The Miracle That Is “Casablanca” and More Cynicism


This week, I saw a couple things that framed the state of film production in a clear yet disturbing light. They were the great “Casablanca” and the trailer for the indy-comedy “Coffee Town.” This might start to ramble, but what doesn’t?

As it’s been stated many times before, by smarter people than myself, “Casablanca”  represents some kind of movie-making miracle. It’s not the least bit flashy, doesn’t carry a whiff of pretension, but only strives to entertain in every possible frame. And what’s more, it succeeds. The drama works. The comedy works. The political stuff works. The story works. The acting works. The mood and tone and changes in mood and tone all work, and they all work with what appears to be effortless charm. Of course, the stories involving the making of “Casablanca” are legendary, but they only serve to make the result all the more impressive. For a film with so many iconic characters — each with at least two memorable lines, and most with more — and a tight story, the legends behind the screenwriting problems boggle my mind. It seems like it would’ve taken 20 years to come up with all this goodness in a script, but apparently, they were writing pages on the set.

I can imagine a million productions afterward telling themselves, “If you can make ‘Casablanca’ without a great script locked up, so can we!” Yet there has never been another like it. Lightening struck back then, and it’s kept it to itself ever since*. “Casablanca’s” great sin — if you can call it that — was that it made everything look so easy, when we all know that nothing ever is.

Which brings me to “Coffee Town,” or the trailer thereof.

Please let it be known that I have nothing personally against this film. After inspecting the production crew, I found that it has a pretty good pedigree. The director wrote many great episodes of “Arrested Development,” and it seems up and down that everyone involved is skilled at worst, and talented many other times. Yet seeing this trailer made me kind of mad. All this talent, and they what did they set out to make: just another movie. I’m sure that’s how they sold it. “Just another movie” means it won’t scare away casual audience members. It’s not experimental at all (so far as I can tell from the trailer). It’s ambition appears to be “Try to reach ‘Office Space.'”

Why does this make me so mad? Because we have “Office Space.” And we have many “just another movies.” We have studios for that. The studios’ jobs — as I see it — is to try and anticipate what the market wants and deliver that. But the freedom of the fringe is to try and tell stories that are different. But these guys made a fucking sitcom. I’m sure it’s funny, but so what? They dedicated years of their lives (I presume) to make something that will barely last the test of 90 minutes. They didn’t choose an ambitious story, nor did they choose an ambitious way to TELL that story. They just told a story.

I mean, I GET IT. They want to make movies. So do I. I want to write these kinds of things. I’ve been doing it. I’ve been trying to do the exact same thing. That’s what makes me even more angry: why am I — an unconnected “newcomer” — trying to break-in to the business of making the same old thing? Why am I not trying to really do something remarkable? Why am I trying to write something that lives up to the level of “Coffee Town?” I mean, really, cosmically, on a big scale: WHO THE HELL CARES?

When I was a full-time** improviser, I used to imagine the talent pool like a globe. On the top was the small frozen bit of the Arctic, representing the amount of truly great improvisers. The ones everyone in the culture knew by name and the ones by which we would continually have our minds blown. At the bottom was Antarctica, which represented the truly awful performers (trust me). Everything between those two poles — from North America, Asia, Europe, etc. — was the rest of us. The unremarkable middle. Some nights we could be great, others we weren’t. We weren’t bad enough to be forced into quitting, but we were never going to reach that Arctic circle. But some people of the Middle were trying to reach that circle. They were trying different things, and that’s noble. They weren’t settling to be the “Coffee Town” of improv. They wanted to be “Casablanca,” something that was unquestionably, undeniably good. Something that strove to be something without sweating, that won out by nailing all of the fundamentals, but with just a little extra spice to put it in a class (nearly) by itself.

So… what do I do now? Do I just pull the plug on pushing my pedestrian scripts? Do I try to write something so remarkable that it will change the world? How am I gonna do that? I’ve seen “The 400 Blows,” but I can’t pretend I understand it. Do I try and find out that I — like the makers of a certain movie I keep bashing without even seeing it — am only capable of TV-levels?

That’s the real difference between “Casablanca” and “Coffee Town.” Their genetic ambitions show their roots in what constitutes “entertainment.” One was made during a war about a war, using the inherent drama to heighten the tensions between its characters and their relationships. The other is about a guy. Who likes coffee and stuff.

…But the more I complain about this, the more I realize my argument falls to pieces. I want more “Casablancas,” sure, but I can’t just make it happen. And it doesn’t seem that the efforts of “Casablanca” were to push the film medium in any dramatic direction. They just told their story. Really, really well. So maybe that’s the lesson: unless you can tell your story as well as “Casablanca,” quit wasting your time.

Good luck.


*That’s me trying to write something half as great as the lines in “Casablanca.” And not living up to it.

**Which means I performed one or two times a week. For no money. But, y’know….


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