“‘it was the best fokk i effer haff,’ ilsa replies”: a night at the movies with robert coover

“For taking the dross of the ordinary and spinning it into the treasure of Myth, the 1987 Rea Award for the Short Story goes to Robert Coover, a writer who has managed, willfully and even perversely, to remain his own man while offering his generous vision and versions of America.” — Rea Award Citation


In A Night at the Movies, his first volume of short fiction since the internationally acclaimed Pricksongs & Descants, Robert Coover presents a fiendishly clever and outrageously funny set of satires on the pictures and personalities of the big Silver Screen. Complete with previews of coming attractions, cartoons, the weekly serial, a travelogue, musical interlude, and three full-length features, here are Adventure! Comedy! Romance! Westerns! and much, much more! Expect the unexpected from that malevolent magician and pyrotechnician who has fashioned an entirely new art form out of film and fiction confirming, once again, his status as one of America’s most daring, unpredictable, and prodigiously imaginative writers. (from the jacket copy) 

You Must Remember This


It is dark in Rick’s apartment. Black leader dark, heavy and abstract, silent but for a faint hoarse crackle like a voiceless plaint, and brief as sleep. Then Rick opens the door and the light from the hall scissors in like a bellboy to open up space, deposit surfaces (there is a figure in the room), harbinger event (it is Ilsa). Rick follows, too preoccupied to notice: his café is closed, people have been shot, he has troubles. But then, with a stroke, he lights a small lamp (such a glow! the shadows retreat, everything retreats: where are the walls?) and there she is, facing him, holding open the drapery at the far window like the front of a nightgown, the light flickering upon her white but determined face like static. Rick pauses for a moment in astonishment. Ilsa lets the drapery and its implications drop, takes a step forward into the strangely fretted light, her eyes searching his.         
          “How did you get in?” he asks, though this is probably not the question on his mind.

          “The stairs from the street.”

          This answer seems to please him. He knows how vulnerable he is, after all, it’s the way he lives — his doors are open, his head is bare, his tuxedo jacket is snowy white — that’s not important. What matters is that by such a reply a kind of destiny is being fulfilled. Sam has a song about it. “I told you this morning you’d come around,” he says, curling his lips as if to advertise his appetite for punishment, “but this is a little ahead of schedule.” She faces him squarely, broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, a sash around her waist like a gun belt, something shiny in her tensed left hand. He raises both his own as if to show they are empty: “Well, won’t you sit down?”

          His offer, whether in mockery or no, releases her. Her shoulders dip in relief, her breasts; she sweeps forward (it is only a small purse she is carrying: a toothbrush perhaps, cosmetics, her hotel key), her face softening: “Richard!” He starts back in alarm, hands moving to his hips. “I had to see you!”

          “So you use Richard again!” His snarling retreat throws up a barrier between them. She stops. He pushes his hands into his pockets as though to reach for the right riposte: “We’re back in Paris!”

          That probably wasn’t it. Their song seems to be leaking into the room from somewhere out in the night, or perhaps it has been there all the time — Sam maybe, down in the darkened bar, sending out soft percussive warnings in the manner of his African race: “Think twice, boss. Hearts fulla passion, you c’n rely. Jealousy, boss, an’ hate. Le’s go fishin’. Sam.”

          “Please!” she begs, staring at him intently, but he remains unmoved:

          “Your unexpected visit isn’t connected by any chance with the letters of transit?” He ducks his head, his upper lip swelling with bitterness and hurt. “It seems as long as I have those letters, I’ll never be lonely.”

          Yet, needless to say, he will always be lonely — in fact, this is the confession (“You can ask any price you want,” she is saying) only half-concealed in his muttered subjoinder: Rick Blaine is a loner, born and bred. Pity him. There is this lingering, almost primal image of him, sitting alone at a chessboard in his white tuxedo, smoking contemplatively in the midst of a raucous conniving crowd, a crowd he has himself assembled about him. He taps apawn, moves a white knight, fondles a tall black queen while a sardonic smile plays on his lips. He seems to be toying, self-mockingly, with Fate itself, as indifferent toward Rick Blaine (never mind that he says — as he does now, turning away from her — that “I’m the only cause I’m interested in . . .”) as toward the rest of the world. It’s all shit, so who cares?

          Ilsa is staring off into space, a space that a moment ago Rick filled. She seems to be thinking something out. The negotiations are going badly; perhaps it is this she is worried about. He has just refused her offer of “any price,” ignored her ultimatum (“You must giff me those letters!”), sneered at her husband’s heroism, and scoffed at the very cause that first brought them together in Paris. How could he do that? And now he has abruptly turned his back on her (does he think it was just sex? what has happened to him since then?) and walked away toward the balcony door, meaning, apparently, to turn her out. She takes a deep breath, presses her lips together, and, clutching her tiny purse with both hands, wheels about to pursue him: “Richard!” This has worked before, it works again: he turns to face her new approach: “We luffed each other once. . .” Her voice catches in her throat, tears come to her eyes. She is beautiful there in the slatted shadows, her hair loosening around her ears, eyes glittering, throat bare and vulnerable in the open V-neck of her ruffled blouse. She’s a good dresser. Even that little purse she squeezes: so like the other one, so lovely, hidden away. She shakes her head slightly in wistful appeal: “If those days meant. . . anything at all to you. . .”

          “I wouldn’t bring up Paris if I were you,” he says stonily. “It’s poor salesmanship.”

          She gasps (she didn’t bring it up: is he a madman?), tosses her head back: “Please! Please listen to me!” She closes her eyes, her lower lip pushed forward as though bruised. “If you knew what really happened, if you only knew the truth –!”

