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The Formality of Casablanca Film

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Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz and released in 1942, exhibits qualities of both the Classical Hollywood Narrative and Art Cinema. These two film structures are the equivalent to formalism in literature, but also point to other frameworks including feminism, postmodernism and new historicism. Art cinema and Classical Hollywood Narrative marry in Casablanca in a way which informs the character development and narrative trajectory of the film. The fact that the Classical Hollywood Narrative is so identifiable in this film goes to show its historical time and place; the use of experimentation which would become a staple of Art Cinema is indicative of the fact that Casablanca uses unconventional textual devices to convey meaning, character and story, and also that Casablanca is a film which demonstrates the slowly changing standard of filmmaking at that time.

The Classical Hollywood Narrative was and arguably still is the standard model for Hollywood made films and movies. It consists of a few basic components according to which Casablanca is largely constructed. Eshowsky.com has narrowed them down to a few basic categories. Specifically, some these components are elision, cause and effect, motivation, hero/protagonist and narrative closure. The hero/protagonist is the central figure of the film, is often the hero, and is surrounded by a host of secondary characters. The film is constructed with a moral, and we are usually supposed to support the hero/protagonist in his quest.

Elision refers to the economical editing which demands that each scene connects unambiguously with the next and each action is immediately clarified for the audience. Cause and effect, narrative closure and motivation are the elements for which elision exists. Cause and effect and motivation refer to the fact that in Classical Hollywood Narrative, every piece of dialogue, every action and every scene is contrived to lead to an ultimate ending. Nothing happens without a reason. The ultimate ending is governed by narrative closure, which states that the ending is clear and keeps no one guessing. Movies using this model usually contain a happy ending.

Art cinema had its heyday in the late fifties and sixties, and some of its early influence can be seen in Casablanca. Filmreference.com carries a reliable and succinct article on the narrative system. In brief, art cinema is essentially the opposite of Classical Hollywood Narrative, and basically consists of authorial expression, oblique or non-linear narrative structure and an inclination toward character psychology and realism. Often the ending is unclear and lacks any kind of closure. The intent is to show a truer representation of human relationships, psyches and events and usually contains multiple themes and no clear moral.

Casablanca is mainly built upon a Classical Hollywood Narrative framework, and so any experimentation done in the components of the film’s language are subtle and done in service to the larger framework. Despite the fact that they require being pointed out unless the viewer has the background information to be able to detect them, they are significant in that they show not only the slowly changing tide of filmmaking styles, but also some of the thematic elements of the work, and how they apply to multiple literary frameworks. For example, the moral wavering of Rick, in particular with his relationship to Captain Renaud, shows both the experimentation and the mild streak of postmodernism detectable in the film. Rick is seemingly cold, and as we learn, tormented character throughout the film. He has a strained friendship with the chief of police, a sneaky man who cooperates with the Nazis for the sake of not being hassled. However, when Rick proves successful against a Nazi threat, Renaud switches his allegiances like a weather vane. Interestingly, instead of rebuffing him, Rick accepts his friendship. This character ambiguity and fluctuating sense of morality for the sake of pragmatism is typical of postmodernism. The fact that the American is the reluctant hero, the Frenchman the weasel, and someone more pure-hearted like Victor Lazlo is only a secondary character can be read in a new historical framework.

We are supposed to root for Victor Lazlo, the legendary hero of the story. In a perfectly Classical film, it is likely that Lazlo would be the hero/protagonist. However, the imperfect Rick is the main character; this can be attributed to the fact that Rick is the American, (whereas Lazlo is Czech) which is arguably why he has been made into the more dynamic and relevant character. Lazlo even questions Rick about his true sense of morality and sympathy for the underdog. Here we see how art cinema is in service the Classical Hollywood Narrative: ultimately it must be the hero/protagonist who saves the day, but he is ambiguous and tormented; Rick is given advice from someone who is everything he should be. This is not uncommon to CHN, but normally the hero/protagonist would surely exhibit those qualities from the beginning. Rick could possibly represent the United States in its attitude toward the Nazis. Rick tries to stay neutral for as long as he can until the war comes to him; the United States tried to remain out of the theater of war until Japan coaxed them to enter. Lazlo, being from an occupied nation, could easily represent the plight of the occupied nations and the American mentality that it is their job to rescue them. Rick could therefore be a metaphor for the American involvement in the war. It is possible even that this film is a call to arms for Americans, seeing as the film was made in 1942, when America would have already entered World War Two. In this framework, it would seem that film experimentation is being used manipulatively for the purposes of propaganda.

