February 15th, 2011
|11:02 pm - in which we eat incongruous ice cream and see little naked gold men|
I had a pretty good weekend and I hope you did, too. Carolyn and I spent Sunday running around watching movies and eating quite well, which was a refreshing change of pace from running around doing things other than watching movies and eating quite well. We first saw Casablanca at the Brattle as part of their Valentine's Day tradition. It's a nice tradition to keep, honestly, whether or not you have the good fortune of seeing it with someone you can put your arm around.
The Brattle rightly takes credit for helping revive interest in the film and Humphrey Bogart in general, as they began screening Bogart films during Harvard's winter exams back in the 1950s. Nowadays we take the ready accessibility of classic films in one form or another for granted, but back then there wasn't as much of an interest in "the oldies" as there is now. Black-and-white films such as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon were relegated to Late-Late-Late Show status, shown on TV stations unable to afford anything better for the wee small hours of the morning. Save for the opinions of a few die-hards and Raymond Chandler fans, the films didn't even have much of a classic status at that point.
The Brattle's tradition gave the films wide exposure to a new generation, creating the infamous "Cult of Bogie" in the process. Yes, you can thank the Brattle for the "pork chopsh and appleshaush, that'sh shwell" episode of the Brady Bunch. And as far as I can tell, theirs was the first of several old-time movie resurgences engineered by college arthouses. The Marx Brothers enjoyed a similar revival in the 1960s, something that Groucho would point out in contemporary interviews. He was amazed that "the kids" could recite, word-for-word, films he had made over thirty years earlier, at a time when nobody else seemed to care about 'em. And nearly eighty years after the fact, you can still catch a Marx Brothers marathon at the Brattle on New Year's Day.
We saw Casablanca with two of Carolyn's friends, one of whom pointed out that she liked the film because the romance portrayed is one "between grown-ups", as opposed to the youth-oriented stuff you see in Judd Apatow films and such today. I feel that sentiment extends far beyond Casablanca itself, after realizing that it was one of the reasons why I like watching old movies period. Sure, there's still slapstick and inanity to be found in black-and-white, but even in a farce such as The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn is still playing a grown-up, Jimmy Stewart is still playing a grown-up, and Cary Grant is still playing a grown-up. Seth Rogen, on the other hand, has made a fine name for himself playing manchildren. There's nothing inherently wrong with that as he plays the manchild very well and there are plenty of manchildren around today so his characters are easily identifiable and relatable, but in today's youth-oriented culture when films are mass-marketed to the younger demographic they call lucrative, successful films which buck that trend and present grown-ups handling grown-up situations are not as common and more's the pity. Successful is the key word here. There are plenty of good grown-up films around but according to the box office, Justin Beiber in 3D has grossed in one weekend a full third of what The King's Speech has made in three months of release. I freely admit this is a completely arbitrary example, but it's pretty clear which is the easier buck to chase here.
I should mention that the grown-up situations ought to be compelling at least. Still, I'd probably watch a drama about tax accountants than go to see Justin Beiber in 3D, but maybe I shouldn't want to write anything off too easily. I like all kinds of film and honestly I think that there's room in this world for, say, both Pineapple Express and Casablanca, and there are two titles I never thought I'd use together in the same sentence. The important thing for me to remember is that we really have the Brattle to thank for giving us that room.
As it is--as it always is--the film was a delight, the dialogue superb, and even though a lot of the classic lines have might be a tad cliche due to subsequent overuse, they still work well in their original form. And if you don't tear up even just a little when Rick does The Noble Thing at the end while admitting he's not very good at being noble, then you're an unfeeling robot who oughta go beep and boop someplace else. (As far as favorite scenes go, mine is the expertly-arranged La Marseilles sequence, followed by Renault's "I am shocked, shocked" turn. What's yours?)
