Tagged: Casablanca

John Ostrander: Fool Me Once

Entertainment Weekly recently made its (multiple) cover story the return of the TV show Twin Peaks. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, or even if I want to watch it. This is surprising to me since I was a big fan for most of the show’s run.

The show was set in the Pacific Northwest in a small town and was created by David Lynch (writer and director of the movie Blue Velvet) and Mark Frost (one of the main writers of the TV series Hill Street Blues). The show took place in the mythical small town of Twin Peaks, nestled in lumber country, and deals with the townsfolk, many of whom are, well, odd. The show starts with the discovery of high school homecoming queen Laura Palmer who has been murdered. Circumstances draw in the FBI in the person of Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, a favorite actor of Lynch’s. Agent Cooper is, well, odd. He solves mysteries with the help of dreams and visions that he gets. He’s a very Special Agent and, I think, something of a shaman.

The show is a surreal mixture of crime drama, soap opera, and supernatural horror. The being ultimately responsible for Laura Palmer’s death is a serial killer named Killer Bob who is a demonic being who possesses humans – including folks living in Twin Peaks. And some characters have evil doppelgangers. Did I mention that the show is, well, odd?

It opened very well against stiff competition on April 8, 1990, but it lost a lot of its audience as it went on. It was cancelled half way through the second season but a big letter writing campaign had ABC run the last episodes. There was no third season but there was a movie in 1992 – Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It served as a prequel and sort of an afterword. It was not well received either critically or commercially and that was about it for over 25 years.

My late wife, Kim Yale, and I were big fans of the show at the start; what can I say – I like ‘em odd so long as they are also interesting. We even went to the movie and were badly disappointed. As the show went on, we became increasingly convinced that those running the show didn’t know where they were going. I’ve since read that both Lynch and Frost thought the murder of Laura Palmer was a MacGuffin and they originally hadn’t planned on ever resolving it.

(A MacGuffin is a plot device, some object or goal that the characters in the story care about but we, as readers or viewers, really don’t because we’re more interested in what happens to the characters. A classic MacGuffin is in Casablanca; lots of the characters are after “Letters of Transit” and getting them is life or death for them. However, the audience is more interested on who Ingrid Bergman is going to wind up with – Paul Henreid or Humphrey Bogart.)

The death of Laura Palmer doesn’t strike me as a MacGuffin. It’s too central to the overall plot of Twin Peaks. And, for me, if you’re going to show me a murder, you’d better damn well tell me whodunit.

They did but it was obviously not important to the creators and I’m not sure they knew whodunit when they started the show. Oddly enough, it’s very central to the movie.

Both Lynch and Frost wandered off to other projects after launching the TV series and it shows. Especially after the killer was revealed, it didn’t seem to know where it wanted to go.

Which is why I’m uncertain if I want to look into the revival. Do I want to invest the time? More important, do I want to invest the money? It’s going to be on Showtime and that’s a premium channel on cable and you pay to get it.

Furthermore, even in the article, everyone doing the new version are tight lipped. Lynch will reveal almost nothing about the new series except that it occurs 25 years after the last one ended. We see that a lot of the cast is back but just about nothing else. C’mon, man; sell it! Tell me why I want to sign on again… because I feel burned.

This is not to say that Lynch isn’t a great director. In addition to Blue Velvet, he did Wild At Heart and, a particular favorite of mine, The Straight Story. But he also did Dune as well as Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. He’s always interesting but I’m not sure if the new Twin Peaks will be worth investing my time and money.

One good thing – he and Frost wrote all the installments of the new series and Lynch has directed all of them. That’s hopeful. But I’m still leery.

Fool me once, fuck you.

Fool me twice, fuck me.

John Ostrander: Double Your Pleasure

Once upon a time, most movie theaters showed more than a single feature. For the price of your ticket, you’d get two movies, maybe a cartoon, sometimes a featurette. You got good value for your money in those days especially at second or third run theaters or revival houses. This was in the days before DVD, Blu-Ray, or even VHS.

In fact, for a long time, the movie studios only got one bite of the apple. Oh, a few movies might show up again; Disney did a good job of bringing classics out of their vaults. When the movies were sold to show on TV, that would also generate some revenue but nothing like today when a major part of the money made by films comes from Blu-Ray and DVD sales. (Aside: I wonder how true that will remain with Netflix and Hulu, et al.)

