“Casablanca, or, the Clichés Are Having a Ball” by Umberto Eco
When people in their fifties sit down before their television sets for a rerun of Casablanca, it is an ordinary matter of nostalgia. However, when the film is shown in American universities, the boys and girls greet each scene and canonical line of dialogue (“Round up the usual suspects,” “Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?”–or even every time that Bogey says “kid”) with ovations usually reserved for football games. And I have seen the youthful audience in an Italian art cinema react in the same way. What then is the fascination of Casablanca?
The question is a legitimate one, for aesthetically speaking (or by any strict critical standards) Casablanca is a very mediocre film. It is a comic strip, a hotch-potch, low on psychological credibility, and with little continuity in its dramatic effects. And we know the reason for this: The film was made up as the shooting went along, and it was not until the last moment that the director and script writer knew whether Ilse would leave with Victor or with Rick. So all those moments of inspired direction that wring bursts of applause for their unexpected boldness actually represent decisions taken out of desperation. What then accounts for the success of this chain of accidents, a film that even today, seen for a second, third, or fourth time, draws forth the applause reserved for the operatic aria we love to hear repeated, or the enthusiasm we accord to an exciting discovery? There is a cast of formidable hams. But that is not enough.
Here are the romantic lovers–he bitter, she tender–but both have been seen to better advantage. And Casablanca is not Stagecoach, another film periodically revived. Stagecoach is a masterpiece in every respect. Every element is in its proper place, the characters are consistent from one moment to the next, and the plot (this too is important) comes from Maupassant–at least the first part of it. And so? So one is tempted to read Casablanca the way T. S. Eliot reread Hamlet. He attributed its fascination not to its being a successful work (actually he considered it one of Shakespeare’s less fortunate plays) but to something quite the opposite: Hamlet was the result of an unsuccessful fusion of several earlier Hamlets, one in which the theme was revenge (with madness as only a stratagem), and another whose theme was the crisis brought on by the mother’s sin, with the consequent discrepancy between Hamlet’s nervous excitation and the vagueness and implausibility of Gertrude’s crime. So critics and public alike find Hamlet beautiful because it is interesting, and believe it to be interesting because it is beautiful.
On a smaller scale, the same thing happened to Casablanca. Forced to improvise a plot, the authors mixed in a little of everything, and everything they chose came from a repertoire of the tried and true. When the choice of the tried and true is limited, the result is a trite or mass-produced film, or simply kitsch. But when the tried and true repertoire is used wholesale, the result is an architecture like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. There is a sense of dizziness, a stroke of brilliance.
Red river, red river,
Slow flow heat is silence
No will is still as a river
Still. Will heat move
Only through the mocking-bird
Heard once? Still hills
Wait. Gates wait. Purple trees,
White trees, wait, wait,
Delay, decay. Living, living,
Never moving. Ever moving
Iron thoughts came with me
And go with me:
Red river, river, river.
“T.S. Eliot” by Ezra Pound (from Instigations)
Il n’y a de livres que ceux où un écrivain s’est raconté lui-même en racontant les mœurs de ses contemporains—leurs rêves, leurs vanités, leurs amours, et leurs folies.— Remy de Gourmont.
De Gourmont uses this sentence in writing of the incontestable superiority of “Madame Bovary,” “L’Éducation Sentimentale” and “Bouvard et Pécuchet” to “Salammbô” and “La Tentation de St. Antoine.” A casual thought convinces one that it is true for all prose. Is it true also for poetry? One may give latitude to the interpretation of rêves; the gross public would have the poet write little else, but De Gourmont keeps a proportion. The vision should have its place in due setting if we are to believe its reality.
The few poems which Mr. Eliot has given us maintain this proportion, as they maintain other proportions of art. After much contemporary work that is merely factitious, much that is good in intention but impotently unfinished and incomplete; much whose flaws are due to sheer ignorance which a year’s study or thought might have remedied, it is a comfort to come upon complete art, naïve despite its intellectual subtlety, lacking all pretense.
It is quite safe to compare Mr. Eliot’s work with anything written in French, English or American since the death of Jules Laforgue. The reader will find nothing better, and he will be extremely fortunate if he finds much half as good.
The necessity, or at least the advisability of comparing English or American work with French work is not readily granted by the usual English or American writer. If you suggest it, the Englishman answers that he has not thought about it—he does not see why he should bother himself about what goes on south of the channel; the American replies by stating that you are “no longer American.” This is the bitterest jibe in his vocabulary. The net result is that it is extremely difficult to read one’s contemporaries. After a time one tires of “promise.”
“Sweeney Among the Nightingales” by T.S. Eliot
Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.
The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the hornèd gate.
Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees
Slips and pulls the table cloth
Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganized upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;
The silent man in mocha brown
Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes;
The waiter brings in oranges
Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;
The silent vertebrate in brown
Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;
She and the lady in the cape
Are suspect, thought to be in league;
Therefore the man with heavy eyes
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,
Leaves the room and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in,
Branches of wisteria
Circumscribe a golden grin;
The host with someone indistinct
Converses at the door apart,
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,
And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid droppings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.
Harold Brodkey talks Tennessee Williams—and other St. Louis writers—in his interview with The Paris Review—
You grew up in St. Louis, which has a reputation for spawning writers—Eliot, Inge, Williams, Burroughs . . .
People in St. Louis talked, oddly enough, like simpler Eliots, inhibited William Burroughses, and shy Tennessee Williamses. Williams and I had the same high school English teacher.
Did she say Williams was a pretty good student?
She said he was a horrible person. I found his name carved into the wooden desk where I sat. Tennessee Williams was the obverse of Eliot, and at the same time was like him. When I was at Harvard I’d get drunk and I’d recite Eliot and I’d sound like a character in Williams. I don’t think I honestly ever saw a Williams play, or reacted to one as a member of the audience because I identify so with the background out of which the work comes. All of the writers from St. Louis have a vaguely similar dependence on metaphor . . . Burroughs, Fred Seidel . . .
I do think, seriously but without much study, that the influence of Eliot, and the influence of Eliot’s becoming famous, did affect people like Williams and William Inge. I knew Inge in New York at the Actors’ Studio. Tennessee Williams and I used to swim at the West Side Y together but we never spoke to each other.
Did you ever clap as he walked by, cheer for him?
No. At bottom there’s a dishonesty in artists.