Monday, July 17, 2017
How Little We Know
I'm old enough to have been captured by Humphrey Bogart's screen charisma. To Have and Have Not was created by Howard Hawkes, et al, the year after I was born. But I didn't see that remarkable film until we purchased a Dish subscription about ten years ago, more or less. I'd seen Casablanca several times, probably the first time at a UNC “free flicks” screening in the late '60s. I particularly recall seeing the film in Washington, DC, in the early '70s, at a theatre so full that I had to sit down in the very front row. With that perspective the plane taking off at the end, with Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid, seemed to take off straight up, like a V-2 rocket. Beyond that, there was little damage to the movie.
Casablanca is a romantic tragedy, and a call to arms. It's much like Mrs Minerva, another beautiful film that I came to after I had access to Dish and TCM. My appreciation of these sorts of movies was certainly sharpened by my education, by reading Hemingway and Camus and Norman Mailer. I think my parents' way of looking at life was shuffled in there somewhere. There was a lot in life that you'd best be capable of “taking” without breaking. That's just how it was, and part of their education in the '20s and '30s. The eventual triumph of the Civil Rights Movement in 1964 was historically coupled with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the escalation of the Vietnam War. This historical flow around me was not a message of short term optimism. Nixon was elected as a “peace candidate” in 1968. Alternatives were eliminated during the campaign: first Martin Luther King, Jr., then Robert Kennedy.
The first time I watched To Have and Have Not it was easy to appreciate that it was a film that consciously traded on the reputation of Casablanca, and of Bogart, an existential hero along with Gary Cooper. (Probably the first “adult” movie I experienced was High Noon—my father very much approved of the message of that film.) I didn't immediately understand how specific and detailed was the relationship between Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. I was just following the immediate plot of the film. I probably caught the most famous line--”you know how to whistle...?”--but some of the other wonderful zingers, including “are you guessing her weight, Steve?” flew past, over my head.
Well, ok, William Faulkner is credited with the screen-writing.
I watched To Have again over the weekend. These days it's a staple at TCM, which is ok by me. Perhaps because I was at this point entirely aware in advance of the plot, I actually heard all of the nuanced dialog. The whistle line is still great, and wonderfully played. But the most poignant line this time around was Bogart's observation that Bacall's Slim had been through things, because she hadn't flinched when the Vichy detective slapped her for “insolence.” “Why did you come to Port of France” the cop asks. “To buy a hat,” she replies. We can all watch that scene, but Bogart instructs us on the character revealed, in case we hadn'd noticed. And it's a character he admires. They're both “tough cookies,” which is to say, seasoned veterans of life.
At some point during my Saturday viewing I realized that the genius idea Howard Hawkes had was to redo Casablanca, but this time around, give “Mr. Rick” a great girl friend. The whole exotic location is just paint color. North Africa? Martinique? What's the difference. In both films the same tension exists between Bogart's existential hero, working to stay apart from the great moral question of the day, which really amounts to “Why aren't you in the Army, son?” And the forces of oppression, in both cases the Vichy government, the Vichy police. The same moral quandary arrives in the form of a resistance hero and his wife, both of them beautiful blondes. In Casablanca Rick finds the exit visas for them. In To Have Bogart removes a bullet, then once again enables them to escape.
But this time around, the romance comes from another quarter. Slim has arrived before the resistance hero and his beautiful wife, and she explicitly makes fun of the romantic tragedy the resistance hero's wife touches on after being captured by Bogart's skill at first aid. Bacall even quotes, explicitly and with hilarious irony, the lines she's just heard the hero's wife say to Bogart. “I don't think I'll ever be angry at you again.” Bacall only adds some fluttering eyelids. That cements his appraisal of her in Steve's mind. He later, as things wind towards happy resolution, tosses her a wonderful zinger in reply. “Give her my love,” Bacall says as Steve makes one last check on the patient, hiding down in the cellar of the bar. “If's she's wearing that dress” (the one Bacall has on), “I'll give her my own.”
If I wanted to teach a course in the difference between comedy and tragedy, I might assign these two wonderful films. Both end with resolutions that are driven by the need of audiences to get at least a little good news. Shakespeare didn't shrink from “reality” like that. We don't know, in fact, if Steve and Slim and Walter Brennan and the resistance fighters will make it to the mouth of the harbor. We don't know if the airplane with Bergman and Henreid actually makes it to Portugal, or if Mr. Rick manages to become a successful resistance fighter. You want to watch some more realistic stories of World War II, try Melville's Armies of the Night, or Rossolini's Open City. Resistance was a terrible choice even if it was the only one. But at least in To Have the immediate romance is fulfilled. Casablanca leaves us with the tragic promise of “I'll Be Seeing You,” which was the fear everyone carried until the war was over. My very first memory, when I was between two and three years old, is of my father bursting in to report that the war was over.
The American audience has mostly turned away from that dark truth, of how deep the losses really are. Perhaps this is why we're where we are today. The propagandists have won, at least for the moment. They have the biggest megaphones, a physics that did not escape Goebbels, the genius of propaganda, and has apparently never been allowed out beyond the confines of the academic study of advertising in this great land of ours. Today Fox News is on the attack, bashing real news with every passing day. Over the weekend Fred C.Dobbs, on the Fox News channel, said the “deep state” was engaged in a coups. The ever changing stories of the Administration count, to Mr. Dobbs, as “fake news” because they are reported. Sean Hannity can be directly lied to, in real time, by one of the facilitators of the Russian operation to capture the Presidency, and can still talk about “fake news” in the next moment. “Fake News” is a great phrase. It resonates. As usual, the public mostly doesn't want to hear the real stuff, uncut. This means that there's a given willingness to suspend disbelief. Fake news it is. They are going to get those coal mines going again, just you wait. In my little town, the furniture factories are going to get cranking before long. Or at least the chicken plants. Of course the last standing plant has just been demolished to literal rubble by the biggest successful business in the area, D. H. Griffin Wrecking and Scrap Metal.
We Americans just don't like real tragedy. Before the little scrap metal processing company I worked for closed its doors for good last year, we used to get frequent visits from a nice local kid in an old white Chevy pickup. He was full of energy, and hauled some decent scrap, which in the good times that preceded our closing (and the world-wide drop in the price of scrap) would make him a decent pay day. It's true that his mom called us once complaining that he'd stolen a load from her pile—she also brought scrap now and then—but that was almost funny, the travails of a scrappin' family. Last week, according to our very local paper, this kid, 24 years old now, had been killed in a single vehicle wreck at 3 AM on a rural road not so far from my kitchen. Traffic, it was reported, was tied up as they worked to get his vehicle, and his body, out of the woods. He'd hit two trees. Excessive speed. No mention of “substances,” which probably didn't mean very much. Quite a lot of promise lost. He was working on getting his commercial driver's license the story reported. Who knows if he even voted back in November. If he'd gotten that CDL he might have been hauling the chicken plant rubble for D.H., and at the same time dreaming of an office job in a new chicken plant courtesy of the Make America Great team by the time 2020 rolled around.
Sartre wrote a play once called No Exit. Far as I know it was never popular in Chatham County. Too French.