          He stands over this display, impassive as a Moorish executioner (that’s it! he’s turning into one of these bloody Arabs, she thinks). “I wouldn’t believe you, no matter what you told me,” he says. In Ethiopia, after an attempt on the life of an Italian officer, he saw 1600 Ethiopians get rounded up one night and shot in reprisal. Many were friends of his. Or clients anyway. But somehow her deceit is worse. “You’d say anything now, to get what you want.” Again he turns his back on her, strides away.

          She stares at him in shocked silence, as though all that had happened eighteen months ago in Paris were flashing suddenly before her eyes, now made ugly by some terrible revelation. An exaggerated gasp escapes her like the breaking of wind: his head snaps up and he turns sharply to the right. She chases him, dogging his heels. “You want to feel sorry for yourself, don’t you?” she cries and, surprised (he was just reaching for something on an ornamental table, the humidor perhaps), he turns back to her. “With so much at stake, all you can think off is your own feeling,” she rails. Her lips are drawn back, her breathing labored, her eyes watering in anger and frustration. “One woman has hurt you, and you take your reffenge on the rest off the world!” She is choking, she can hardly speak. Her accent seems to have got worse. “You’re a coward, und veakling, und –“

          She gasps. What is she saying? He watches her, as though faintly amused. “No, Richard, I’m sorry!” Tears are flowing in earnest now: she’s gone too far! This is the expression on her face. She’s in a corner, struggling to get out. “I’m sorry, but –” She wipes the tears from her cheek, and calls once again on her husband, that great and courageous man whom they both admire, whom the whole world admires: “– you’re our last hope! If you don’t help us, Victor Laszlo will die in Casablanca!”

          “What of it?” he says. He has been waiting for this opportunity. He plays with it now, stretching it out. He turns, reaches for a cigarette, his head haloed in the light from an arched doorway. “I’m gonna die in Casablanca. It’s a good spot for it.” This line is meant to be amusing, but Ilsa reacts with horror. Her eyes widen. She catches her breath, turns away. He lights up, pleased with himself, takes a practiced drag, blows smoke. “Now,” he says, turning toward her, “if you’ll –“

          He pulls up short, squints: she has drawn a revolver on him. So much for toothbrushes and hotel keys. “All right. I tried to reason with you. I tried effrything. Now I want those letters.” Distantly, a melodic line suggests a fight for love and glory, an ironic case of do or die. “Get them for me.”

          “I don’t have to.” He touches his jacket. “I got ’em right here.”

          “Put them on the table.”

          He smiles and shakes his head. “No.” Smoke curls up from the cigarette he is holding at his side like the steam that enveloped the five o’clock train to Marseilles. Her eyes fill with tears. Even as she presses on (“For the last time. . .!”), she knows that “no” is final. There is, behind his ironic smile, a profound sadness, the fatalistic survivor’s wistful acknowledgment that, in the end, the fundamental things apply. Time, going by, leaves nothing behind, not even moments like this. “If Laszlo and the cause mean so much,” he says, taunting her with her own uncertainties, “you won’t stop at anything. . .”

          He seems almost to recede. The cigarette disappears, the smoke. His sorrow gives way to something not unlike eagerness. “All right, I’ll make it easier for you,” he says, and walks toward her. “Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.”

          She seems taken aback, her eyes damp, her lips swollen and parted. Light licks at her face. He gazes steadily at her from his superior moral position, smoke drifting up from his hand once more, his white tuxedo pressed against the revolver barrel. Her eyes close as the gun lowers, and she gasps his name: “Richard!” It is like an invocation. Or a profession of faith. “I tried to stay away,” she sighs. She opens her eyes, peers up at him in abject surrender. A tear moves slowly down her cheek toward the corner of her mouth like secret writing. “I thought I would neffer see you again . . . that you were out off my life. . .” She blinks, cries out faintly — “Oh!” — and (he seems moved at last, his mask of disdain falling away like perspiration) turns away, her head wrenched to one side as though in pain.

          Stricken with sudden concern, or what looks like concern, he steps up behind her, clasping her breasts with both hands, nuzzling in her hair. “The day you left Paris. . .!” she sobs, though she seems unsure of herself. One of his hands is already down between her legs, the other inside her blouse, pulling a breast out of its brassiere cup. “If you only knew. . . what I. . .” He is moaning, licking at one ear, the hand between her legs nearly lifting her off the floor, his pelvis bumping at her buttocks. “Is this. . . right?” she gasps.

          “I – I don’t know!” he groans, massaging her breast, the nipple between two fingers. “I can’t think!”

          “But. . . you must think!” she cries, squirming her hips. Tears are streaming down her cheeks now. “For. . . for. . .”

          “What?” he gasps, tearing her blouse open, pulling on her breast as though to drag it over her shoulder where he might kiss it. Or eat it: he seems ravenous suddenly.

          “I. . . I can’t remember!” she sobs. She reaches behind to jerk at his fly (what else is she to do, for the love of Jesus?), then rips away her sash, unfastens her skirt, her fingers trembling.

          “Holy shit!” he wheezes, pushing his hand inside her girdle as her skirt falls. His cheeks too are wet with tears. “Ilsa!”


          They fall to the floor, grabbing and pulling at each other’s clothing. He’s trying to get her bra off which is tangled up now with her blouse, she’s struggling with his belt, yanking at his black pants, wrenching them open. Buttons fly, straps pop, there’s the soft unfocused rip of silk, the jingle of buckles and falling coins, grunts, gasps, whimpers of desire. He strips the tangled skein of underthings away (all these straps and stays — how does she get in and out of this crazy elastic?); she works his pants down past his bucking hips, fumbles with his shoes. “Your elbow –!”