The real treat this time around was that the film was introduced by Leslie Epstein, the son and nephew of Julius and Philip Epstein, the film's writers. (I'm sure he mentioned which was his dad and which his uncle, but I couldn't tell you. It may not have mattered; apparently they were identical twins so closely connected that you couldn't think of them separately. Mr. Epstein referred to them throughout his talk as Julie'nPhil.) He talked a bit about their creative process, how the film was still being written right up until shooting began which caused Ingrid Bergman to fret constantly since she didn't know who she was going to end up with, and how at one particular intersection on Santa Monica Boulevard (or was it Wilshire? Damn, I should've listened better) the two writers simultaneously came up with the right and proper ending. This acknowledgement of writing-by-the-seat-of-yer-pants, something I am entirely too familiar with, turns an exchange between Rick and Ilsa into a lovely meta moment ("Can I tell you a story, Rick?" "Has it got a wild finish?" "I don't know the finish yet." "Well go on, tell it, maybe one will come to you as you go along.") I love gaining new perspective on things I've seen eight, nine, a hundred times before.
Mr. Epstein also brought along the Oscar that the pair won for the screenplay. There's been controversy over who exactly wrote Casablanca and Howard Koch, who was the only other credited screenwriter, shares the award. However, most of Koch's actual work wasn't used in the final film (his character development is there, though) and while he wrote a book claiming a lion's share of the writing credit, he later recanted and said his contributions weren't that substantial. As with most films of the time, Casablanca was helped by several unattributed writers, and Leslie Epstein rattled off two lines from other writers, "one very good line and one very bad line" and maybe I should let you imagine which those were. All of this froo-frah does not detract in any way from the fact that on Sunday, sitting up in the Brattle's balcony, I realized I was the closest I've ever been--and probably ever will be--to an actual Academy Award. How thrilling! (And it came from a time, my inner cynic piped up, when winning one actually meant something! That little cynic is going to get me in trouble one of these days.) There it was, looking a little more orange than gold under the lights, and there was Leslie Epstein holding it and gesturing with it exactly as you see the winners do, and when he was done he put the statue in a red velvet drawstring bag and chucked it in his backpack.
Carolyn and I went out to Gargoyles afterwards for dinner, as I did not think I'd ever been. I think I was right. I would have remembered it better. We had some very good cocktails which changed flavors in your mouth just like a Wonka candy and Carolyn had a duck confit which I tasted and liked, and I had a steak which came with a right good Yorkshire Pudding and the red wine was very dry and I liked that quite well. For dessert I had a tiny little butterscotch fondant which was more Butterscotch than any butterscotch thing I'd ever had before, and a smidge of this absolutely incredible black truffle ice cream. One tiny scoop was more than enough. It would have been physically impossible to eat an entire dish of the stuff. One of the rare times in life when a little restraint was not only appreciated but necessary.
Then we saw The Triplets of Belleville at the Somerville, as Carolyn had not seen it before. I have seen it many times and adore the darn thing. Sylvain Chomet does some darn fine animatin' and I ought to talk sometime about The Illusionist, which I saw a week or so ago, before I forget. Carolyn wasn't as charmed as I was with Triplets; in fact, she was a little uneasy at points. I completely understood, though, because I'd felt the same way the first time I saw it. The art style while brilliant is grotesque, all bulbous Gallic caricatures and such, and the film's warped internal logic takes some getting used to. The story isn't exactly the strongest around, either, but the characters remain true to themselves no matter what the situation and that's important.
Subsequent viewings help if you're up to it, especially because you'll know just how far the weirdness will go. I really did feel uneasy about it my first time around, but the terrific soundtrack and the concept and the wonderful dog, which is probably the most dog-like dog ever animated (and that includes good ol' Dug from Up) compelled me to go back a few more times. Nothing in the film is cute, not by a long shot, but it is charming. Eventually.
I have not had a weekend as satisfying as this one was in a long time, and I was all the happier for it. Maybe this upcoming weekend will be a satisfying one for you as well, and I might suggest that if you're in the Davis Square area, a visit to Unity Church to see Theatre@First's production of The Lady's Not for Burning will help that along considerably. I have lots to say about that production, seeing as how I'm in it and all, but I am tired so for now let me just say that you've got two weekends left to see it and holy cats we're all very brilliant. So there.
I'd just read about the Brattle and Bogart not too long ago. I wonder if my brother still has his copy of Casablanca -- I haven't seen it in ages, and you make it sound like a really good idea to watch it again.