The first time I saw Casablanca was in a movie theater in an inspired double feature with Play It Again, Sam – the Woody Allen vehicle in which Casablanca plays a big part. Most of the double features I remember weren’t so brilliantly paired although even these days you would get a coupling whose titles together were suggestive. For example, I recently saw a photo of a marquee that has Annie and Satan’s Daughter on it.

There was a pairing that still haunts my nightmares. I was in a play out of the Guthrie Theater that toured the upper Midwest hitting small towns in states like North and South Dakota (both of which seemed entirely made up of small towns) and I, with my fellow travelers, were desperate to catch a movie on our days off. The same double bill followed me for weeks – The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again and The Amityville Horror, both of which scored a minus 10 on my must-see list.

These days, we can make up our own double or even triple feature. Some are obvious such as the Bourne movies, but I like it when there are more imaginative pairings like the aforementioned Casablanca/Play It Again, Sam duet.

For example, we recently watched Guardians of the Galaxy (which is rapidly becoming my favorite Marvel movie) and then watched Galaxy Quest which, if you don’t know it, sends up Star Trek and its fans while, at the same time, being a homage to them. Both are quite funny, well cast and acted, have some surprisingly serious moments, and both even have a death that is surprising and moving. If I wanted to make it a triple feature, I would add Serenity, Joss Whedon’s continuance and completion of what he began in the TV series, Firefly. Like the other two, Serenity is a space opera that uses a lot of humor. The three have similarities in tone and attitude that play off each other well.

Another pairing that I stumbled upon was My Neighbor Totoro and Lilo and Stitch. Both are animated features; the first is the masterpiece from Japanese animator Hidao Miyazaki and the latter is from Disney (although, interesting aside, Totoro was distributed in the U.S. by Disney). Both deal with family and have a younger sister/older sister dynamic at their heart. Totoro is, admittedly, gentler and lower keyed than Lilo and Stitch but both show a lot of heart. And Totoro has the Cat-bus!

There are two lesser-known Irish films that work well together – Waking Ned Devine (one of my all time favorite films) and Rat. The latter you may not know but it’s a dark comedy starring Pete Postlethwaite and Imelda Staunton. I cannot briefly describe it to you but I do recommend it. It may not be to everyone’s taste but it is to mine.

There are lots of other double and triple features I could think of but odds are you could, too. If you think of any, speak up. You may know some that I don’t. In the meantime, as Ebert and Siskel used to say, I’ll see you at the movies.


John Ostrander: Backwards or Forwards?

Ostrander Art 130324Bought and watched The Hobbit DVD when it came out. My Mary and I had watched the full IMAX version in the theater; it’s one of her favorite books. I’m pretty fond of it as well.

Enjoyed the movie again and look forward to the next installment. However, I had problems with it. Both the way that the story is being divided into three films and from some of the action sequences, it’s playing out as a prequel to the Lord Of The Rings films. The book The Hobbit is not a prequel; it’s a stand alone story that has some story elements in common with LOTR. In the film, however, it’s coming off very definitely as a prequel to the point, IMO, that the story is changed or even twisted a bit to make it fit that mold. Visuals such as the race through the Underground Kingdom of the Goblins was very reminiscent, visually, of the race through the Mines of Moria in LOTR. What was stunning and even surprising in the LOTR movies looks rehashed here.

Generally speaking, when I’m reading or watching a story, I want to know what happens next – if I want to know anything more at all. Some stories, like Casablanca, doesn’t need prequels or sequels (although a sequel was discussed early on for Casablanca and, fortunately, never worked out). With Star Wars, after the original trilogy was done, I was ready to see what happened next but George Lucas decided he wanted to tell what happened previously. I watched but it’s not what I wanted and a lot of the public was less than enthralled as well. It’s only now when Disney has assumed ownership of the whole shebang that Episode 7 – “and then what happened?” — is being prepared.

The prequel trilogy of Star Wars changes the thrust of the story. The original trilogy is about Luke Skywalker and his coming of age, learning who he is, and becoming the hero his father might have been. The prequel trilogy changes the arc of all six films; it becomes about Anakin Solo, his fall and his redemption. I liked it better when it was Luke’s story.