          “Ah –!”

          She pulls his pants and boxer shorts off, crawls round and (he strokes her shimmering buttocks, swept by the light from the airport tower, watching her full breasts sway above him: it’s all happening so fast, he’d like to slow it down, repeat some of the better bits — that view of her rippling haunches on her hands and knees just now, for example, like a 22, his lucky number — but there’s a great urgency on them, they can’t wait) straddles him, easing him into her like a train being guided into a station. “I luff you, Richard!” she declares breathlessly, though she seems to be speaking, eyes squeezed shut and breasts heaving, not to him but to the ceiling, if there is one up there. His eyes too are closed now, his hands gripping her soft hips, pulling her down, his breath coming in short anguished snorts, his face puffy and damp with tears. There is, as always, something deeply wounded and vulnerable about the expression on his battered face, framed there against his Persian carpet: Rick Blaine, a man annealed by loneliness and betrayal, but flawed — hopelessly, it seems — by hope itself. He is, in the tragic sense, a true revolutionary: his gaping mouth bespeaks this, the spittle in the corners of his lips, his eyes, open now and staring into some infinite distance not unlike the future, his knitted brow. He heaves upward, impaling her to the very core: “Oh, Gott!” she screams, her back arching, mouth agape as though to commence “La Marseillaise.”

          Now, for a moment, they pause, feeling themselves thus conjoined, his organ luxuriating in the warm tub of her vagina, her enflamed womb closing around his pulsing penis like a mother embracing a lost child. “If you only knew. . . ,” she seems to say, though perhaps she has said this before and only now it can be heard. He fondles her breasts; she rips his shirt open, strokes his chest, leans forward to kiss his lips, his nipples. This is not Victor inside her with his long thin rapier, all too rare in its embarrassed visits; this is not Yvonne with her cunning professional muscles, her hollow airy hole. This is love in all its clammy mystery, the ultimate connection, the squishy rub of truth, flesh as a self-consuming message. This is necessity, as in woman needs man, and man must have his mate. Even their identities seem to be dissolving; they have to whisper each other’s name from time to time as though in recitative struggle against some ultimate enchantment from which there might be no return. Then slowly she begins to wriggle her hips above him, he to meet her gentle undulations with counterthrusts of his own. They hug each other close, panting, her breasts smashed against him, moving only from the waist down. She slides her thighs between his and squeezes his penis between them, as though to conceal it there, an underground member on the run, wounded but unbowed. He lifts his stockinged feet and plants them behind her knees as though in stirrups, her buttocks above pinching and opening, pinching and opening like a suction pump. And it is true about her vaunted radiance: she seems almost to glow from within, her flexing cheeks haloed in their own dazzling luster.

          “It feels so good, Richard! In there. . . I’ve been so — ah! –– so lonely. . .!”

          “Yeah, me too, kid. Ngh! Don’t talk.”

          She slips her thighs back over his and draws them up beside his waist like a child curling around her teddybear, knees against his ribs, her fanny gently bobbing on its pike like a mind caressing a cherished memory. He lies there passively for a moment, stretched out, eyes closed, accepting this warm rhythmical ablution as one might accept a nanny’s teasing bath, a mother’s care (a care, he’s often said, denied him), in all its delicious innocence — or seemingly so: in fact, his whole body is faintly atremble, as though, with great difficulty, shedding the last of its pride and bitterness, its isolate neutrality. Then slowly his own hips begin to rock convulsively under hers, his knees to rise in involuntary surrender. She tongues his ear, her buttocks thumping more vigorously now, kisses his throat, his nose, his scarred lip, then rears up, arching her back, tossing her head back (her hair is looser now, wilder, a flush has crept into the distinctive pallor of her cheeks and throat, and what was before a fierce determination is now raw intensity, what vulnerability now a slack-jawed abandon), plunging him in more deeply than ever, his own buttocks bouncing up off the floor as though trying to take off like the next flight to Lisbon — “Gott in Himmel, this is fonn!” she cries. She reaches behind her back to clutch his testicles, he clasps her hand in both of his, his thighs spread, she falls forward, they roll over, he’s pounding away now from above (he lacks her famous radiance: if anything his buttocks seem to suck in light, drawing a nostalgic murkiness around them like night fog, signaling a fundamental distance between them, and an irresistible attraction), she’s clawing at his back under the white jacket, at his hips, his thighs, her voracious nether mouth leaping up at him from below and sliding back, over and over, like a frantic greased-pole climber. Faster and faster they slap their bodies together, submitting to this fierce rhythm as though to simplify themselves, emitting grunts and whinnies and helpless little farts, no longer Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, but some nameless conjunction somewhere between them, time, space, being itself getting redefined by the rapidly narrowing focus of their incandescent passion — then suddenly Rick rears back, his face seeming to puff out like a gourd, Ilsa cries out and kicks upward, crossing her ankles over Rick’s clenched buttocks, for a moment they seem almost to float, suspended, unloosed from the earth’s gravity, and then — whumpff — they hit the floor again, their bodies continuing to hammer together, though less regularly, plunging, twitching, prolonging this exclamatory dialogue, drawing it out even as the intensity diminishes, even as it becomes more a declaration than a demand, more an inquiry than a declaration. Ilsa’s feet uncross, slide slowly to the floor. “Fooff. . . Gott!” They lie there, cheek to cheek, clutching each other tightly, gasping for breath, their thighs quivering with the last involuntary spasms, the echoey reverberations, deep in their loins, of pleasure’s fading blasts.

          “Jesus,” Rick wheezes, “I’ve been saving that one for a goddamn year and a half. . .!”

