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american-horror-story-roanoke-twist

With the huge ongoing success of “The Walking Dead,” “American Horror Story,” “Stranger Things 2”  “It” and “Get Out,” I’m tempted to say that horror is having a cultural moment, except that horror is always having a cultural moment.  There is hardly an era in which this supposedly disreputable genre hasn’t had a massive audience.

The popularity of movies that scare the bejeezus out of us goes back to the silent era, with “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Nosferatu.”  “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” were among the first blockbusters of the talkie era.  And every decade since then has had its own variation on horror movies.

As with any genre, there’s always a definitional issue with what is and isn’t horror, but classic horror seems to be about scaring viewers deeply enough to get their hearts pumping, using horrifying situations that involve a supernatural or non-rational event.  A scary movie with a psycho killer is a thriller.  A scary movie with a ghost is a horror movie.

TV is a relative latecomer to horror.  Given that horror exploits viewers’ revulsions and terrors, the powers-that-be used to believe that it was not suitable for TV, where unsuspecting kids might be watching with their kindly grandparents and end up scarred for life.  Those concerns seem hopelessly antiquated now, though, when any child with a smartphone can easily call up the most horrific videos of ISIS atrocities.

There were early TV shows that attempted to creep audiences out and scare them — within reason.  “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” were occasionally disturbing but always kept in line by network censors.  It wasn’t really until 1990 that a truly frightening horror series made it onto the air:  “Twin Peaks.” That David Lynch series is usually not included in the horror canon, although it contains all the genre elements including fright, eeriness, and supernatural explanations.  Among its other impacts, that series did demonstrate that there was an appetite among many viewers for creepy dramas.

Horror as delivered by “Twin Peaks”

Before “Twin Peaks,” TV’s aversion to horror was that the genre concerns itself with a fearful topic that is rarely appropriate for a device that sits innocently in a living room – death.  And not just the kind of death you see on a medical or crime show, where it’s sad when someone dies but at least they’re dead. No, horror reflects a profoundly unsettling death where the natural order is disrupted and everything we thought we knew about the subject is turned upside down.

The barely submerged fear that that there might not be a heavenly afterlife explains the enduring fascination with vampires or zombies — beings that were once dead but are now living – or inanimate creatures or animals that become animated with supernatural power.  Consequently horror is populated with ghosts, monsters, possessed children, werewolves, demons, Satanism, gore, vicious animals, evil witches, sadistic clowns, and cannibals.

The rise of cable TV and its niche targeting, combined with the loosening restrictions on televised violence, have created the opening for TV horror.  After decades without any truly terrifying TV shows, we’ve been deluged with them: “Penny Dreadful,” “Bates Motel,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “The Stain,” “Scream Queens,” “The Originals,” “Slasher,” etc, etc.

Personally, I think that horror is ill-suited for television, or at best a watered-down experience of watching horror at the movies.  Going to the movies is a proactive choice – you get out of the house, drive to a destination, pay money for tickets and find yourself in a dark space with a massive screen.  Usually this is an event that you plan with friends – maybe it’s even a group bonding experience like riding a roller coaster.  In other words, movie-going is an immersive event where the experience can be over-powering.  It gives you a shock that reminds you you’re still alive.

Watching TV is completely different.  The room is well-lit, the screen is smaller and half the time you’re watching by yourself and distracted by your smartphone.  It’s a solitary, not a social event and it doesn’t have the same impact as watching in the theater.  Viewers will frequently scream out loud at a horror movie, but rarely scream at home.

At yet, horror is very popular on TV.  There are people who watch murder, mutation and mutilation week after week.  All the philosophical justifications for horror – that it provides a cathartic release from death-related anxiety – melt away when watching horror transforms from being an occasional thing to a weekly or even daily event.  How much catharsis does a person need?

There’s a legitimate concern that too much horror makes people numb to it and in need of bigger and bigger doses, like any sensation junkie.  And at a time when there are no cultural overlords to impose order, who knows where it will end.  Let’s hope it’s somewhere short of live executions and murders.  We’ve already got the Internet for that.

 

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podcast

It’s been about ten years since smartphones, iTunes and the popularity of yakking personalities like Ricky Gervais, Bill Simmons, and Adam Corolla turned podcasting into a mainstream activity.

A decade later and podcasting is still a rising medium.  About 45 million Americans listen weekly and 70 million do so monthly.  That’s higher than movie attendance.  And with 350,000 podcasts to choose from, there’s a podcast for any interest or obsession.

There have been some legitimate break-out stars too.  The first season of “Serial” became a national obsession, with more than 230 million downloads.  Marc Maron’s “WTF” has become a must-have promotional spot for everyone from President Obama to Norm MacDonald. The podcast “Missing Richard Simmons” briefly launched hundreds of news reports about whether the former exercise mogul had been kidnapped by his own housekeeper.