I don’t absolutely hate prequels; I’ve done them myself. The last two GrimJack arcs I’ve done have technically been prequels. I also did a four issue story on The Demon Wars in GJ and, in the back-up space, my late wife Kim Yale and I did a story of young John Gaunt which would also qualify as a prequel. In each case, however, it revealed aspects of Gaunt that helped in understanding who he was and which weren’t going to be told in any other way. Each was also a stand-alone story; you needn’t have read any other GJ story to understand these stories.

There can be problems with sequels as well. Does it add to the story or does it just water it down? Godfather II deepened and expanded on the first film; Godfather III – not so much. The original Rocky is a great film; none of the sequels improved on it and only tarnished the story. OTOH, Toy Story 2 was better than the first film and Toy Story 3 was better still.

I can understand the desire with the studios to go back to the same material; it has a proven track record. There’s more money to be made not only from the movie but from all the ancillary crap. Less risk (in theory) and more money (in theory).

Maybe what it comes down to is this for sequels and prequels – does this story need to be told? When you think about it, that’s the same criteria as every other story, isn’t it? Or should be. Is this story worth telling? Not – will this make more money? Sadly, the reason for too many sequels and prequels is the monetary one.





Mindy Newell: Frakkin’ Ho-Ho-Ho!

Well, I haven’t heard Adam Sandler’s Chanukah Song yet – the Festival of Lights starts at sunset on Saturday, December 8th – but I did hear a rant about the War on Christmas on the radio the other day.

Yep, it’s that time of year again. Hallmark Channel has preempted Little House On The Prairie for sickly sweet (and cheaply made) movies with a Christmas theme. Wal-Mart and Target are pushing black Friday – great name for a villain, by the way – and have introduced something called pre-black Friday. Christmas catalogs have been smushed into my mailbox, and the department store halls are beginning to be decked with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la, la-la-la-la I’ve even caught some Christmas commercials on the TV (although the deluge is yet to come.)

So this year ye olde editor Mike Gold and Big Kahuna Glenn Hauman decided to get in on the act of Christmas before Thanksgiving and decreed that this week all of your ComicMix columnists offer their own catalogue of gifts – courtesy of that big Santa’s Workshop in the sky and on the web, Amazon – for the holidays. Which includes Chanukah, and don’t forget Kwanza!

So in no particular order, here we go:

1. Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan. Robin Maxwell. 2012 marks the centennial anniversary of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s greatest creation, and Ms. Maxwell, an award-winning historical fiction novelist, has done him proud. Written with the approbation of the Burroughs estate, this is the book for every woman who ever played at being Jane Porter and for every man who ever wanted to be the Tarzan with whom Jane falls in deep, instinctual, forever-and-a-day love. Maxwell’s Jane is no wallflower Edwardian ingénue. A medical student at Cambridge University and an amateur paleoanthropologist, Jane and her father join an expedition into West Africa, and…well, you’ll just have to read it. The novel has garnered praise from such notaries as Jane Goodall and Margaret George, and was featured in the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. Find it here.

2. Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series (Blu-Ray And DVD). Starring Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Michael Hogan, James Callis, Katie Sackoff, Tricia Helfer, Jamie Bamber, Grace Parks, and more. Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore. This ain’t your father’s Battlestar Galactica! Critically hailed, beloved by fans of science fiction and fans of great drama alike, Moore and his cast (Edward James Olmos as Commander/Admiral William Adama, Mary McDonnell as President Laura Roslin, Michael Hogan as Colonel Saul Tigh, Katie Sackoff as Lt. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, Jamie Bamber as Captain Lee “Apollo” Adama, James Callis as Dr. Gaius Baltar, Grace Parks as Lt. Sharon “Boomer” Valerii/Sharon “Athena” Agathorn/Cylon Number 8, Aaron Douglas as Chief Galen Tyrol, Tahmoh Penikett as Lt. Karl “Helo” Agathorn, and Tricia Helfer as the enigmatic Cylon Number Six) weaved a truly epic saga of humanity struggling to survive after devastation. It’s political. It’s sociological. It’s personal and intimate, cosmic and theological. Love, hate, friendship, enmity, jealousy, revenge, forgiveness, life, death. It’s all there. So Say We All! Find it on Amazon.