          “It was the best fokk I effer haff,” Ilsa replies with a tremulous sigh, and kisses his ear, runs her fingers in his hair. He starts to roll off her, but she clasps him closely: “No. . . wait. . .!” A deeper thicker pleasure, not so ecstatic, yet somehow more moving, seems to well up from far inside her to embrace the swollen visitor snuggled moistly in her womb, once a familiar friend, a comrade loved and trusted, now almost a stranger, like one resurrected from the dead.

          “Ah –!” he gasps. God, it’s almost like she’s milking it! Then she letsgo, surrounding him spongily with a kind of warm wet pulsating gratitude. “Ah. . .”

          He lies there between Ilsa’s damp silky thighs, feeling his weight thicken, his mind soften and spread. His will drains away as if it were some kind of morbid affection, lethargy overtaking him like an invading army. Even his jaw goes slack, his fingers (three sprawl idly on a dark-tipped breast) limp. He wears his snowy white tuxedo jacket still, his shiny black socks, which, together with the parentheses of Ilsa’s white thighs, make his melancholy buttocks — beaten in childhood, lashed at sea, run lean in union skirmishes, sunburned in Ethiopia, and shot at in Spain — look gloomier than ever, swarthy and self-pitying, agape now with a kind of heroic sadness. A violent tenderness. These buttocks are, it could be said, what the pose of isolation looks like at its best: proud, bitter, mournful, and, as the prefect of police might have put it, tremendously attractive. Though his penis has slipped out of its vaginal pocket to lie limply like a fat little toe against her slowly pursing lips, she clasps him close still, clinging to something she cannot quite define, something like a spacious dream of freedom, or a monastery garden, or the discovery of electricity. “Do you have a gramophone on, Richard?”

          “What –?!” Her question has startled him. His haunches snap shut, his head rears up, snorting, he seems to be reaching for the letters of transit. “Ah. . . no. . .” He relaxes again, letting his weight fall back, though sliding one thigh over hers now, stretching his arms out as though to unkink them, turning his face away. His scrotum bulges up on her thigh like an emblem of his inner serenity and generosity, all too often concealed, much as an authentic decency might shine through a mask of cynicism and despair. He takes a deep breath. (A kiss is just a kiss is what the music is insinuating. A sigh. . . )   “That’s probably
Sam. . .”


—from Robert Coover’s “You Must Remember This,” in his A Night at the Movies (1987)


“born to become a cult object”—umberto eco’s casablanca, or a deep-structured carnival of archetypes


Umberto Eco, "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage"


Umberto Eco (b. 1929) was born in Allesandra, Italy, and studied at the University of Turin. He has taught at universities in Turin, Milan, Florence and Bologna, and is a frequent academic visitor to the United States. In 1981, he achieved international fame with his novel, The Name of the Rose, which was both a bestseller and a literary success. Before that, he had established himself as an authority in the fields or semiotics, cultural studies and literary theory, with such publications as A Theory of Semiotics (1976) [first published in Italy 1975] and The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1981) [1979].


Semiotics is the general science of signs, of which linguistics, according to Saussure, is a subdivision. One consequence of this way of looking at language has been to encourage comparative study of literary and visual media, especially in the area of narrative. Another has been to break down the traditional prejudice of the custodians of "high culture" against the products of popular or mass culture. These tendencies are exhibited very clearly in Eco’s work, which is notable for its broad range of illustration and eclectic methodology. He is interested in the semiotics of blue jeans or the Superman story as in the dense polysemy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and this, combined with a lively, with style, make him one of the most accessible of critics in this structuralist tradition.


In "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage," he turns his attention on one of the popular classics of Hollywood cinema, reading off its multiple meanings in a manner reminiscent of Roland Barthes. In the famous Humphrey Bogart — Ingrid Bergman movie, Eco suggests, filmic archetypes (or clichés, as a more élitist critic might call them) are multiple to the point where they begin to "talk among themselves" and generate an intoxication excess of signification. This process, by which kitsch, in its reception by a finely attune audience, can allegedly achieve something approximating the sublimity of classic art, is a recurrent theme and subject of controversy in discussions of postmodernism.


"Casablance," first published in this form in 1984, is reprinted here from a collection of Eco’s occasional and journalistic essays, Faith in Fakes (1986) (published in the United States and (as a paperback) in Britain under the title, Travels in Hyperreality).


—David Lodge



"Casablanca: Cult movies and intertextual collage"




"Was that artillery fire, or is it my heart pounding?"1 Whenever Casablanca2 is shown, at this point the audience reacts with an enthusiasm usually reserved for football. Sometimes a single word is enough: fans cry every time Bogey says "kid." Frequently the spectators quote the best lines before the actors say them.


According to traditional standards in aesthetics, Casablanca is not a work of art, if such an expression still has a meaning. In any case, if the films of Dreyer, Eisenstein, or Antonioni are works of art, Casablanca represents a very modest aesthetic achievement. It is a hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly, its characters are psychologically incredible, its actors act in a mannered way. Nevertheless, it is a great example of cinematic discourse, a palimpsest for future students of twentieth-century religiosity, a paramount laboratory for semiotic research into textual strategies. Moreover, it has become a cult movie.


What are the requirements for transforming a book or a movie into a cult object? The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared expertise. Naturally all these elements characters and episodes) must have some archetypical appeal, as we shall see. One can ask and answer questions about the various subway stations of New York or Paris only if these spots have become or have been assumed as mythical areas and such names as Canarsie Line or Vincennes-Neuilly stand not only for physical places but become the catalyzers of collective memories.