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President Obama on Marc Maron’s “WTF”

Advertising on podcasts is also growing fast, albeit from a minuscule to a tiny level.  According to report the IAB and PricewaterhouseCoopers, podcast ad revenue has grown by 85 percent since last year and is on track to reach more than $220 million in 2017.  But that’s only about one percent of the total ad market, not much penetration for a decade-old medium.  How, then, do we increase the value of those ads and make podcasting more profitable?

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, which means listening to a lot of podcast ads. There are two phenomena that demonstrate this is still a nascent medium.  First, there’s a remarkable dearth of ads from traditional mainstream advertisers.  I’ve recently noticed that American Express and Gillette have started to dip their toes into podcast advertising but most advertisers are e-commerce companies or low-end brands: Squarespace, Stamps.com, Harry’s.com, Blue Apron, etc.  All great products, I’m sure, but nothing you’d expect to see advertised on a network TV show.

I also can’t help but notice that almost all the ads are either read by the show hosts.  The previously cited IAB and PricewaterhouseCoopers study claims that these host-delivered ads are the “most effective,” whatever that means.  I doubt the research is definitive and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that same argument was made back in the 1950s, when TV hosts routinely plugged advertisers themselves.

To me, a medium in which the hosts still read the ads reeks of amateur hour.  And to make matters worse, most of these ads direct listeners to a website where they can plug in a “promo code” to make a purchase and give the podcast credit for the sale.  This is like the early days of the Internet, when pop-ups were judged by their click-through rates.

Podcasts won’t be a mature advertising platform until major brands like Coke, General Motors and Procter and Gamble decide that podcasting is a good space for professionally produced brand-building ads.  And that won’t happen until there is good ad measurement to ensure that people are actually listening to their commercials.

Today no advertiser knows what the audience is for a podcast.  The standard measurement of a podcast’s popularity is downloads but that doesn’t tell you anything about actual consumption.  I subscribe to both “Fresh Air” and “Serial,” two of the most popular podcasts; I listen to about ten percent of the “Fresh Air” interviews but have consumed every second of both “Serial” podcasts.  But that’s me – maybe there are others who dote on Terry Gross’s every word. Only a metric that actually measures listens will tell us.

Podcast ads face another challenge too.  In television and radio you can more or less assume that the ”average audience” for a show (which is the average number of people listening at any time during the entire episode) is more of less the number of people consuming the ad.  That’s because TV viewers and radio listeners are constantly tuning in and dropping off, so consumption is roughly the same throughout the entire length of the show (unless there’s a large amount of DVR playback.)

But hardly anyone will start listening to a podcast half-way through playback.  And in certain genres, like celebrity interviews, the drop-off can be pretty significant.  I’ve almost never made it all the way to the end of a Marc Maron interview, for example, and have no idea whether there are even any ads at the end of his show.

The most obvious company to measure podcast consumption is Apple, which provides the major platform for podcast downloads.  If they could capture podcast playback on iPhones they would have the closest thing to a census-based (as opposed to panel-based) measurement that the media industry has ever had.

The next most obvious candidate to measure podcasts is Nielsen, which has the experience, methodology and technology for the job.

As it turns out, both companies are working on some form of measurement.  Apple has announced it would begin giving creators consumption metrics and Nielsen has begun to offer general insights on the buying habits of podcast listeners, with more detailed numbers reportedly on the way.

If these two companies can come up with reasonably credible metrics then podcasting might finally take off as an advertising medium.  Ironically this might mean fewer podcasts as advertisers flock to the biggest shows and leave the scraps for everyone else.  But more money in the medium can only mean a higher overall standard for all.  Bring it on!

 

 

 

 

 

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Thank you Shailene Woodley for insulting all TV viewers and creating a moment of national unity that has eluded our national leaders.

Appearing on the red carpet of last month’s Emmy’s she announced that she hasn’t owned a TV since she moved out of her parents’ house when she was 18 and thus couldn’t watch any of the nominated shows.

But even if she did own a TV, Woodley implied, she wouldn’t have watched the nominated shows anyway because she’s too busy pursuing more intellectual pursuits: “I always ask [friends who watch TV] — when do they have time to? When do people have time to? I’m a reader, so I always read a book instead of checking out my TV.”

The reaction was swift and unified, setting off a Twitter-storm, which boiled down to:  how could someone who was richly compensated for being on a TV series (“Big Little Lies”) and then nominated for said performance appear on a TV awards show to insult everyone tuned in on the very household appliance she found so time-wasting?  If TV is such a brain-suck why didn’t she just stay home that night and read Tolstoy?  Apparently one of the books she WASN’T reading was “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.”