3. Percy Jackson And The Olympians Hardcover Boxed Set. Rick Riordan. This recommendation comes from Isabel Newell, 12 years old, cellist, equestrienne, singer, and avid reader. Percy Jackson is a good kid, but he’s always getting into trouble…like once there was a snake in his bed and he had strangle it with his own hands! And then he was attacked at school by the Furies! Can he help that he always end up getting expelled from school? (And there have been a lot of schools!) Turns out Percy just happens to be the son of Poseidon, God of the Seas! Which just happens to make Percy not only a demi-god, but a child mentioned in the Great Prophecy! This amazing series gives Harry Potter a run for the money, and is for everybody of all ages who loves mythology and wonder and adventure! Find it on Amazon.

4. Casablanca. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Raines, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt, and Dooley Wilson. Produced by Hal B. Wallis, Directed by Michael Curtiz, Screenplay by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, with music by Max Steiner. Julie Schwartz once told me that there is only one story: Boy Meets Girl. Boy Loses Girl. Boy Gets Girl. This is the essence of what is probably the greatest movie every made by hook or by crook – did you know that pages were constantly rewritten even as filming went on, and that no one knew how it was going to end? Okay, Rick loses Ilsa, but he does get Louis. See, Julie was right! Find it here. Oh, and check out John Ostrander’s wonderful series of columns on Casablanca, right here at ComicMix.

Okay, time to toot my own horn. Mike asked us to recommend something we had written. Hmmmm….

I want to recommend Wonder Woman #86, Chalk Drawings by the great George Pérez, me, and the wondrous Ms. Jill Thompson. It is the story of the aftermath of Lucy Spear’s suicide; there are no easy answers to suicide and it was my decision to reflect that. I’m immensely proud of it and the work that we three did together, and I’ve always been sorry that it did not get the attention it deserved. Find it here.

Oh, and one more thing. Give a gift that really counts for something and truly reflects what the season is all about: donate to the Red Cross, or the Salvation Army, or any of the great charities helping people to recover from Sandy.

That’ll be your gift to me.




John Ostrander: Indy in de Imax!

As I’ve said before, I enjoy movies most in the theater, on the big screen, where they were meant to be seen. Yeah, you run the chance of having rude fellow audience members who are talking or have their heads buried up their electronic asses with their cell phones, but I minimize that by going to a lot of matinees. One of the (few) perks of being self-employed and, besides, it feels like I’m playing hooky.

Since I like the big screen experience, I like the Imax experience. That’s a big big screen and usually great sound as well. My Mary and I went to see The Dark Knight Rises there. Imax costs more but I felt it was really worth it.

I also like to see old movies on the big screen and have seen a number, including Casablanca and The Searchers. In upcoming months, there will be one-night showings in movie theaters of The Bride of Frankenstein, E.T.  and To Kill a Mockingbird. I know all of them well but the chance to see them in a movie house will be a treat.

Recently, to celebrate the arrival of Raiders of the Lost Ark on Blu-ray, the film was issued in the Imax theaters, initially for one week only but since extended. Did I and my Mary go to see the first and best of the Indiana Jones movies? Oh, you bet! This is the film that, far more than Star Wars (IMO), made a star of Harrison Ford.

One of the things I really wanted to see was that giant marble that chases Indy during the opening sequence. Yup, it looked every bit as cool as I thought it would. The other great set pieces looked great in Imax as well – the fight around the plane that’s supposed to fly the Ark out of Tanis, Indy going after the truck (“Truck? What truck?”) and that whole action sequence inside, outside, and below that truck.

I also saw things I didn’t appreciate before. The landscape surrounding Indy and the others where he threatens to blow up the Ark was in greater detail, as was the climatic sequence where the Ark is opened.

It still has all the great lines and tropes “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.” Shooting the scimitar-wielding thug. “Trust me.”

And, of course, it still has Marian, Indy’s romantic foil and partner. What the next two films largely lack is Marian. She’s his equal and she brings him down to Earth. Indy’s pursuit of the Ark can make him an asshole; his pursuit of Marian makes him human. The best part of the most recent film was re-uniting him with Marian. Lots of dopiness in Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull but bringing back Marian was worth the price of admission, as far as I’m concerned.

While the film was a fine transfer, there were some problems. Some of the close ups in dark rooms were hard to see and muddy and, for me, not all the characters were always as sharp and clear as I might have liked. Part of that, I’m sure, is that the film was never meant for Imax and that film technology has really improved since Raiders was first made.

One thing I didn’t expect and was really impressed by was the sound. Imax generally has amazing sound and I was hearing incidental sounds all around me that I had never heard before. I don’t know if that will be part of the Blu-ray package but I hope so.