Curiously enough, a book can also inspire a cult even though it is a great work of art: both The Three Musketeers and The Divine Comedy rank among the cult books; and there are more trivia games among the fans of Dante than among the fans of Dumas. I suspect that a cult movie, on the contrary, must display some organic imperfections. It seems that the boastful Rio Bravo is a cult movie and the great Stagecoach is not.


I think that in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole. In the case of a book one can unhinge it, so to speak, physically, reducing it to a series of excerpts. A movie, on the contrary, must be already ramshackle, rickety, unhinged in itself. A perfect movie, since it cannot be reread every time we want, from the point we choose, as happens with a book, remains inour memory as a whole, in the form of a central idea or emotion; only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs. It should display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness.


However, it must have some quality. Let me say that it can be ramshackle from the production point of view (in that nobody knew exactly what was going to be done next) — as happened evidently with the Rocky Horror Picture Show — but it must display certain textual features, in the sense that, outside the conscious control of its creators, it becomes a sort of textual syllabus, a living example of living textuality. Its addressee must suspect it is not true that works are created by their authors. Works are created by works, texts are created by texts, all together they speak to each other independently of the intention of their authors. A cult movie is the proof that, as literature comes from literature, cinema comes from cinema.


Which elements, in a movie, can be separated from the whole and adored for themselves? In order to go on with this analysis of Casablanca I should use some important semiotic categories, such as the ones (provided by the Russian Formalists)3 of theme and motif. I confess I find it very difficult to ascertain what the various Russian Formalists meant by motif. If — as Veselovsky says — a motif is the simplest narrative unit, then one wonders why ‘fire from heaven’ should belong to the same category as ‘the persecuted maid’ (since the former can be represented by an image, while the latter requires a certain narrative development).


It would be interesting to follow Tomashevsky and to look in Casablanca for free or tied and for dynamic or static motifs. We should distinguish between more or less universal narrative functions a la Propp4, visual stereotypes like the Cynic Adventurer, and more complex archetypical situations like the Unhappy Love. I hope someone will do this job, but here I will assume, more prudently (and borrowing the concept from research into Artificial Intelligence) the more flexible notion of "frame."


In The Role of the Reader I distinguished between common and intertextual frames. I meant by "common frame" data-structures for representing stereotyped situations such as dining at a restaurant or going to the railway station; in other words, a sequence of actions more or less coded by our normal experience. And by "intertextual frames" I meant stereotyped situations derived from preceding textual tradition and recorded by our encyclopedia, such as, for example, the standard duel between the sheriff and the bad guy or the narrative situation in which the hero fights the villain and wins, or more macroscopic textual situations, such as the story of the vierge souillée [dishonoured virgin] or the classic recognition scene (Bakhtin considered it a motif, in the sense of a chronotope).5 We could distinguish between stereotyped intertextual frames (for instance, the Drunkard Redeemed by Love) and stereotyped iconographical units (for instance, the Evil Nazi). But since even these iconographical units, when they appear in a movie, if they do not directly elicit an action, at least suggest its possible development, we can use the notion of intertextual frame to cover both.


Moreover, we are interested in finding those frames that not only are recognizable by the audience as belonging to a sort of ancestral intertextual tradition but that also display a particular fascination. "A suspect who eludes a passport control and is shot by the police" is undoubtedly an intertextual frame but it does not have a "magic" flavor. Let me address intuitively the idea of ‘magic’ frame. Let me define as "magic" those frames that, when they appear in a movie and can be separated from the whole, transform this movie into a cult object. In Casablanca we find more intertextual frames than "magic" intertextual frames. I will call the latter "intertextual archetypes."


The term "archetype" does not claim to have any particular psychoanalytic or mythic connotation,6 but serves only to indicate a preestablished and frequently reappearing narrative situation, cited or in some way recycled by innumerable other texts and provoking in the addressee a sort of intense emotion accompanied by the vague feeling of a déjà vu,7  that everybody yearns to see again. I would not say that an intertextual archetype is necessarily "universal." It can belong to a rather recent textual tradition, as with certain topoi of slapstick comedy. It is sufficient to consider it as a topos or standard situation that manages to be particularly appealing to a given cultural area or a historical period.


The making of Casablanca


"Can I tell you a story?" Ilse asks. Then she adds: "I don’t know the finish yet." Rick says: "Well, go on, tell it. Maybe one will come to you as you go along." Rick’s line is a sort of epitome of Casablanca itself. According to Ingrid Bergman, the film was apparently being made up at the same time that it was being shot. Until the last moment not even Michael Curtiz knew whether Ilse would leave with Rick or with Victor, and Ingrid Bergman seems so fascinatingly mysterious because she did not know at which man she was to look with greater tenderness.


This explains why, in the story, she does not, in fact, choose her fate: she is chosen.


When you don’t know how to deal with a story, you put stereotyped situations in it because you know that they, at least, have already worked elsewhere. Let us take a marginal but revealing example. Each time Laszlo orders something to drink (and it happens four times) he changes his choice: (1) Cointreau, (2) cocktail, (3) cognac, and (4) whisky (he once drinks champagne but he does not ask for it). Why such confusing and confused drinking habits for a man endowed with an ascetic temper? There is no psychological reason. My guess is that each time Curtiz was simply quoting, unconsciously, similar situations in other movies and trying to provide a reasonably complete repetition of them.


Thus one is tempted to read Casablanca as T. S. Eliot read Hamlet, attributing its fascination not to the fact that it was a successful work (actually he considered it one of Shakespeare’s less fortunate efforts) but to the imperfection of its composition. He viewed Hamlet as the result of an unsuccessful fusion of several earlier versions of the story, and so the puzzling ambiguity of the main character was due to the author’s difficulty in putting together different topoi.