We can all laugh at the cluelessness of young actresses, but who among us hasn’t encountered that same anti-TV attitude at a cocktail party or around the office watercooler? Is it really possible that these people missed the memo that the most important work in the visual arts is being done on TV? I mean, isn’t that why Shailene Woodley, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern were all in “Big Little Lies” in the first place – because TV is now the place where actors can really stretch?

I don’t know if Shailene Woodley thinks she’s special because she doesn’t own a TV, but she’s actually a conformist in her demographic. Of course she doesn’t have a TV! She’s 25 years old. I’d be more impressed by her originality if she didn’t have a smartphone.  In fact, what I’d really like to know is the proportion of time she spends reading vs. looking at a smartphone.  The iPhone, not the television, is what rots brains these days.

The anti-TV snobs like Shailene Woodley have always been with us – and in certain decades there was some justification for that attitude.  But what’s new these days are people who watch TV but actively disdain legitimately good shows – the anti-snobbery snobs.  I guess they think that viewers of “peak TV” are looking down on them so they get preemptively defensive, as in, “I watched 15 minutes of ‘Mad Men’ and thought it was boring.  I can’t understand why you like it.”

Somewhat related to the anti-snobbery snobs are the anti-popularity snobs – those who brag that they never watch the highest-rated shows.  A few weeks ago, some of us in the office were discussing “Game of Thrones” when our CFO, who was not part of the conversation by the way, felt it necessary to interject that he’d never watched it.  Now there are many legitimate reasons not to watch “Game of Thrones,” but he definitely left the impression that the fact that so many others were watching was a factor in his avoidance of it.

Of course he then undercut himself by then telling us that our highly regarded outside counsel had recently admitted that he was a “Game of Thrones” fan and that because this well-known lawyer was watching the show, well, maybe he’d check it out too.  Which prompted the rest of us to observe that when WE said we were watching “Game of Thrones” you weren’t interested but when the lawyer said he was watching you were willing to give it a try.

The bottom line is that people today are too quick to define themselves by what they don’t like on TV.  Maybe it’s time we all just stopped judging each other for our TV choices.  Instead of airily dismissing what someone else watches, maybe you could ask why they like that particular show or genre.  We might learn something about each other for once.

Football nfl_120607_wg

Here we go again.  We’re only a couple of weeks into the new football season and already everyone’s wringing their hands over the state of America’s favorite sport and television’s most important broadcasting product.

The games are uninspired, the ratings are weak, the players are domestic abusers, and the President of the United States is calling for a boycott.  This is a major issue for television because football is one of the last places where advertisers can reliably expect men to watch their ads in real time.  Football is also one of the remaining rationales that many families give themselves for not cutting the cord (even though most games could be watched live over-the-air).

This is a dramatic turnaround from just a few years ago when it football was still gaining in popularity and appeared to be television’s bulwark against the encroachments of the digital world. Of course what goes up must come down and it was inevitable that some marginal fans would eventually peel off and move onto the next big fad, but football’s decline has been so precipitous that it can’t all be the fickleness of fans.

Many of the explanations offered this year are the same as they were last year.  For example, the Colin Kaepernick National Anthem protest against alleged police racism metastasized to a full-blown political controversy during the off-season when Kaepernick couldn’t land a job, even as a back-up quarterback.

This has put the NFL in the worst possible situation.  The (mostly conservative) white men who are the sport’s core base are still furious that football allowed itself to get embroiled in a political correctness controversy in the first place.  But black activists and the media keep the controversy alive by alleging that the NFL owners have conspired not to hire the one-time Super Bowl winner because he’s become such a lightning rod for the Black Lives Matter issue.  No one was happy – and that was even before President Trump has weighed in with his usual brew of grievance, divisiveness and vitriol.

It’s a surprise it took Trump this long to recognize that the anthem boycotters were pushing a hit button.  I would guess that he doesn’t even follow football so didn’t appreciate the furor until ESPN’s Jemele Hill’s ESPN called him a racist, which launched a feud with ESPN that spilled over into football itself. Regardless of why he decided to take on the NFL, his comments threaten to cause schisms in America’s one true religion – watching football on Sunday.

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But if the National Anthem imbroglio is turning off fans who don’t want to think about politics while they’re watching football, the ongoing revelations about the impact of football-related concussions is turning off fans who worry about the their own personal morality.  These fans always knew that football was violent but it wasn’t until players started publicly dying of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that they began to ponder their own complicity in cheering each violent hit.  And it didn’t help when Tom Brady’s wife revealed that even he’d suffered concussions, leaving us to contemplate the specter one of the country’s most glamorous athletes not being able to remember his name some day.

