Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Crashing the great movie parties

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Casablanca

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What movie party do you wish you’d been invited to?”

Watching a good movie for the first time is a little like walking into a party where you don’t know any of the guests: you’re hoping to enjoy yourself, but you’re also on the lookout, keeping an eye open for hints of behavior or bits of conversation that will tell you who exactly these people are. Films are frequently about first meetings, but equally often, you’re dropped into a story that has been going on long before your arrival, with its own dynamics, history, and unspoken assumptions. Mediocre films spend a lot of time on laborious introductions, while the best movies just burn the first reel, drop us into the action, and trust us to figure things out on the fly. Perhaps that’s why so many movies begin with memorable party scenes: it’s a situation that we recognize at a glance, loaded with opportunities for interactions and small moments of character revelation, and we’ve been trained in real life to regard a scene like this with a certain kind of attention. And a party in a movie has the great advantage that we can go anywhere, invisibly, and pick up information as needed. (It’s also rarely necessary for us to shout above the music, even in the loudest bars or clubs.)

I’ve written elsewhere about how the opening wedding scene of The Godfather strikes me as the perfect illustration of how character is best revealed through a series of clear, immediate objectives. We’re introduced in the course of half an hour or so to a dozen important players, and nearly all of them have something that they want, ranging from Bonasera’s desire for vengeance to Luca Brasi’s need to make a good impression on the Don. Without those clear snapshots of motivation—not to mention the ravishing editing and Coppola’s great eye for distinctive faces—the characters would quickly blur together, stranding us during the crucial opening act of the movie. The idea of starting at a wedding, which follows Puzo’s novel, is a masterstroke in itself: it gives characters of all generations and backgrounds an excuse to be in the same place, while setting up themes of family and loyalty that will pay off later on. Yet we’re never conscious of the fact that we’re being fed information; we’re simply immersed in the scene, which seems to unfold as organically as life. (Coppola clearly liked this trick, which he repeated in the next two Godfather films, although never with quite the same naturalness and grace.)

Marlon Brando and Francis Ford Coppola on the set of The Godfather

A movie is like a party in another way, too: after a few minutes, we generally have a good idea of whether or not we want to spend more time in the company of these characters. Like a real party, we’re usually willing to give it the benefit of the doubt at first, but there occasionally comes a time when it seems easier to leave than to stick around. (As the legendary theater owner Oscar Brotman put it: “If nothing has happened by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen.”) And some of the best movies are those in which we’d be happy to hang out with the characters regardless of the plot, which is how I feel about films as different as The Red Shoes, Chungking Express, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In some cases, entire franchises, like the Ocean’s series, are spun out of an audience’s perceived desire to pick up on the vibes given off by a handful of cool characters, but it’s even more powerful when it happens by accident. And the best case of all is when a film moves smoothly from one plot point to the next, keeping the story in motion, while also tantalizing you with enough life and color to make you wonder what might be happening beyond the edge of the frame.

That’s why, if I had to pick one cinematic party to crash, it would be a night at Rick’s Place in Casablanca. (I know this isn’t technically a party, but it’s more than close enough, especially when the audience sings along with Sam to “Knock on Wood.”) I don’t think any movie comes close to the first thirty minutes of Casablanca at immersing us at once in its world, really nothing more than a series of sets on the Warner Bros. backlot, with every table containing its own miniature scene of negotiation, deception, or intrigue. It’s so masterful an exercise in exposition that by the time Henreid and Bergman—or two of three of the movie’s ostensible leads—make an entrance, it feels like a bonus: between Bogart, Rains, Lorre, Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, we’re already at a party in which we feel we could happily spend the rest of our lives. Not everyone agrees, of course, as the man at the bar would be quick to remind us: “Waiting, waiting, waiting. I’ll never get out of here. I’ll die in Casablanca.” That’s one of the great hidden ironies of the richest of all Hollywood movies: a city that most of the characters desperately want to leave has become a place, or a party, that we only want to revisit.

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2014 at 9:38 am

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