So both public and critics find Hamlet beautiful because it is interesting, but believe it is interesting because it is beautiful.


On a smaller scale the same thing happened to Casablanca. Forced to improvise a plot, the authors mixed a little of everything, and everything they chose came from a repertoire that had stood the test of time. When only a few of these formulas are used, the result is simply kitsch. But when the repertoire of stock formulas is used wholesale, then the result is an architecture like Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia:8 the same vertigo, the same stroke of genius.


Stop by stop


Every story involves one or more archetypes. To make a good story a single archetype is usually enough. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that. It uses them all.


It would be nice to identify our archetypes scene by scene and shot by shot, stopping the tape at every relevant step. Every time I have scanned Casablanca with very cooperative research groups, the review has taken many hours. Furthermore when a team starts this kind of game, the instances of stopping the videotape increase proportionally with the size of the audience. Each member of the teamsees something that the others have missed, and many of them start to find in the movie even memories of movies made after Casablanca — evidently the normal situation for a cult movie, suggesting that perhaps the best deconstructive readings should be made of unhinged texts (or that deconstruction is simply a way of breaking up texts). However, I think that the first twenty minutes of the film represent a sort of review of the principal archetypes. Once they have been assembled, without any synthetic concern, then the story starts to suggest a sort of savage syntax of the archetypical elements and organizes them in multileveled oppositions. Casablanca looks like a musical piece with an extraordinarily long overture, where every theme is exhibited according to a monodic line. Only later does the symphonic work take place. In a way the first twenty minutes could be analyzed by a Russian Formalist and the rest by a Greimasian.9 Let me then try only a sample analysis of the first part. I think that a real text-analytical study of Casablanca is still to be made, and I offer only some hints to future teams of researchers, who will carry out, someday, a complete reconstruction of its deep textual structure.


1. First, African music, then the Marseillaise. Two different genres are evoked: adventure movie and patriotic movie.


2. Third genre. The globe: Newsreel. The voice even suggests the news report. Fourth genre: the odyssey of refugees. Fifth genre: Casablanca and Lisbon are, traditionally, hauts lieux [favourite places] for international intrigues. Thus in two minutes five genres are evoked.


3. Casablanca-Lisbon. Passage to the Promised Land (Lisbon-America). Casablanca is the Magic Door. We still do not know what the Magic Key is or by which Magic Horse one can reach the Promised Land.


4. "Wait, wait, wait." To make the passage one must submit to a Test. The Long Expectation. Purgatory situation.


5. "Deutschland über Alles." The German anthem introduces the theme of Barbarians.


6. The Casbah. Pépé le Moko. Confusion, robberies, violence, and repression.


7. Pétain (Vichy) vs. the Cross of Lorraine. See at the end the same opposition closing the story: Eau de Vichy vs. Choice of the Resistance. War Propaganda movie.


8. The Magic Key: the visa. It is around the winning of the Magic Key that passions are unleashed. Captain Renault mentioned: he is the Guardian of the Door, or the boatman of the Acheron to be conquered by a Magic Gift (money or sex).


9. The Magic Horse: the airplane. The airplane flies over Rick’s Café Américain, thus recalling the Promised Land of which the Café is the reduced model.


10. Major Strasser shows up. Theme of the Barbarians, and their emasculated slaves. "Je suis l’empire à la fin de la décadence/Qui regarde passer les grands barbares blancs/En composant des acrostiques indolents. . . ."10


11. "Everybody comes to Rick’s." By quoting the original play,11 Renault introduces

the audience to the Café. The interior: Foreign Legion (each character has a different nationality and a different story to tell, and also his own skeleton in the closet), Grand Hotel (people come and people go, and nothing ever happens), Mississippi River Boat, New Orleans Brothel (black piano player), the Gambling Inferno in Macao or Singapore (with Chinese women), the Smugglers’ Paradise, the Last Outpost on the Edge of the Desert. Rick’s place is a magic circle where everything can happen — love, death, pursuit, espionage, games of chance, seductions, music, patriotism. Limited resources and the unity of place, due to the theatrical origin of the story, suggested an admirable condensation of events in a single setting. One can identify the usual paraphernalia of at least ten exotic genres.


12. Rick slowly shows up, first by synecdoche (his hand), then by metonymy (the check).12 The various aspects of the contradictory (plurifilmic) personality of Rick are introduced: the Fatal Adventurer, the Self-Made Businessman (money is money), the Tough Guy from a gangster movie, Our Man in Casablanca (international intrigue), the Cynic. Only later he will be characterized also as the Hemingwayan Hero (he helped the Ethiopians and the Spaniards against fascism). He does not drink. This undoubtedly represents a nice problem, for later Rick must play the role of the Redeemed Drunkard and he has to be made a drunkard (as a Disillusioned Lover) so that he can be redeemed. But Bogey’s face sustains rather well this unbearable number of contradictory psychological features.


13. The Magic Key, in person: the transit letters. Rick receives them from Peter Lorre and from this moment everybody wants them: how to avoid thinking of Sam Spade and of The Maltese Falcon?13


14. Music Hall. Mr. Ferrari. Change of genre: comedy with brilliant dialogue. Rick is now the Disenchanted Lover, or the Cynical Seducer.


15. Rick vs. Renault. The Charming Scoundrels.


16. The theme of the Magic Horse and the Promised Land returns.


17. Roulette as the Game of Life and Death (Russian Roulette that devours fortunes and can destroy the happiness of the Bulgarian Couple, the Epiphany of Innocence).


The Dirty Trick: cheating at cards. At this point the Trick is an Evil one but later it will be a Good one, providing a way to the Magic Key for the Bulgarian bride.