Of course, intact were some of the things that never made sense. Our intrepid hero gets over to the Nazi sub and climbs on to the conning tower. If it submerges, however, he drowns. And if it stays on the surface, the sub’s captain should be up on the conning tower. The sub travels quite a ways according to the map in the movie so this always strained my credulity. And how does Indy get himself, Marian, and the Ark off the Nazi island towards the end? Never addressed.

However, this is all more than counterbalanced by the fact that this is just a plain fun movie. One of the best action adventure movies out there with one of John Williams best scores. Lots of humor, top notch performances, and it just grabs you by the eyes and doesn’t let go.

As my Mary and I were leaving the theater, another couple – in their thirties – were also leaving. The young woman said she really enjoyed it and then said she had never seen it before. I was envious. What a great way to get introduced to a great movie.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell


Martha Thomases Is Talking Dirty

Martha Thomases Is Talking Dirty

They say “shit” on cable now. And “ass.”

And not just pay cable where not only has this been going on for decades, but it’s often a selling point. Need proof? Watch the reruns of The Sopranos on A&E, where they bleep so much that it sounds like having the hiccups is a requirement for being in the Mafia.

I don’t know when things changed. So many people in my daily life say “shit” and “ass” (and lots of other things) on a regular basis that I don’t really notice. This is how people talk in 2012. It’s how people have talked for the last 50 years, maybe longer (my memory is limited to my lifetime).

Still, when Ellen Burstyn said “Shit” on Political Animals. I had to pay attention. I think it’s in her contract that she has to say “shit” at least five times per episode.

Next up, I noticed they say “shit” on Suits, a show I started to watch because Gabriel Macht struggled so nobly in Frank Miller’s The Spirit that I rooted for him. I don’t think anyone says “shit” in Don Quixote, but if someone did, he would sound like Macht.

I didn’t notice if they said “shit” on Common Law, but they do say “ass.” I wonder if there are rules on the USA Network that you can say one word formerly deleted on basic cable, but not all of them.

On Louis, I think I heard them say “fuck.” I also saw a scene set in my local drug store, so I may just be projecting the neighborhood ambiance.

All of these shows (except Louie) are on in prime time. Louie is on at 11. So is the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but they are still bleeping “shit” and “ass” on that show. I don’t know why there is a difference.

It’s also possible that, on scripted shows, the writers insist that “shit” and “ass” are necessary for the artistic integrity of their work. I’d agree that it’s hard to imagine back-room politics, high-powered law firms, or Los Angeles police departments where such language isn’t used. And the life of a stand-up comedian is an f-bomb waiting to happen.

Comics are still following the old rules. If a writer wants to say “fuck,” there will be a “Mature Readers” warning on the cover. When I was publicity manager at DC, part of my job was to answer the letters from parents outraged that a bad guy in a Superman comic said, “damn.” I think I told that parent that it was a way to demonstrate the person was a bad guy.

I didn’t lecture the parent about how, if I was trying to protect my impressionable child against bad influences, I might be more upset that a character in Superman had a gun and shot at people. I might have started a discussion about Bruno Bettelheim and The Uses of Enchantment. I might have said that the word “damn” is in the Bible. Instead, I commended that mother for being so involved as a parent.

I was really good at my job.

The language on these shows is realistic, within the boundaries of the form. In real life, we use profanity, but we also talk aimlessly about the weather, politics, sports, and what we’re going to eat for lunch, none of which is normally found in television dialogue. Many brilliant scripts have been written without cussin’ (see Casablanca  for example), but, for the most part, I think writers should have as many tools at their disposal as possible to show character.

I can’t recall any discussion about this in the media, certainly no outrage. Perhaps these shows are so focused on their target demographics that those who fall outside that range don’t even know this is happening.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Does anybody?

SATURDAY: Marc Alan Fishman


JOHN OSTRANDER: Written Connections


idea (Photo credit: Tony Dowler)

Writing can be fun. Most of the time. Even writing for profit. Or writing for fun like I do here.

And some days, it’s not. You sit down with the best intentions and nothing happens or nothing good. Like this time. I’m in a bad mood, my cats are nagging me, I feel tired and everything I write seems like crap and probably is. However, the column is due and I’d better not go back to Casablanca again. I told Mike I wouldn’t.