It’s not that Americans have suddenly become pacifists, though.  The biggest sporting event of the summer (if you can call it that) was the Floyd Mayweather/Conor McGregor fight, in which millions of Americans paid $90 to watch a retired prizefighter pummel a mixed martial arts fighter who’d never boxed before.  Given the gimmicky nature of the pairing no one could claim to be enjoying the “sweet science” of finesse, balance and strategy that supposedly lends a patina of respectability to boxing. Nope, this was straight-up bloodlust.

If anything, football’s problem with violence isn’t that it’s too violent but that its near monopoly on controlled aggression has been broken.  For years, Sunday was the one day of the week when working stiffs could get a catharsis by watching other guys brutalize each other on the gridiron. Sure, there was the occasional spinal cord-severing injury that resulted a player becoming a lifelong quadriplegic, but in general, the players reveled in hitting and being hit and the viewers loved it watching. Somehow, having the players wear helmets and pads kept us from feeling bad about the three or four players who needed to be carried off the field each game.

But as any casual view of “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead” knows, there’s a lot more violence on entertainment television now than there is in sports.  To say nothing about video games or YouTube videos where you can watch an actual, not just a metaphorical, beheading.  And social media now enables frustrated guys to channel their rage as Internet trolls when they might have simply spent Sunday afternoons yelling “Yes!” every time someone on the opposing team was knocked unconscious.

Football isn’t going anywhere, but it seems passé compared to basketball.  The league’s owners, led by their doofus Commissioner, seem out of touch and concerned only with protecting their investment.  Football will probably remain television’s biggest draw for years to come but it also seems to have entered a period of slow decline.  Whether that will be good for the soul of America is an open question but it will definitely be bad for television.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twin Peaks the Return

Twenty-six years ago David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” broke the mold for what a television series could be. No one had ever seen anything like it, but in the ensuing 26 years the rest of the television universe almost caught up with Lynch, creating dozens of high-quality, mysterious, quirky shows like “Lost,” “Fargo” and “True Detective” that were imbued with the “Twin Peaks” DNA.

When Lynch agreed to produce one more season of “Twin Peaks” on Showtime, his fans wondered whether he’d try to top himself or settle for a nostalgic update of the beloved characters’ lives (as in, say, “The Gilmore Girls”).  Well, “Twin Peaks: The Return” wrapped up on Showtime last weekend and I can safely say that once again Lynch has delivered something that’s never been seen on television before.  I definitely don’t understand what it is I just saw or what Lynch was trying to say except that it was profoundly emotional, beautiful, perplexing and spellbinding.

“Twin Peaks: The Return” seemed to be about the age-old battle between good and evil with a heavy dose of free-form spirituality.  Somewhat surprisingly, Lynch seems to embrace old fashioned traditional values.  Sinners who give themselves up to lust, greed, cruelty, misogyny, or drug-use rarely come to a happy end, and the old-fashioned virtues of love, kindness and bravery usually triumph, even in a world of profound pain.  For all their thrashing around, evil people are frustrated in their desires.

But if the themes are old fashioned, Lynch’s storytelling techniques are revolutionary – for television at least.  With “Twin Peaks: The Returned” he essentially introduces modernism to television.  Modernism as a philosophy and aesthetic has been around for over a hundred years, of course.   Think of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which nearly caused a riot at its premiere. Or T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” or anything by Picasso.  Modernists believed that traditional forms of art were insufficient to tell stories in the modern age and created new, often-head-scratching techniques to communicate the absurdity of the 20th century.

As the most mass of the mass mediums, television never had a modernist period.  With limited broadcast time and the expense of supporting nation-wide networks, television almost always opted for traditional storytelling, falling back on increasingly tired tropes developed by cinema and the stage.

Lynch began to introduce some modernist touches with the original “Twin Peaks”: a dream world with a dancing dwarf, a one-armed man, a giant, and other creatures from another dimension who talked backwards.  Plus all that complicated plotting, languorous pacing, eerie shots of stoplights.  But as weird as some of that was, the show still stuck to standard plot- and character-driven driven story structures.

With “Twin Peaks: The Return” Lynch smashed all traditional storytelling.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he delivered two different series under the rubric of “Twin Peaks: The Return.”  One was a more comprehensible story that climaxed at the end of episode 17 in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s office.  The other was a meditation on death and reality that culminated with a second ending in episode 18 that seemed designed to satisfy only David Lynch himself.

Lynch’s most obvious innovation was the show’s glacial pacing.  He submitted a script that would normally be shot in nine episodes but ended up being stretched out twice as long.  As viewers, we’ve become accustomed to faster and more frenetic cuts, but in the new series Lynch would let the camera linger past the limit of what you would have thought was the breaking point of your patience.  The very first scene in the first episode shows a young man watching an empty box.  Depending on your perspective, this was either mind-numbingly boring or mesmerizing, which is why I ended up watching the series alone after my wife quickly bailed out.