18. Arrest and tentative escape of Ugarte. Action movie.


19. Laszlo and Ilse. The Uncontaminated Hero and La Femme Fatale. Both in white — always; clever opposition with Germans, usually in black. In the meeting at Laszlo’s table, Strasser is in white, in order to reduce the opposition. However, Strasser and Ilse are Beauty and the Beast. The Norwegian agent: spy movie.


20. The Desperate Lover and Drink to Forget.


21. The Faithful Servant and his Beloved Master. Don Quixote and Sancho.


22. Play it (again, Sam). Anticipated quotation of Woody Allen.14


23. The long flashback begins. Flashback as a content and flashback as a form. Quotation of the flashback as a topical stylistic device. The Power of Memory. Last Day in Paris. Two Weeks in Another Town. Brief Encounter. French movie of the 1930’s (the station as quai des brumes15).


24. At this point the review of the archetypes is more or less complete. There is still the moment when Rick plays the Diamond in the Rough (who allows the Bulgarian bride to win),16 and two typical situations: the scene of the Marseillaise and the two lovers discovering that Love Is Forever. The gift to the Bulgarian bride (along with the enthusiasm of the waiters), the Marseillaise, and the Love Scene are three instances of the rhetorical figure of Climax, as the quintessence of Drama (each climax coming obviously with its own anticlimax).


Now the story can elaborate upon its elements.


The first symphonic elaboration comes with the second scene around the roulette table. We discover for the first time that the Magic Key (that everybody believed to be only purchasable with money) can in reality be given only as a Gift, a reward for Purity. The Donor will be Rick. He gives (free) the visa to Laszlo. In reality there is also a third Gift, the Gift Rick makes of his own desire, sacrificing himself. Note that there is no gift for Ilse, who, in some way, even though innocent, has betrayed two men. The Receiver of the Gift is the Uncontaminated Laszlo. By becoming the Donor, Rick meets Redemption. No one impure can reach the Promised Land. But Rick and Renault redeem themselves and can reach the other Promised Land, not America (which is Paradise) but the Resistance, the Holy War (which is a glorious Purgatory). Laszlo flies directly to Paradise because he has already suffered the ordeal of the underground. Rick, moreover, is not the only one who accepts sacrifice. The idea of sacrifice pervades the whole story, Ilse’s sacrifice in Paris when she abandons the man she loves to return to the wounded hero, the Bulgarian bride’s sacrifice when she is prepared to give herself to help her husband, Victor’s sacrifice when he is prepared to see Ilse with Rick to guarantee her safety.


The second symphonic elaboration is upon the theme of the Unhappy Love. Unhappy for Rick, who loves Ilse and cannot have her. Unhappy for Ilse, who loves Rick and cannot leave with him. Unhappy for Victor, who understands that he has not really kept Ilse. The interplay of unhappy loves produces numerous twists and turns. In the beginning Rick is unhappy because he does not understand why Ilse leaves him. Then Victor is unhappy because he does not understand why Ilse is attracted to Rick. Finally Ilse is unhappy because she does not understand why Rick makes her leave with her husband.


These unhappy loves are arranged in a triangle. But in the normal adulterous triangle there is a Betrayed Husband and a Victorious Lover, while in this case both men are betrayed and suffer a loss.


In this defeat, however, an additional element plays a part, so subtly that it almost escapes the level of consciousness. Quite subliminally a hint of Platonic Love is established. Rick admires Victor, Victor is ambiguously attracted by the personality of Rick, and it seems that at a certain point each of the two is playing out the duel of sacrifice to please the other. In any case, as in Rousseau’s Confessions, the woman is here an intermediary between the two men. She herself does not bear any positive value (except, obviously, Beauty). The whole story is a virile affair, a dance of seduction between MaleHeroes.


From now on the film carries out the definitive construction of its intertwined triangles, to end with the solution of the Supreme Sacrifice and of the Redeemed Bad Guys. Note that, while the redemption of Rick has long been prepared, the redemption of Renault is absolutely unjustified and comes only because this was the final requirement the movie had to meet in order to be a perfect Epos of Frames.


The archetypes hold a reunion


Casablanca is a cult movie precisely because all the archetypes are there, because each actor repeats a part played on other occasions, and because human beings live not "real" life but life as stereotypically portrayed in previous films: Casablanca carries the sense of déjà vu to such a degree that the addressee is ready to see in it what happened after it as well. It is not until To Have and Have Not that Bogey plays the role of the Hemingway hero, but here he appears "already" loaded with Hemingwayesque connotations simply because Rick fought in Spain. Peter Lorre trails reminiscences of Fritz Lang, Conrad Veidt’s German officer emanates a faint whiff of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He is not a ruthless, technological Nazi; he is a nocturnal and diabolical Caesar.


Casablanca became a cult movie because it is not one movie. It is "movies." And this is the reason it works, in defiance of any aesthetic theory.


For it stages the powers of Narrativity in its natural state, before art intervenes to tame it. This is why we accept the way that characters change mood, morality, and psychology from one moment to the next, that conspirators cough to interrupt the conversation when a spy is approaching, that bar girls cry at the sound of the Marseillaise . . .


When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity. Two clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés move us because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.


Just as the extreme of pain meets sensual pleasure, and the extreme of perversion borders on mystical energy, so too the extreme of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime.


Nobody would have been able to achieve such a cosmic result intentionally. Nature has spoken in place of men. This, alone, is a phenomenon worthy of veneration.


The charged cult


The structure of Casablanca helps us understand what happens in later movies born in order to become cult objects.


