warner Brothers released Confessions of a Nazi Spy, starring WB vet and Edward G. Robinson, and “considered the first anti-Nazi film produced by a major studio,” according to Turner Classic Movies. In 1942, the studio made Casablanca.

Warner Brothers is now but one cog in a conglomerate whose TV news network looks at dictators ranging from Saddam Hussein to Fidel Castro to Kim-Jong Il, repeatedly shrugs its shoulders and says, “meh.” (When it’s not openly embracing them.) Time, the pioneering news magazine that’s now just another component of that conglomerate was founded 90 years ago with the goal (in addition to turning a profit, of course) of allowing small town Americans to better themselves by having a concise update on the week’s events. (The magazine's name was chosen by founder Henry Luce because it implied both the timeliness of its contents, and the ability to save its readers’ time.)  Since Luce’s retirement and death in the mid-1960s, his would-be successors at the magazine have consistently looked at its original core readers as The Other, this strange group of unknown readers out there somewhere in the hinterlands.

In the film Casablanca, the back story for Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine character implies that like many Americans, he was broke at the start of the Depression, took to a variety of unsavory socialist jobs afterwards, before hiding out in Casablanca and starting his saloon. With America on the eve of World War II -- significantly, there's a close-up insert shot of a credit voucher Rick signs early in the film, which is dated December 2, 1941, only a few days before Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor -- he emerges from his moral stupor to fight totalitarianism, beginning with this utterance to Sam, his faithful piano player:

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

Sam: What? My watch stopped.

Rick: I'd bet they're asleep in New York. I'd bet they're asleep all over America.

Hollywood went back to sleep long ago. Today, Robert Redford, who at the peak of his career, had the matinee idol box office clout of Humphrey Bogart, and is still capable of having his pet projects green-lit and funded, is making films in praise of a very different wartime American than Bogie’s Rick. The same theater in San Jose that showed Casablanca this week, will be showing Redford's pro-Weathermen The Company You Keep beginning the end of this coming week. I'm glad there's a week and a half space between the two films; too close would risk cultural whiplash.