A friend from college said that his mom always made him try something three times before deciding that he didn’t like it. I guess he could decide he liked it in one, if he wanted.
The first time that I saw Casablanca, I was in my late teens. There wasn’t on demand viewing, so you waited for films to appear on the network or cable TV schedule. When you got to college there was the repertory circuit. My large state university had four or five film co-ops that took over large auditorium space in the evenings to show movies. For like a dollar, or maybe two.
There were black and white films from all over the world, soft-focused and slightly washed out French comedies, Woody Allen retrospectives and the screening of Indiana Jones and The Lost Ark that I saw with a friend who was studying archeology.* Leaning over after the first set piece, where Indy narrowly escapes the traps only to find himself face to face with his nemesis, the friend whispered, “Archeology isn’t really like that [one thousand one], it’s actually much more exciting.”
My first screening of Casablanca blew me away. Rick’s self-perserving opportunism. The corrupt police. Bad Nazis (not like there are good Nazis, but you know what I mean). The bravery of the resistance and the face of Ilsa. Watching the way her face was lit on the big screen in the lecture hall made me want to brush her cheek. The way she looked down when she lied to Rick. The hurt in her eyes. Her perfect nose. Her cute hat. I fell in love with Ilsa immediately. Just as Rick did back in Paris, which they would always have. When he turned her away on the tarmac, ruining their chance for love just for the good of the rest of the world? What a sacrifice. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I choked back the sobs. What a tragic story of love that could not be. Not at that time. War is awful.
Today a friend remarked that she very rarely rereads books. She knows what’s going to happen and there are so many unread books it seems unthrifty to spend time on the known. I reread books all the time. Especially if I loved the characters or the writing, and it’s not always the same story.
The second time I saw Casablanca was on home video. The Spouse had hooked up a new rig, and I bought some classic movies I thought we’d like to see. We bought them, so they would need to stand up to rewatch. The pile included Nashville, Ran, Wizard of Oz, Notorious, Bladerunner (pre-director’s cut), Ghostbusters, It’s a Wonderful Life, Chinatown, Star Wars, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Princess Bride, and, of course, Casablanca.
I draped myself over The Spouse on the couch. I made popcorn. We pressed ⇒. Intro and the map of North Africa. Then there was the impenetrable armor of Rick, the injustice of the lawless law, the heaviness of the Nazis crawling around the bar, the bravery of those trying to help refugees to safety, and that petulant Ilsa. That immature, selfish woman who in a pique was ready to abandon her husband as he worked–at grave danger–to defeat those awful Nazis. You know, the man that she made a promise to? Her HUSBAND? I hate infidelity. I hate that someone makes a promise and throws it aside when times are tough. I hated Ilsa for her childish grab at romance when the world was going to hell. And where did she get that stupid hat? War makes people do bad things.
I instituted the three times rules with The Boyz. It was useful when applied with truth. That is, if they tried it and did NOT like it, they could push it aside. They would never be forced, or even cajoled, into imbibing in that which they didn’t like. It wasn’t a trick, but an approach. Sometimes they didn’t like something because of the texture. The Big Guy was like that with tomatoes. Sometimes it was the flavor, I’m thinking about that thing with tarragon. Sometimes both, that would be Baby Bear and cooked carrots. I don’t care much for cooked carrots, either. No matter, the idea of revisiting something you didn’t like to see if it’s still true seems a classically liberal approach.
The third time I watched Casablanca, it was to be cooperative. There was an outdoor screening that The Spouse was involved with. The movie was the backdrop to a family evening, and I got extra spouse points since my disgust with the film was duly noted years earlier, while draped on the couch. The Boyz were pretty sophisticated cinephiles and there was a picnic in the works. I was in.
It was just past dusk when the movie hit screen. There was too little contrast for the first ten minutes until the dark moved in and filled in the black parts of the black and white. As expected, there was a stiff Rick in his monkey suit looking like he needed a double on the rocks, the crooked police chief handed his winnings declaring that he was SHOCKED to find gambling going on, the irony of hating the Nazis for occupying the French in its colonial empire–but Nazis are still the bad guys, the Nazis getting drunk and singing their stupid song until the brilliant resistance leader drowns them out leading a patriotic chorus of “La Marseillaise.” That crazy pillbox hat on Louis Renault, the police chief.
The lighting of Ilsa’s face was still beautiful, but she’s the backdrop, just another Mary Sue. But watch how Rick and Louis play cat and mouse with each other. Are they on the same side? Well, in a way, yes. Rick is on his own side and Louis is on his own side. Not exactly the same side, but interesting. They’re both trying to stay upright on shifting ground, trying to stay alive in a dangerous world. Then, to make sure that the resistance leader gets to safety, Rick threatens the police chief with a gun. Wildly, the police chief supports Rick’s murder of a bad guy Nazi. Now Rick and Louis have resolved their conflict, realize they’re good together, and walk off into the fog to maybe defeat more bad guys. A buddy movie. War brings out the worst and best.
I take in art through the lens of my world. As a young Doc, Casablanca was a love story, as a recently married Doc I saw a barely adverted betrayal, as a Doc with kids, the movie was bigger than a hill of beans in this crazy world. Different flavors at different times.
I haven’t tasted City Lights in a long time. It would be my third time. The charm. Play it, Sam. Again.
*Fun fact. This was the same friend whose mom instituted the three-times rule.