You’d think I’d have learned by now. You’d think that I’d learn not to stop the channel changer on my way to the news of the day just because Rick and Ilsa are standing in the outdoor bazaar of Casablanca. You’d think that by my resting a few minutes on this scene I believed that I could watch a few frames unaffected. You’d think all this and then you’d wonder why any fool would chance it.
Especially this fool.
Ilsa is telling Rick about what happened in Paris. He’s listening with a shallow, cynical skepticism that is belied by a vulnerable perimeter that softens his eyes. There is an entire movie merely in the close-ups of their eyes. A whole bunch of understuff is going on, so much so, that a whole script of it could easily be developed to replace the primary dialogue and the story would not suffer in the least.
The subtext is what drives this classic film as well as the stake that pierces my heart every time I see it. Maybe this time I’ve learned. If I want to sob and feel that distant ache of a yesterlove, see her eyes in Ilsa’s eyes, drown myself in the reflecting pools that collect within their tender gaze, then I all have to do is watch Casablanca.
There are so many moments in Casablanca for which I have personal experience echoes. The famous train station in the rain scene where Rick is certain Ilsa will arrive to meet him as the crushing realization drenches him like the note she sends informing him she won’t be joining him. The defeat in his face as he steps onto the train and throws the rain-soaked note onto the boarding platform and heads off into a life that will always have the question why tagging along after him.There’s the scene in Rick’s office when Ilsa comes to beseech him for the letters of transit, when all her fruitless pleading turns into a revolver in her hand, demanding he give them over to her. There’s Rick stepping in front of the barrel pointed directly at his heart telling her she’d be doing him a favor, further revealing that the pain of losing her was greater than anything she might do now. Then, as the scene’s drama shifts and softens, she reveals that she is still in love with him, that she cannot bear to leave him a second time. She’s telling the truth and it is evident in Rick’s demeanor as he too softens and they both yield to a bygone tenderness.
The tragedy of this is that I know it is temporary. The greater tragedy is knowing that everything is. The airport scene has a dialogue exchange between Rick and Ilsa about how they’ll always have Paris, how they didn’t have it, that they’d lost it, but then they got it back. The look in Rick’s face as he says these lines is especially tragic as he is chooses those memories over being able to have her in the flesh for himself.
All he has to do is send Laszlo on his way in the plane to America and Ilsa is his. But as he was asked by her to think for all of them, he comes to realize that she would eventually resent him if he made this decision.
Given this very choice, some of us might selfishly risk this possibility, choosing instead to remain with the one person you love. There’s a part of me that wants him to change his mind, to let the cause for the triumph of right in the world be made without either of them. I want him to say, with Laszlo’s tacit blessing, “Stay with me, Ilsa, stay and be my wife.”
But he never does. He always opts to do the noble thing. And it instills her love for him even deeper, even as it shapes and sharpens her own nobility in realizing that there are circumstances in which personal sacrifice is paramount and necessary. Her tears are genuine as she heads for the plane arm in arm with Laszlo. Rick’s heart, barely muffled beneath his trench coat, breaks yet again as he maintains his stoic stance.
Then the camera cranes slowly up above Rick and Louie as they walk the wet tarmac toward their mutually unknown destinies, the famous line points all to an optimistic future: “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
America and France: the broader metaphor of international alliance. Or is it more? A man as a nation of one willingly facing the rest of his life with one essential element missing.
It’s the rain-stained note he never threw away on the station landing, but kept in his wallet to read over and over, trying to understand the bigger picture of it all and failing each time. A man is nothing in the world if he is deprived of feeling a loss so deep it drives his heartbeat. Love is the one thing that reminds him he is human, he is vulnerable, he is fragile. In spite of all outward appearances of detachment, he knows the truth of it. It is a vital knowledge that allows him never to take what is thought of him by others so seriously as to lose sight of who he is.
It is a flawed touchstone, to be sure. Yet it serves to further underscore his true strength: his courage to seek that inner refuge where he can drop all defense and pretense to kneel and sip naked at the spring of sorrow. A man needs to be able to do that, to grant himself unconditional permission to do so.
Golda Meir said it best: “Those who do not know how to weep with their whole heart don't know how to laugh either.”
There is no laughter like a laughter immersed in a font of sorrowed tears. The nepenthe of joy is forged in such waters. It is a baptism of reemergence into the great human family.
A Chinese proverb states, “If I keep a green bough in my heart, then the singing bird will come.”
I therefore water the green bough with my tears because they contain the precious nutrients it needs to thrive. Doing so serves to entice the singing bird. The singing bird brings the music that fills the spring I draw from to water the bough green. It is a perfect and natural system.
I want the nightingale to come. I want to hear its song as I lie beneath the moon on the edge of dreams, to hear the rich tales of its travels. It might sing, “There’s a place for us, Somewhere a place for us,” or “A kiss when I must go, No tears, In time we kiss Hello.”
This is the price one pays to extend that sweet invitation.
And I would have it summoned in no other way.
September 1, 2006