Equally significant is the use of character psychology in the film. Again, this is done in service to the overall Classical narrative structure. Generally speaking, the characters in this film aren’t given much of a representation of their psyche. However, an exception is made for Rick, whose psychological state is given attention because it helps in developing the narrative. For example, when Rick is drinking at his empty Café Americain, he begins to reminisce about his lost relationship with Elsa, and how it fell apart. This is done in montage, which was a non-American way of using footage to evoke meaning or emotion. This demonstrates some of the hands-on experimentation taking place in this film. Rick is shown as being lovesick and emotionally and morally conflicted. However, his psychology gives us enough information to understand where the film is going, and his desire of Elsa comes into play heavily throughout the movie. The fact that the decision was made to introduce this part of the story through character psychology denotes a slight change in film-making styles, but also reinforces the ingrained Classical Hollywood Narrative so present in this movie.

An example of unadulterated Classical Hollywood Narrative is the lighting and framing used on Elsa. In the scene where Sam is playing “As Time Goes By”, we are shown a close-up of Elsa’s face. In a subtle yet unmistakably Classical way, Elsa is given a soft filter to highlight her feminine features and sparkling eyes. Her beauty is generally praised as being her best feature throughout the movie. If read through a feminist framework, one could say that the lighting and cinematography of this scene is symbolic of Elsa’s role throughout the film. She even gives Rick the power to decide whether or not to help Lazlo and her escape by claiming that she’s far too confused, and that he must think for her. She is little more than a pretty face, and when confronted with a challenge, buckles and chooses to rely on men. Given that her most attractive quality is her appearance, it is no wonder why special attention was given to a close-up of her face. This could appear to be a lapse in the film’s elision, when it is in fact a standard technique for representing beauty.

It is however easy at times to confuse one film framework for another in a given scene. For example, the scene in which Victor Lazlo and Elsa take off on a plane could be construed as following Art Cinema, because they leave the scene without a clear ending to their mission, and because the ending seems to come as a surprise. However, everything in the film leads to this moment, using motivation and cause and effect typical of Classical Hollywood Narrative. Even if it is not precisely what each character wanted, it what was determined to happen right from the very beginning of the film; furthermore, if Rick is to fulfill his role as the hero, it must happen because it is the right thing to do. The element of the ending which does, in fact, resemble the Art Cinema form is in the fact that it is bittersweet. One the one hand, the chain of events throughout the movie all intertwine into a clear ending for the episode. However, it is the fact that we are left partially saddened at the rupture of Elsa and Rick, that we are left feeling hopeful over Lazlo’s cause, and that we are left hanging with the uneasy alliance of Rick and Captain Renaud, that this film represents a slight move toward a different style of cinematic story-telling.

Casablanca was made during the start of a transition in film frameworks. It was also based on a play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett, which itself came at a transition point between modernism and postmodernism, and thus contains traces of the two. Casablanca uses experimentation in service to the standard Classical Hollywood Narrative format. In its use of these two styles of film-making, Casablanca speaks volumes about its time period, its meaning and all the different literary theories to which this film may be applied.

1. Curtiz, Michael, dir. Casablanca. Prod. Hall B. Wallis. 1942. MGM, 1997. DVD- ROM.

2. “The Classical Hollywood Narrative System.” Eshowsky. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2010. <: http://www.eshowsky.com/basic-introduction/classic-hollywood- narrative-systemchns2.html.>.

3. “Art Cinema: Textual Characteristics.” . N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2010. <From: http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Academy-Awards-Crime-Films/Art- Cinema-TEXTUAL-CHARACTERISTICS.html>.

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The Formality Of Casablanca Film. (2018, May 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/formalism-in-casablanca/
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The Formality Of Casablanca Film. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/formalism-in-casablanca/> [Accessed 28 Oct. 2020].
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