What Casablanca does unconsciously, other movies will do with extreme intertextual awareness, assuming also that the addressee is equally aware of their purposes. These are "postmodern" movies, where the quotation of the topos is recognized as the only way to cope with the burden of our filmic encyclopedic expertise. Think for instance of Bananas,17 with its explicit quotation of the Odessa steps from Eisenstein Potemkin. In Casablanca one enjoys quotation even though one does not recognize it, and those who recognize it feel as if they all belonged to the same little clique. In Bananas those who do not catch the topos cannot enjoy the scene and those who do simply feel smart.


Another (and different) case is the quotation of the topical duel between the black Arab giant with his scimitar and the unprotected hero, in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you remember, the topos suddenly turns into another one, and the unprotected hero becomes in a second The Fastest Gun in the West. Here the ingenuous viewer can miss the quotation though his enjoyment will then be rather slight; and real enjoyment is reserved for the people accustomed to cult movies, who know the whole repertoire of "magic" archetypes. In a way, Bananas works for cultivated "cinephiles" while Raiders works for Casablanca-addicts. The third case is that of E.T., when the alien is brought outside in a Halloween disguise and meets the dwarf coming from The Empire Strikes Back. You remember that E.T. starts and runs to cheer him (or it). Here nobody can enjoy the scene if he does not share, at least, the following elements of intertextual competence:


(1) He must know where the second character comes from (Spielberg citing Lucas),18

(2) He must know something about the links between the two directors, and

(3) He must know that both monsters have been designed by Rambaldi and that, consequently, they are linked by some form of brotherhood.


The required expertise is not only intercinematic, it is intermedia, in the sense that the addressee must know not only other movies but all the mass media gossip about movies. This third example presupposes a "Casablanca universe" in which cult has become the normal way of enjoying movies. Thus in this case we witness an instance of metacult, or of cult about cult — a Cult Culture.


It would be semiotically uninteresting to look for quotations of archetypes in Raiders or in Indiana Jones: they were conceived within a metasemiotic culture, and what the semiotician can find in them is exactly what the directors put there. Spielberg and Lucas are semiotically nourished authors working for a culture of instinctive semioticians.


With Casablanca the situation is different. So Casablanca explains Raiders, but Raiders does not explain Casablanca. At most it can explain the new ways in which Casablanca will be received in the next years.


It will be a sad day when a too smart audience will read Casablanca as conceived

by Michael Curtiz after having read Calvino19 and Barthes. But that day will come. Perhaps we have been able to discover here, for the last time, the Truth.


Après nous, le déluge.20



NOTES (from David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader)


1 Like the more famous line, "Play it again, Sam" (actually "Play it, Sam") this quotation is not quite accurate. Ingrid Bergman’s words in the film are: "Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?"


2 The action of Casablanca (made in 1942, directed by Michael Curtiz) takes place early in the Second World War, when Morocco was controlled by the Vichy French government. The American Rick (Humphrey Bogart) runs a café-night club in Casablanca which is a place of passage for refugees trying to get exit visas to the United States, usually by bribing the Prefect of Police, Renault. A Czech Resistance leader, Victor Laszlo, turns up with his wife, Ilse (Ingrid Bergman), who had a love affair with Rick in Paris just before the German Occupation, when she believed her husband to be dead. On discovering that he was alive, she parted from Rick without explanation. Bitterly hurt by this experience, Rick is at first hostile to Ilse in Casablanca, but on learning the truth, and that she still loves him, chivalrously helps her and Laszlo to escape the clutches of the Gestapo chief Strasser, at considerable risk to himself. In the final sequence, Rick and the implausibly reformed Renault go off to join the Free French.


3 A reference to what were in effect two Russian groupings that flourished in the pre- and immediately post-revolutionary years, the Moscow Linguistic Circle, which included Roman Jakobson (see headnote to essay, p. 30, in from David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader (1998)), and the Opoyaz group based in St Petersburg, including Viktor Shklovsky. Motifs were particularly memorable and "defamiliarized" symbols to be considered aside from their position within narrative frameworks or "themes."


4 Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (1928).


5 Chronotope is a term coined by Mikhail Bakhtin to analyse the ways in which time and space are represented and related in narrative.


6 As it does in the work of Carl Jung and critics influenced by him, such as Maud Bodkin and Northrop Frye. (See sections 14, 15 and 31 of Lodge (ed.), 20th Century Literary Criticism.)


7 Something already seen.


8 Antonio Gaudí (1852-1926), Spanish art nouveau architect best known for his (still uncompleted) Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona.


9 See note 3, p. 342. above.


10 "I am the empire at the end of its decline/Watching the great white barbarians pass/While composing idle acrostics." (I do not know the source of this quotation.)


11 Casablanca was based on an unproduced stage play entitled, Everybody Comes to Rick’s.


12 See note 1, p. 56, above.


13 Another Hollywood classic, made in 1934, also starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre.


14 Play It Again, Sam is the title of a film made by Woody Allen in 1972, about a neurotic film critic obsessed with Humphrey Bogart.


15 Literally, "quay (or railway platform) of fogs," this was the title of a classic French film, directed by Marcel Carné in 1938.


16 To be precise, Rick ensures that her husband wins at the roulette table, thus ensuring that the couple can buy their exit visas from Renault for cash, instead of the girl having to sleep with the police chief to obtain them.


17 Film made by Woody Allen in 1971.


18 E.T. was made by Stephen Spielberg; The Empire Strikes Backby George Lucas.


19 Italo Calvino ( 1923-86), Italian experimental novelist.


20 "After us, the deluge" — Proverbial expression variously attributed to Madame la Pompadour and Louis XV of France.



—from David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Harlow, England: Longman, 1988.