So I’m doing what I usually do. Sit down and type stuff and see if there’s anything useful in it.

I’m betting that, on some level, you know what I’m talking about. Doesn’t matter if it’s about writing. You’re trying to get something done and, for whatever reason, it’s just not working. It could be work, it could be a relationship, it could be just trying to fix something around the house – whatever, the fates are not aligned and it just doesn’t work and it’s frustrating as hell, isn’t it? We all know that feeling.

That’s what makes storytelling work, I think. We may not all have the exact same experiences but we know the feelings that come out of those experiences. Do I have to kill someone in order to know how a murderer might feel? Of course not. What I have to find in myself is how the murderer might feel in this given situation. Have you ever killed a fly? How did you feel about it? Most of us would feel nothing or might feel a bit of triumph or glee. It’s a pest that annoys you or it might be a threat that will bring some illness or lay eggs in your hamburger. (One of the reasons My Mary hates flies; that happened.) Different folks, different motivations.

Maybe that’s how the murderer feels about taking a human life. On the other hand, have you ever said or done something that you instantly regretted and knew you couldn’t take back? Hurt someone, perhaps ended a relationship beyond all possibility of revival? Maybe your murderer feels something like that.

As I write, I have to figure out what the character might feel and then find in myself some situation, some memory, some feeling that is similar and extrapolate from that. If I do that correctly, the reader will also – hopefully – find some feeling in themselves with which they can respond to the scene or the story and it will have greater impact.

It’s why so many men have the same reaction to the end of Field of Dreams that I get. It tears me up every time I watch it. (And, yes, I understand many women have the same reactions.) It’s about the complicated relationship between fathers and sons/daughters and what was, what might have been, what maybe could be.

Can you have stories without that? Sure. You can use a formula, you can connect the dots, and have something perfectly serviceable and even entertaining. You can make money doing that. The stories that stay with us, however, are the ones where we connect on some emotional level. I, as a writer, turn to the reader and ask, “Have you ever experienced something like this? Have you ever felt something like this?”

It’s the moments were that happens that a connection is made. It’s like flipping a light switch – the electricity flows, the connection is completed, and the lights come on. We share something together. We need that sharing – that empathy –to live with one another. We do that and we create something special – whether it’s a story or a civilization. One of my rules is that “Nothing that is human is alien to me” and when we deny that we deny our common humanity.

Huh. Look at that. Guess I found something to write about after all.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell

JOHN OSTRANDER: Casablanca At 70 – As Time Goes By

AS I SAID LAST WEEK AND THE WEEK BEFORE  AND THE WEEK BEFORE THAT – WARNING: I’m assuming that people reading this have seen the movie and thus will be fine with my discussing elements of the plot. If you’re one of those who haven’t watched the movie, do yourself a favor and DON’T READ THIS. See the movie instead and have your own experience with it. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did. If you need a plot synopsis, imdb has a good one here

This is the fourth and final installment in my examination of the classic Warner Bros. film, Casablanca. Not that I couldn’t go on (and on and on) about it further but I figure there are limits to the patience of all of you out there and I thank you for indulging me thus far in looking at one of my own favorite films.

Possibly yours as well. Roger Ebert has noted that, while Citizen Kane is generally respected more as the better film, Casablanca may be better loved, probably showing up on more all time best lists.

One of the amazing things to me is,that as it was made, most of those working on Casablanca didn’t think much of it. The principle actors were not crazy about it and Ingrid Bergman had a legitimate complaint in that, as production started, no one knew with whom Ilsa was going to go – to Rick or to her husband, Victor Lazlo. By accounts, Claude Rains referred to it as “a piece of crap,” which is startling to me considering the number of classic lines he gets. Paul Heinreid, playing Victor Lazlo, fumed about his part because he felt it would undermine his viability as a romantic lead in other films. Instead, as critic Pauline Kael noted, it defined him as a very stiff actor. Ingrid Bergman found him to be a prima donna.

The script has been used by many people, including myself, as a prime exhibit of how to tell a story. Robert McKee in his amazing book, Story, uses it as an important example in story construction. Yet, there are three scriptwriters credited on the film, a fourth unaccredited writer, and the producer, Hal Wallis, came up with the closing line! What a writing hodge-podge!

