Cool Things: Casablanca

It’s time for another classic film. I first saw Casablanca some time when I was in middle school, perhaps even earlier. I knew it was a cultural landmark, considered by some critics the greatest movie ever made, period. I know that I watched it and, even at a young age, enjoyed it a lot. Later, when I was in college taking my Introduction to Literature course it would be used as an example of film as literature. I had watched Casablanca many times in the years between my first viewing and college, but I still found the film to be enjoyable. But I was surprised, when the film reached it’s climax and the twists were coming fast and furious, almost the entire class gasped when the plot took a particularly dramatic turn. I thought everyone should have seen this film already. I mean, it’s a classic, right?

Well, just like plenty of people have never listened to classical music it seems plenty of people don’t watch classic movies either. But even if you never watch any other black and white film let me encourage you to watch Casablanca.

Plot summary time – Casablanca is a film set in World War II. It begins with the murder of two German curriers carrying important documents, which will help a famous member of the anti-Nazi underground, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henried), escape to the United States. The Nazis, working together with Unoccupied France, are aiming to keep him from “spreading lies” outside of Europe.

Events come to a head at Rick’s, owned by Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). As a U.S. ex-pat, Rick feels he has no stake in the political conflict playing out at the tables of his cafe. But it turns out he has a personal one when Lazlo is accompanied by Rick’s old flame Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). He’ll have to sort out his loyalties and feelings before all is said and done.

On the face of it, Casablanca could turn out to be a horrible movie. It’s got a lot of trite plot elements – love triangle, club owner, Nazis. But the writing is brilliant and develops the main story, and a wealth of side stories, in a staggeringly short period of time, maintaining dramatic tension with aplomb. Of course, the tension may hang together simply because the writers didn’t have an ending until right before it was filmed.

Casablanca is a classic in the way it shows the conflict in its characters. Rick’s not the only one who doesn’t know how to deal with the situation. Practically everyone but the hardline resistance members and Nazis seem to be of two minds about what they want – respect or profit, romance or cause, a dozen or more conflicts plague the characters and they never come out with pat answers. We see them struggle and bobble them right up until the end.

More than that, Casablanca entertains. Where so many movies could wander into melodrama or preachiness, Casablanca concentrates on making sure we enjoy every step from beginning to end. From Claude Rains’ fantastic performance as Louie, the Prefect of Police, to the musical battle between Lazlo and the Nazi Major, we smile, we laugh, we are engaged.

Casablanca is a great movie for the writer, as well. The characters are well built, introduced and developed. The dialog is good and the dramatic tension is great, deliberate or not. The next time you need a film for the weekend you could do much worse than this classic.

Character Sketching

Okay, so we went all over world building last month/year. Worlds are an important part of speculative stories. But I, and many others with an interest in the category, feel that they are only a part of the story, created to help us examine the important questions. What is human nature, and what is our place in the world?

By showing a world that is different we get the opportunity to show the enduring nature of the human condition in what is hopefully a new light.

However, in order to do that we need something just as important as a good, believable and well imagined world. We need real, believable people to inhabit it. Unfortunately, building solid, believable characters is a much more challenging task that doing the same for worlds. As odd as it may seem, characters can be more complex than worlds. After all, people have free will, worlds don’t, at least not in the technical sense.

So how does one go about creating good characters?

Well, the answer is, it depends. Unfortunately, there’s no one magic recipe for making a wonderful character. The things people normally look at, things like back story, important figures in a characters life, defining events or ideas, are all important but not what really makes a character come alive. They’re the ingredients, but not the recipe. The key is that we relate to them, however those superficial circumstances make them seem different from us. Today, and on the next two Fridays, I’m going to look a little at how that’s accomplished.

Good, relatable characters have three things in common. They start off with little seeming relevance to what’s going on, they show growth and change over the course of the narrative and they make believable choices that hold up through the end of the story.

Let’s look at those ingredients through the prism of the classic film Casablanca. If you haven’t seen the film before, I highly recommend it. I’ll try not to spoil anything for you here, although if you’re genre savvy enough you might be able to guess anyway.

Casablanca starts with a MacGuffin, two letters of transit, being stolen from a pair of Nazis near the beginning of WWII. These letters work their way to the city of Casablanca, where many would like to use them to get passage to Lisbon and on to the United States. There, one Richard Blaine, an American with no political leanings, a self-professed tendency to stick his neck out for no one and who can’t return to the US, runs a night club.

Rick may sound like a very unlikely protagonist to exist in an era defined by its politics and sacrifice, much less to be placed in a story about an item he cannot use. But it’s those very things that make him so useful as a protagonist. He’s just trying to live his life, without all the headaches that stem from the investigation into the missing letters brings. We want to know more about him to find out why he’s avoiding the problem so studiously. Also, his avowed ignorance of the matter means everyone is trying to cajole and convince him – meaning the audience also gets to be cajoled and convinced. A protagonist who simply runs with anything set in front of him isn’t just kind of boring, he’s very hard to understand, as his motivations and reasoning is never likely to be expressed to the audience.

This applies to any character, not just protagonists. The best villains are those who’s goals are not immediately clear, who’s motivations are so dark we do not grasp them at first and who we may not even be able to identify at first. Supporting characters are often roped into their proximity to the protagonist or antagonist, and show us who and what they are in the way they deal with their friend/employer/whatever.

In short, to lay the foundation for a good character, you have to start with someone who makes the reader think, “Now who is this person and why are they here?” After all, they’ll never connect with a character if they’re never spurred to think about him.

Of course, one of the most important parts of learning about a character is looking at how they act. And that brings us to next week’s topic – characters who make believable choices. Hope you’ll drop by next week to hear all about it!