“Does the part where they sing still move you every time, Dad? Even at your age?” We were in my flat, each sprawled out on one of my couches, watching Casablanca for the fourth time that day. My father was fiddling with his camera, trying to figure out something about the exposure. He had been taking a Hollywood photography class that autumn and as a result had to watch all sorts of old black and whites.
“Yes,” he said, his answer brief and definitive as if he didn’t even think about it. “You know they say when this bit was filmed, there wasn’t a dry eye on set. Most of the actors were European refugees.”
The first time my father sat me down to watch Casablanca I was six. The only thing I remember about it are the animated maps at the beginning, and the airplane flying, which, to my eyes even back then, looked like a plastic toy. But it was my father’s favorite movie and every few months we would sit down to watch it. I knew it was a good movie. But in those early years of my life I couldn’t understand why.
In art, the pieces which force us to sick with them are considered to be the classics. They force us to grow into an understanding of them and their time, rather than being tailor made to be a piece which fits our own surface skimming view of the world. We keep coming back to films such as Casablanca or books such as Moby Dick, because despite all our growth and advancement both in civilization and on the individual level, classic pieces keep asking us the same questions which seem to have no finite answers. What is a hero? What is a man? What is right?
My father chose to expose his six year old to such questions in the form of old movies and thick books, the King James Bible and existential poetry, not in the hope that I would be able to answer such questions correctly. He knew that the mind of a child, while curious, is not actually wiser than anyone else’s mind. Rather my father wished me to be unafraid of asking such questions, referring to the same sources over and over, and realizing that finding an answer is about as difficult as nailing jello to a wall.
It wasn’t until I went away to college twelve years after seeing Casablanca for the first time, that the film finally started to click into place. It took another three years for me to actually like it. There are some parts such as the singing of the national anthem which always spoke to me, even when I was very much unaware of what the film was about. But there are new details which I notice as small bursts of realization with every new viewing. He has his hands on the papers now and doesn’t even know it… Oh that’s what why he’s wearing a fez… This whole thing is just an extended metaphor about neutrality in a war.
Now that I’m a working artist myself, I look at piece which are worth revisiting with a new set of eyes. To be able to have the audience return again and again, each time getting something new out of the work is an ambition I seek to accomplish whenever I sit down with a new piece. A philosopher friend once told me that the same person can never read the same book twice, meaning that art changes you so that the person who opens the book is never the same man who closes it. I have learned however, that even the most well established writers and artist cannot knowingly create a piece in which layers are able to be explored endlessly. The artistic muse is not a short order cook or city planner. The best blueprint any of us can follow, either while sitting with pen and paper or in a Twentieth Century Fox studio is the truth. The world as we each see it, with all its questions and requests for humility, is still the most interesting subject requiring all of us to even begin to make it functional. An artist can require little else from his audience.
Casablanca hasn’t changed at all over the years. But I have. Unlike a play, the performance and cadence of the story doesn’t alter even if I sit down to watch it night after night. But the piece changes me, making it impossible not to get goose bumps at parts which I know are coming and can recite word for word. These are the actions and lines that have touched me before and, knowing the new lessons my brain jumps at the opportunities to build on them again. These are the parts that inspire me, even while lying on the couch during a Sunday off.
Because, in the end, what Laszlo says about the fictitious reports of his death is the greatest complement an artist can receive… “it was true every single time.”