Casablanca started with an unproduced, unpublished play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Bennet and Joan Alison. It was bought by Warner Bros. and re-named Casablanca to play off of a previous hit for the studio, Algiers. Hal Wallis came on to produce it and, to my mind, that was key. Wallis superbly did one of a producer’s primary functions – hiring the right people for the right jobs.

He hired Michael Curtiz to direct and brought in the Epstein Brothers – Julius and Phillip – as the principal screenwriters. After the attack of Pearl Harbor, they left the job to help Frank Capra in his series Why We Fight and Howard Koch was brought in to assist, although there are those who claim little or no work of his was used in the film. Casey Robinson, who was unaccredited, added important scenes of Ilsa and Rick in Paris. The Epsteins returned to finish the script.

The Breen Office – the Hollywood Censor – had some problems with the script and so Ilsa and Rick’s love affair in Paris is never shown to be sexual (although we all know it was) nor is Captain Renault trading exit visas for sexual favors (although we all know he did). Ilsa, after all, was a married woman, although she thought her husband was dead. I think both story elements are stronger for their not being explicitly stated. Trust to the audience’s imagination: it’s bound to be filthier than anything shown.

What is also interesting to me is that Claude Rains’ character, Captain Renault, is gay. That certainly wouldn’t have been stated but, despite Renault’s compulsive womanizing, I think it’s there. In describing Rick to Ilsa the first time Renault meets her, he says “if I were a woman, I would be in love with Rick.” I think Renault is also deeply in the closet; the above described womanizing is his attempts to hide his homosexuality, especially from himself. He defends Rick to the Nazis, he covers for him, and, in the end, walks away into the night with him. For me, Renault’s sexual orientation just adds another layer to an already fascinating character.

The film is chock full of fascinating characters, right down to small parts like Sascha, the bartender, Carl, the waiter, the jilted Yvonne and on and on. Only three members of the large cast were born in America: Bogart, Dooley Wilson (Sam), and Joy Page as the Bulgarian newlywed Annina Brandel (fun fact – Page was also the step-daughter of WB studio head Jack Warner). The others were all foreign born and many were refugees from Nazi oppression in Europe, which adds to the film’s authenticity. They lived the parts they were playing.

The film was fairly successful when it first appeared and it won three Oscars: scriptwriting, direction, and best picture. Famously, Jack Warner leapt up when the latter award was announced before Hal Wallis could and claimed the prize. It so infuriated Wallis that he would soon quit Warner Bros.

The film would become more highly regarded as time went by with many of the classic icon shots and posters of Bogart coming from it. I have watched it over and over again and gotten something new from each viewing. Its lines are endlessly quoted because they continue to reverberate. It’s romantic, it’s suspenseful, and it has great characters. It was very much a film of its time but it has become a film for all time.

I would love to do something half as good. I’ll keep working at it.

Go watch a great movie. Go watch Casablanca.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell, R.N., CNOR, C.G.


JOHN OSTRANDER: Casablanca At 70 – We’ll Always Have Paris

AS I SAID LAST WEEK  AND THE WEEK BEFORE  – WARNING: I’m assuming that people reading this have seen the movie and thus will be fine with my discussing elements of the plot. If you’re one of those who haven’t watched the movie, do yourself a favor and DON’T READ THIS. See the movie instead and have your own experience with it. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did. If you need a plot synopsis, imdb has a good one here

Last time we met we were examining the film Casablanca, looking at it through story structure. I want to continue with that this week, working with the climax and the coda.

The climax of a story is the scene beyond which you can’t imagine any other. It resolves all major conflicts (although some minor ones can be reconciled in the coda, which is the last scene of the story). So… is the climax in Casablanca when Ilsa goes away with her husband? It would seem so, wouldn’t it? That’s the major question that’s been driving the film.

I’d like to offer an alternative answer by first asking a question – whose story is it? Who is the protagonist, the central character by whom and by whose actions the rest of the story is driven? It’s Rick’s, both by his refusal to help earlier in the film and by his actions as we race towards the climax.

For me, the real story isn’t Rick and Ilsa although it is an important, vital element in the story. Rick is emotionally dead at the start of the film; he doesn’t care about anyone or anything. Burned, scarred emotionally, he’s closed off from caring about anyone or any cause again. The most alive we see him is in the Paris flashbacks, in love, knowing the Gestapo will come looking for him when the Germans march into the city.