But the slow pace was nothing compared to the surreal symbolism, weird fixation on dreams and numerology, depiction of evil spirits, and most of all, the Black and White Lodges, those extra-dimensional spaces of good and evil that seem to have some kind of connection to Native American mythology.  For sheer craziness, probably nothing on TV will ever match episode eight, which turned out to be the “Twin Peaks” creation story. The episode is impossible to describe except to say that it includes extraterrestrial creatures, the birth of the atomic age, flying orbs of good and evil, profound disorientation, and the Nine Inch Heels.

He also introduced dozens of characters who appeared in just one scene, only to have them disappear just when we began to care about them.  Ultimately, if you wanted to survive the show you could only stop thinking and give yourself up to the experience itself.

Will the new “Twin Peaks” usher in a wave of experimental television?  Clearly new business models are emerging that would support it.  Showtime’s CEO and President David Nevins told TheRinger.com’s Andy Greenwald that the show was a business success – even with tiny linear ratings — because it drove more new subscriptions than any show in the network’s history. I hope future showrunners take the right lesson from this, though.  It’s not enough to be weird.  David Lynch is a supremely talented filmmaker with a strong moral and artistic vision who was willing to do some fan service to keep viewers happy, but ultimately delivered the show he wanted to create.

In the end, I think “Twin Peaks,” will be a unique television experience. Many shows have returned after long absences but only David Lynch had the ability, clout, fan base and imagination to deliver a very personal but perplexing artistic vision that strayed far from the core of the original series.  There just aren’t that many artists who can pull this off.

 

 

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Last year Deloitte reported that 73 percent of Americans binge on television programming.  This report was dutifully publicized by the media despite being either: 1) obviously wrong, or 2) meaningless.

At a time when only two-thirds of Americans have high-speed Internet how can three-quarters of them be binging?  As it turned out this was an online survey that excluded those viewers most likely not to binge, so it was maybe not exactly representative.  Also, binging was defined as having watched three episodes of show in one sitting, presumably even just once — a remarkably low bar.

Under this definition, people have always binged TV.  Most cable channels have run 24-hour marathons of favorite series that easily allow you to spend a couple of hours watching many episodes of the same show.  Further, ever since the days of VCRs, you could record your favorite shows and watch them in bulk.  So watching a lot of episodes of one show in a single sitting is not new.

But that’s not binge-watching as currently understood.  According to the dictionary, binging is as “an act of excessive or compulsive consumption.”  It is associated primarily with food or alcohol – and not in a good way.  If you can’t stop eating or drinking you’ll be sick.

In other words, binge-watching is a compulsive, addictive experience like eating salted peanuts. True binge-watching requires two elements: serialized multi-episode narratives, complete with cliff-hangers; and a technological solution that enables easy serial viewing on the consumer’s timetable.

Those trends came together about five years ago, between Part One and Part Two of the final season of “Breaking Bad,” when millions of non-viewers collectively realized they could catch up on the first four-and-a-half seasons by streaming them on Netflix during the interregnum before the launch of the second half of the season.   Soon after that Netflix launched “House of Cards,” and, instead of making the episodes available week by week, dropped all 13 of them at once.  Since then Amazon has adopted the drop-them-all-at once model too and the libraries of the pay-TV channels like HBO and Showtime have all become available for binging.

While I appreciate the virtues of immediate gratification and will sometimes binge if given the opportunity (as I did with last summer’s “Stranger Things”), I appreciate and prefer a traditional week-by-week roll-out, especially for a high-quality show.  There’s something delicious about the anticipation of waiting a week for the airing of the next episode. A once-a-week show becomes a collective experience you can share with your friends and others.  You can live tweet it as it’s being aired, read the recaps the next day, listen to the podcasts, and talk about it at work around the digital water cooler.

None of that is possible with a binged show.  I’ve never once read a recap or listened to a podcast about a Netflix show.  And you can’t even talk about it with friends until everyone’s finished the season.

There’s an artistic problem with binging too.  It’s nearly impossible to absorb all the information that’s being thrown at you if you watch multiple episodes at once.  My family watched the last five episodes of “Justified” over two nights and the next day I could only remember the final ten minutes of that sprint to the end.

Netflix has its own very successful business model, to be sure, but I think history has shown that the best way to build popularity for any show is through word of mouth, which is a lot easier with a show that everyone’s talking about at the same time.

We only have to look at “Game of Thrones” to see how it works.  It wouldn’t be half as popular if all ten episodes per season were dumped simultaneously.   What made GOT a sensation was its slow build through on-one-one conversations and a steady two-month barrage of tweets and media references.   When a show like “Game of Thrones” captures the public’s imagination, audience interest builds toward a climax at the end of the season.  This is in contrast to almost all Netflix series, in which “buzz” peaks soon after the series is released.

There are, of course, exceptions like “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black” or “Transparent,” which showed that word of mouth can work for bingeable shows too, but there are hundreds of other Netflix and Amazon series that never enter the public consciousness because they are watched only by their targeted niche audiences.

That might make good business sense for the streaming services but for those of us who have never heard of them, it’s a lost opportunity.

Clearly binging is here to stay because it’s so popular in our impatient society.  Still, take a minute to mourn the continued erosion of the communal experience that TV once was, and hope for the continued existence of the weekly serialized TV show in some form or another.

 

 

Casablanca

“Casablanca,” that quintessentially Hollywood concoction of romance, intrigue, cynicism, idealism, quips and patriotism, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.  Frankly this comes as a surprise because when I originally saw it during college it ALREADY seemed 75 years old.  I just did the math and when I first saw “Casablanca” in 1973, it was barely 30 years after the premiere – the chronological equivalent of someone watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” today.

But if “Ferris Bueller” still seems fresh, contemporary, and in tune with today’s zeitgeist, “Casablanca” in the 1970s clearly belonged to a distant era.  In its values, “Casablanca” comes from a time of seriousness-of-purpose, old-fashioned heroism, and sacrifice.  In the 1970s, we lived in a post-Sixties world of selfishness and me-first-ism.  Not much has changed, which makes the movie as other-worldly and refreshing today as it was 40 years ago.

I’ve rewatched “Casablanca” more than any other movie (and what does it mean when the five movies I’ve watched over and over – “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,” “My Girl Friday,” and “Casablanca” – were all made within ten years of each other in the Golden Age of Hollywood?)  It particularly appealed to me as a college student coming of age in an un-heroic time.  There’s something about sacrificing yourself for a greater goal that appeals to young men, especially if you can be as tough and steely as Humphrey Bogart.  Indeed, Woody Allen made an entire movie (“Play It Again Sam”) about how he could be more like Bogart.

But just as “The Catcher in the Rye” says something different to you when you’re 55 than it does when you are 15, so too does “Casablanca” resonate differently now that I’m a much older adult.

The first thing I noticed on a recent reviewing was that it’s just about the most watchable and sly propaganda movie ever made.  It premiered on November 26, 1942, less than a year after American entry into World War II.  Of course we know now how the war turned out but in the dark days of 1942, it was not so obvious.  Hitler was at the peak of his powers, France was still occupied by the Germans, and there was no guarantee that the Allies would be able to liberate Europe. Told through the prism of a love triangle, “Casablanca” rallies America to the cause of anti-Fascism, offers hope that decency will prevail over evil, and even excuses the isolationism that initially kept America out of the war.

Here’s the basic plot:  It’s December 1941, just days before Pearl Harbor, and we’re in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, which is choking with refugees fleeing the Nazis.  America is still neutral and so is our protagonist, Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart), who runs a popular nightclub called “Rick’s Cafe Americain.”  Once an idealist, fighting with the anti-Fascists in Ethiopia and Spain, Rick is now an embittered shell of his former self, telling anyone who inquires “I stick my neck out for no man.” He is clearly a stand-in for the United States, which had idealistically embraced World War I as the “war to end all wars,” only to see Europe become even more dysfunctional than before.  Like Rick, the disillusioned America had become inward-looking and isolationist.

We soon learn the cause of his bitterness.  In the early days of the war he’d been in love with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), who’d left him the day the day the Germans marched into Paris to occupy the city.  It turns out she’s secretly married to a famous Czech Resistance leader, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), whom she thought was dead but who turned up alive just before she went to meet Rick at the Paris train station (although Rick doesn’t know any of this).

Rick and Ilsa

Rick and Ilsa during happier times in Paris

As refugees on the run from the Nazis, the Lazlos turn up at Rick’s café, asking for help so Victor can continue the fight for freedom, and he initially refuses because he thinks Ilsa had played him for a patsy in Paris.  But Rick regains his idealism and willingness to help when 1) Ilsa confesses that she still loves him, and 2) Victor offers to help Rick and Ilsa escape because he loves her enough to let her get free, even if it’s with another man.

In the end all the cynicism falls away when Rick realizes there are still others with pure hearts and that he hadn’t been duped by love after all.  And of course the Nazis are brutes too, so there’s that.  In the climactic scene, he sends the Lazlos on the plane to Lisbon and he and his friend Captain Renault (Claude Rains) escape to a Free French garrison somewhere in the desert.  Just like the United States itself, Rick has shrugged off his temporary neutrality and regained his purpose in the world.

The above summary doesn’t begin to do justice to the convoluted plot or to the moment in history that “Casablanca” represents.  In 1942, half of France was directly occupied by the Germans, while the other half and its North African territories were governed by the unoccupied puppet government led by Marshall Petain in Vichy France.  In other words, although the Germans are pulling the strings in the background, the city of Casablanca is still nominally under French control, which supposedly explains why Victor Lazlo, one of the Gestapo’s most wanted targets, somehow manages to walk around unmolested.

There’s also a convoluted subplot about two “letters of transit” signed by General de Gaulle himself that are sort of like a “get out of jail free” card for whomever is carrying them (of course it’s ridiculous to think to think that letters signed by Charles de Gaulle, the enemy of the Vichy government, would entitle the bearers to anything but a trip to a concentration camp.) This is a great bit of Hollywood hokum and the pivot around which the whole movie turns – who will get to use them and go free?  The more you watch the movie the more you groan at this creaking plot device.

One thing you never groan at, though, is the snappy dialogue. When the American Film Institute produced a list of the 100 greatest lines in movie history, Casablanca let the list with seven, including many that have entered the lexicon of everyday life.  Watching the movie for the first time is like reading the bible or Shakespeare: “Oh that’s where that saying comes from!” Some of the best-known quotes include:

  • “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
  • “Round up the usual suspects.”
  • “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
  • “I’m shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in here.”
  • “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
  • “We’ll always have Paris.”
  • “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”

Here they are in context in 38 seconds:

But it’s not just one-liners that make the writing a delight.  Except for the very serious Nazis and the even-more-serious Lazlo, all the characters are witty or mordant.  They’re living on the edge, which generates a live-for-today mentality.  Rick’s wit is bitter – when asked for his nationality, he says “I’m a drunkard.”  Captain Renault, the chief of police, is a deeply amoral hedonist, caring only about surviving and exploiting pretty refugees. When the Lazlos come looking for Ugarte (Peter Lorre), the original owner of the two letters of transit, they discover he died in jail, which prompts Captain Renault to quip, “I am making out the report now. We haven’t quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape.”

That the script ever came off at all is a miracle in its own right.   Julius and Philip Epstein (the uncles of Red Sox and Cubs general manager Theo Epstein!!!!) started writing the movie in early 1942, only to drop the project to work for Propaganda Czar Frank Capra.  Howard Koch, another writer, was brought on to finish it, unsuccessfully, so the Epsteins returned to write the final scenes even as the movie was being filmed.  In other words, when production started, no one knew the ending. Even by Hollywood’s factory-town approach to movie-making this was slapdash.  But Warner Bros. was in a hurry to get the movie into theaters as soon to keep up with current events.  As it was, even though the movie was set to open in spring 1943, it actually premiered in November 1942 to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa and the capture of Casablanca. It went into general release on January 23, 1943, to take advantage of the Casablanca Conference, a high-level meeting in the city between Roosevelt and Churchill.

As great as the writing is, the movie’s great emotional climaxes are musical.  The scene in which Lazlo leads the patrons and employees in singing “The Marseilles” is one of the most inspiring moments in cinematic history.  Whenever I feel the need for a little pick-me-up, I play this clip:

The other famous musical scene is when Ilsa comes into Rick Café for the first time, sees the piano player Sam and asks him to play “As Time Goes By,” the song he played for her and Rick in Paris.    (It’s in this scene where the line “Play it Sam” gets mangled in the public’s imagination as “Play it again, Sam,” which is the name of the Woody Allen movie.)  The scene is pure 40’s romanticism at its best.  By the way, you can make an interesting comparison to the passivity that the Ingrid Bergman character displays in both scenes: in one she’s in awe of her heroic husband, but in the other she’s musing about her lost love.

Somewhat surprisingly, “Casablanca” went on to win a Best Picture Oscar in 1942, “surprising” because even then it was considered high-end schlock.  (I mean, those letters of transit?  Really??!!)  And it more or less faded away as cinema moved first into Technicolor, then into the feel-good Fifties, and finally the counterculture Sixties.  In the Sixties World War II seemed very far away and no longer talked about it, even though many of our fathers had actually served in the war.

The resurgence of “Casablanca” was closely tied to a reappreciation of Bogart himself.  After “Casablanca” Bogart became a major movie star, winning the Oscar for “The African Queen” and marrying the very young and very sultry Lauren Bacall.  But all that smoking and drinking did him in and he died of lung cancer in 1957, a relic of old Hollywood.

But he was rediscovered by French intellectuals in the late 50s and in “Breathless,” one of the most influential New Wave films of the era, the protagonist, wanting to be cool, sees a Bogart still and tries to imitate him.

Once French intellectuals adopted Bogart, college students followed suit, with the first beachhead at Harvard.  Legend has it that when the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge played “Casablanca” during exam week, the Harvard students would stand and sing during “The Marseilles” scene, a proto-“Rocky Horror Picture Show” experience.

Understanding Bogart is key to understanding the appeal of “Casablanca.”   I ended up doing my senior thesis on Bogart, when I graduated from college in the mid-seventies and I still thank my adviser Eleanor Ilgen for letting me focus on a non-traditional topic.  I did make one fundamental error, though.  My topic was Humphrey Bogart as a cultural icon in the 1940s, but what I should have done is studied him as a cultural figure in the 1970s.  The more interesting question would have been what was it about him that appealed to us in the Seventies?

My girlfriend at the time assured me that she thought Bogart was sexy, but I always found that hard to believe.  He didn’t achieve real stardom until he was in his Forties and wasn’t conventionally handsome.  He had that lisp, was overly sarcastic and looked like he’d led a pretty tough life. But he did have that sense of “cool” that attracted the French.  Cool is the ability to do socially-approved activities effortlessly and with diffidence and Bogart was full of diffidence.

Bogart exuded a new form of masculinity too.  Before the existential neuroticism of James Dean and Marlon Brando, there was the world-weary, disillusioned Bogart.  Primarily a creation of urban America, Bogart was full of repressed violence and rage at a society that had seemingly lost its honor.  In “Casablanca” he’s more than happy to shoot anyone who will stand in his way, even as he doesn’t particularly care if he gets shot himself.  When Ilsa pulls a gun and tries to force Rick to give up the letters of transit (there they are again!) he says, “Go ahead and shoot.  You’ll be doing me a favor.”

In the end, Rick/Bogart does the heroic thing, sacrificing his happiness so Lazlo’s underground activities can continue.  Poor Victor Lazlo.  All he did was lead the Resistance to the most serious threat to liberal democracy the world has ever seen and he’s portrayed as a bit of a stiff – no where near as interesting as the more flawed, struggling Rick.

If you’ve never seen “Casablanca,” by all means do so. And if you haven’t see it in the last ten years, go watch it again.  It’s a classic for a reason.  It’s not my favorite movie from that era and I no longer consider Bogart a role model, but there’s still something seductive about the imagined world that it conjures: exotic but accessible; heroic but witty; sexy but glamorous.  We should all live in Hollywood movies.

Some random thoughts:

Not a good movie for feminism.  Ilsa Lund is passivity itself and has no agency of her own during the whole movie.  At one point she even tells Rick that he’ll have to do the thinking for all of them.  On the other hand, she is amazingly beautiful.

I’d like to see a movie made of the Victor Lazlo story — in other words, the same story from his perspective, not Rick’s.  I’m sure he’d be a lot more sympathetic and Rick would seem like a jerk.

— The cast included only three Americans — Bogart, Dooley Wilson who played Sam the piano player, and Joy Page, who played a Bulgarian refugee.  All the rest were Europeans who were themselves on the run from the Nazis, which lent an air of authenticity to the movie.  The story goes that during the singing of the “Marseilles” these exiles were so moved that there were barely acting when you see them crying.

In my thesis I made what I still think is a pretty good point, which is that it was inevitable that Rick would leave Ilsa at the airport because the theme of men alone dominates in American literature.  Rick’s closest relationships are with Sam, the black piano player, and the scoundrel Captain Renault.  There are few male protagonists in American fiction who end up happily-ever-after with a woman and when Rick and Renault take off for the desert to join the Free French it’s just like Huck Finn lighting out for the territory to avoid being “sivilized” by his Aunt Polly.  The ability to do that kind of analysis is what you get for your liberal arts education.

No one expected “Casablanca” to become one of the most beloved films of all time but this was not a movie that went unregarded in its own time.  Here’s the opening paragraph from the New York Times’ review in 1942: “Against the electric background of a sleek cafe in a North African port, through which swirls a backwash of connivers, crooks and fleeing European refugees, the Warner Brothers are telling a rich, suave, exciting and moving tale in their new film, “Casablanca,” which came to the Hollywood yesterday. They are telling it in the high tradition of their hard-boiled romantic-adventure style. And to make it all the more tempting they have given it a top-notch thriller cast of Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veldt and even Claude Rains, and have capped it magnificently with Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and a Negro “find” named Dooley Wilson.”

Ever had a Champagne Cocktail?  Me neither, but they are guzzling them at Rick’s.  Here’s the recipe: “Place a sugar cube* in a chilled champagne flute, lash it with 2 or 3 dashes of bitters (Angostura or Peychaud’s), fill the glass with brut champagne or other, cheaper, bubbly (peasant!), and squeeze a lemon twist on top.”

— Words to live by:  “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”