Monday, May 24, 2010

Film # 1: Casablanca (May 20th)


1942, B&W, 102 min.
Directed by Michael Curtiz

As I took my seat, Ken Stein (Executive Director for the Austin Theatre Alliance which manages the Paramount and State Theatres) came out on stage and graciously welcomed us all to the 2010 Summer Film Series. Clad in a jacket once worn by Richard Burton, he reminded us of the benefits of the auctions. Ken explained the expense of maintaining a movie palace of The Paramount's stature. Specifically, he reminded us that replacement parts for the theatre's audio system can't simply be picked up at Radio Shack or Home Depot. At the conclusion of his curtain speech, Ken revealed a last item that he placed up for live auction. He enticed two patrons into a mini bidding war for a private wine tasting party. The auction itself was like a performance unto itself, with all in attendance cascading Ken in applause.

The house lights dimmed and the projector started. First was a trailer for the 50th Anniversary Restoration of Godard's Breathless. This particular film I have yet to see, so it's one I eagerly anticipate this summer.

After the lone trailer, imagine my surprise when the familiar tunes of Carl Stalling began over the Warner Brothers logo. That's right, ladies and gents! Looney Tunes! Again, as originally intended, before a feature in a movie theater, not merely on Saturday morning TV. Do they even show cartoons on Saturday mornings anymore? I'm under the impression they don't.

The cartoons:

"8 Ball Bunny"

Bugs Bunny has a little penguin stumble into his wabbit hole and he takes it upon himself to get him back home to the South Pole. Mishaps ensue, of course. What makes this one appropriate for today's screening is a very special recurring character appears and asks, "Pardon me, but could you help out a fellow American who's down on his luck?"

When he made his first appearance, the crowd gasped and went wild. Each subsequent time he showed up on screen brought laughs, giggles and more murmurs. It was a great time.

"The Cat's Bah"

After the first 30 seconds or so, my first thought was "A-ha! I know where Christopher Walken got his inspiration for those Saturday Night Live skits of 'The Continental.'" It begins with an audience point-of-view. We are a lady being seduced by Pepe Le Pew, in a smoker's jacket no less. Behaving like a young Hef, he smokes his pipe, offers champagne and tells a tale of how he pursued his love (that ever so unfortunate feline) through the Casbah. It was funny, if remarkably un-PC. Although I must admit a nervous giggle escaped at the conclusion when the camera pans to reveal... well, just see for yourself.

Something doesn't smell right, huh? That scent isn't a skunk's scent, but the stench of human trafficking. Er, cat trafficking? Actually, I don't know what you'd call it, but it's certainly illegal, I'm sure.

After the two shorts, the Warner Brothers shield appears in its black and white glory. The audience sits reverently as the opening titles of Casablanca begin and the film hits the ground running. I won't pretend like there's anything I have to say about this film that is new when it comes to its inherent greatness. It really is one of the all time bests. in my opinion, it is a near perfect hybrid of the best elements of cinema of its day. The screenplay is top notch, and it benefits by having a first rate collection of actors and their performances. Not only is Bogart at his debonair finest, not only is Ingrid Bergman one of the most striking beautiful leading ladies of all time, but the most iconic character actors are present and in top form. Sydney Greenstreet is at his gluttonous best, Peter Lorre is perfect in his small seedy role, and Paul Henreid is a perfect counterpoint to Bogart's character. To me, the man who manages to steal the show has always been Claude Rains as the corrupt but affable Captain Renault. It's a character that on the page must have been so sleazy, but Rains breathes such vitality into the role that one can't help but smile as he trades quips with Bogart. The comic relief he provides is due largely to his comedic timing.

What struck me this time viewing Casablanca is how fast-paced it really is. The choice of Curtiz as director must have been perplexing to those expecting a mere romance story, but the editing allows the film to move at a brisk pace. A young Steven Spielberg must've taken note, because Raiders of the Lost Ark moves just as quickly. In Casablanca there is never a boring instant, and often you are afraid to blink in fear of missing a single moment. It's a romance filmed as film noir, and the cinematography heightens the tension and emotion without ever calling attention to itself.

I was quickly swept away from my journalistic duties and was enveloped by the story yet again. I was there at Rick's. Caught up in the passion of all these desperate characters in a practical purgatory. Casablanca swallowed many hopes and dreams, but sacrifice and heart can flourish even in such harsh conditions. Like an oasis in the desert, heroism is often an illusion, but when it manifests itself... it's a beautiful thing.

When the movie ended and the lights came back up, I'm sure there was nary a dry eye in the house. I left that night still under the spell cast by fine cinema and a gorgeous venue.

Paramount Theatre, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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