Paris is the symbol of life, of Rick being fully alive. Ilsa tells Rick about halfway through the film that she can’t explain what happened to him; the Rick she knew in Paris would understand but not the Rick that he has become. Late in the movie, Paris comes up again – Rick tells Ilsa that now, as a result of everything that has happened in the movie, they’ll always have Paris. He didn’t have it – he was dead – until she came to Casablanca but now they both will. He’s alive again.

The climax of Casablanca is when Rick shoots Strasser, knowing what the consequences will be for him and willing to pay the price. It’s the only way he can be sure that Ilsa will escape. He escapes his fate only because Captain Renaud, the corrupt French official who is also his friend, covers for him with “Round up the usual suspects.”

The coda is all about the final image and/or line; it’s what you want the audience to have in their minds as they leave. Casablanca has one of the best I’ve seen in films. Rick and Renaud, walking side by side away from us, through rain puddles, towards a life with the Resistance. The tag line, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” is simply one of most memorable lines in all of cinema. It’s all the more amazing when you discover that it was added at the last moment, dubbed by Bogart after filming was completed. What an indelible final image!

Serendipity played more than a small part in making Casablanca the classic that it is. We’ll talk more about that next time.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell, R.N., CNOR, C.G.



JOHN OSTRANDER: Casablanca At 70 – Everyone Comes to Rick’s

WARNING: As I said last week, I’m assuming that people reading this have seen Casablanca and thus will be fine with my discussing elements of the plot. If you’re one of those who haven’t watched the movie, do yourself a favor and DO NOT READ THIS. See the movie instead and have your own experience with it. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did. If you need a plot synopsis, IMDB has a good one here.

This week, as we continue to focus on Casablanca’s 70th Anniversary, I want to set my sights on story elements. Robert McKee, in his classic book on writing Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, uses Casablanca as one his teaching examples. (Side note: Story – while principally about screenwriting – is full of knowledge and wisdom about writing in general and is very applicable to comic book script writing. Highly recommended.)

In writing, you’ll hear the word MacGuffin used from time to time. It was possibly coined by Alfred Hitchcock and is something that the characters in a given story care about passionately but the audience? Not so much. We’re concerned about the characters. A classic Hitchcock MacGuffin is the microfilm in North By Northwest; it matters greatly to the characters but we’re concerned more about whether Cary Grant is going to survive and if he is going to wind up with Eva Marie Saint.

In Casablanca, the MacGuffin is the letters of transit which are a kind of Get Out Of Casablanca Free Card. They are signed by General DeGaulle and cannot be countermanded or even questioned … or so we’re told. In fact, no such things existed; they were wholly an invention of the screenwriters.

Before the movie has started, the letters have been stolen and the German couriers carrying them were killed. They are greatly desired by any numbers of characters in the film and wind up in the possession of Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick. His former love, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband, Victor Lazlo (Paul Heinreid), a leader in the anti-Nazi resistance, desperately need the letters to escape the clutches of the Nazis and reach America, where Lazlo can continue his work.

What we care about is: who is Ilsa going to wind up with? Rick or Victor? So the letters become a brilliant MacGuffin driving the personal interaction of the three principle characters and, in so doing, decides the fate of all the characters involved. That makes it a great MacGuffin.

There’s another term used in dissecting writing and that’s inciting incident, which I first encountered with McKee. It’s the moment in the movie that changes the status quo. It’s the rock tossed into a still pond that creates ripples reaching outwards further and further. It’s the moment that the plot really starts. It sets everything into motion and causes the protagonist to act and/or react.

The Inciting Incident can occur at the start of the story or even take place before the story begins. It can happen later although usually it happens within roughly the first ten minutes. Not always.

I’ve talked with those who think the inciting incident in Casablanca is when the Letters of Transit are stolen. That act would appear to put the action of the story into motion. I disagree; for me, the inciting incident in Casablanca is when Ilsa walks in the door of Rick’s café and re-enters his life. This occurs at an incredible twenty-four minutes into the film. That’s right; the story doesn’t really start for almost twenty-five minutes.

So what are they doing all that time? Brilliantly establishing the characters (especially Rick), the status quo, and the setting. One of the great strengths of Casablanca are all the supporting characters, even minor ones, and they all have parts to play. We have an idea of who Rick is and what his life is before it all gets upended by Ilsa’s entrance. That gives the film much of its richness and texture and weight.

There’s lot more to talk about the structure of Casablanca and we’ll return to it next week.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell