leonard michaels on telling stories


Leonard Michaels, “What’s A Story?”


Thrusting from the head of Picasso’s goat are bicycle handlebars. They don’t represent anything, but they are goat’s horns, as night is a black bat, metaphorically.

Come into the garden . . .

. . . the black bat night has flown.


     Metaphor, like the night, is an idea in flight; potentially, a story:

There was an old lady who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.


Here, the metaphorical action is very complicated, especially in the syllables of the second line, bubbling toward the period—the way the old lady had children—reflecting her abundance and distress. The line ends in a rhyme—do/shoe—and thus closes, or contains itself. With her children in a shoe, the old lady is also contained. In effect, the line and the shoe contain incontinence; but this is only an idea and it remains unarticulated, at best implicit.

“Can you fix an idea?” asks Valery. “You can think only in terms of modifications.” Characters, place, and an action “once upon a time” are modifications deployed in rhythm, rhythmic variation, and rhyme- techniques of sound that determine the psycho-physical experience, or story, just as the placement, angle, spread, and thrust of the bicycle handlebars determine horns, a property of goat, its stolid, squat, macho bulk and balls behind, like syllables of a tremendous sentence.

Lo even thus is our speech delivered by sounds significant: for it will

never be a perfect sentence, unless one word give way when it has

sounded his part that another may succeed it.


St. Augustine means perfection is achieved through the continuous vanishing of things, as the handlebars vanish in the sense of goat, as the dancer in the dance, as the bat in the night in flight.

Here is a plain sentence from Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Revelation,” which is metaphorical through and through:

Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps.


Those pumps walk with the weight and stride of the moral being who inhabits them, as she inhabits herself, smugly, brutally, mechanically good insofar as good is practical. The pumps vanish into quiddity of Turpin, energetic heave and thump.

Taking a grander view than mine, Nabokov gets at the flow and sensuous implication of Gogol’s story, “The Overcoat.”

The story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all derived. At this superhigh level of art, literature appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.


No absolute elements, no plot, only an effect of passage, pattern, and some sort of change in felt-time. The temporal quality is in all the above examples; it is even in Picasso’s goat, different parts vanishing into aspects of goat, perfection of bleating, chomping, hairy, horny beast.

The transformation, in this seeing, is the essence of stories:

A slumber did my spirit seal;

     I had no human fears.

She seemed a thing that could not feel

     The touch of earthly years.


Life is remembered as a dream, her as a “thing,” and himself not feeling. Amid all this absence, is an absence of transition to the second stanza. Suddenly:

No motion has she now, no force;

     She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course;

      With rocks, and stones, and trees.


The transformational drama is deliberately exemplified, in the best writing lesson ever offered, by Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. He tells how he forces himself to remember having seen the cowardly and inept bullfighter, Hernandorena, gored by a bull. After the event, late at night, slowly, slowly, Hemingway makes himself see it again, the bullfighter’s leg laid open, exposing dirty underwear and the “dean, clean, unbearable cleanness” of his thigh bone. Dirty underwear and clean bone constitute an amazing juxtaposition—let alone transformation of Hernandorena—which is redeemed (more than simply remembered) half-asleep, against the blinding moral sympathy entailed by human fears.

In this strenuous, self-conscious, grim demonstration of his art, Hemingway explicitly refuses to pity Hernandorena, and then he seizes his agony with luxurious exactitude. Though he does say “unbearable,” he intends nothing kindly toward Hernandorena, only an aesthetic and self-pitying reference to himself as he suffers the obligations of his story, his truth, or the truth.

The problem of storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of “and then”) and the latter belongs to art. Most impressive in the transformations above is that nothing changes. Hernandorena is more essentially himself with his leg opened. Wordsworth’s woman is no less a thing dead than alive. The handlebars, as horns, are fantastically evident handlebars.


In Chekhov’s great story, “The Lady with the Dog,” a man and a woman who are soon to become lovers sit on a bench beside the sea without talking. In their silence the sea grows loud:

. . .  the monotonous roar of the sea came up to them, speaking of peace, or the eternal sleep waiting for us all. The sea had roared like this long before there was any Yalta or Oreanda, it was roaring now, and it would go on roaring, just as indifferently and hollowly, when we had passed away. And it may be that in this continuity, the utter indifference to life and death, lies the secret of life on our planet, and its never-ceasing movement toward perfection.


But this man and woman care, through each other, about life, and they transform themselves into the creatures of an old and desperately sad story in which love is the vehicle of a brief salvation before the sound of the sea, the great disorder that is an order, resumes and caring ceases.

The man’s feelings in the story, like those of Wordsworth and Hemingway in their stories, are unavailable in immediate experience. He lets the woman go, time passes, then it comes to him that he needs her, the old story.

The motive for metaphor, shrinking from

The weight of primary noon,

The A B C of being.

The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.


He goes to the woman’s hometown, checks into a hotel, and is greeted by the sight of

 … a dusty ink pot on the table surmounted by a headless rider, holding his hat in his raised hand . . .


A metaphor. To find his heart, he lost his head. Nothing would be written (ink pot) otherwise; nothing good, anyhow, and that is the same as nothing. “There is no such thing as a bad poem,” says Coleridge. In other words, it doesn’t exist.

The best story I know that contains all I’ve been trying to say is Kafka’s:

A cage went in search of a bird.


Like the Mother Goose rhyme, it plays with a notion of containment, or containing the uncontainable, but here an artifice of form (cage rather than shoe) is in deadly pursuit of spirit (bird rather than children). A curious metaphysic is implied, where the desire to possess and the condition of being possessed are aspects of an ineluctable phenomenon. (Existence?) In any case, whatever the idea is, Kafka suggests in eight words a kind of nightmare—chilling, magnificently irrational, endless—the story-of-stories, the infinitely deep urge toward transformation. ” . . one portion of being is the Prolific, the other, the Devouring,” says Blake, a great storyteller, obsessed with cages and birds.


The ability to tell a story, like the ability to carry a tune, is nearly universal and as mysteriously natural as language. Though I’ve met a few people who can’t tell stories, it has always seemed to me they really can but refuse to care enough, or fear generosity, or self-revelation, or misinterpretation (an extremely serious matter these days), or intimacy. They tend to be formal, encaged by prevailing opinion, and a little deliberately dull. Personally, I can’t carry a tune, which has sometimes been a reason for shame, as though it were a character flaw. Worse than tuneless or storyless people are those with a gift for storytelling who, like the Ancient Mariner (famous bird murderer), go on and on in the throes of an invincible narcissism, while listeners suffer brain-death. The best storytellers hardly ever seem to know they’re doing it, and they hardly ever imagine they could write a story. My aunt Molly, for example, was a terrific story- teller who sometimes broke into nutty couplets.

I see you’re sitting at the table, Label.

I wish I was also able.

 But so long as I’m on my feet.

 I don’t have to eat.


 I went to visit her when she was dying and in bad pain, her stomach bloated by a tumor. She wanted even then to be herself, but looked embarrassed, slightly shy. “See?” she said, “that’s life ” No more stories, no more rhymes.

—from Leonard Michaels, What’s a Story?, Ploughshares, Vol. 12, No. 1/2, (1986), pp. 199-204

warren ellis versus harold bloom’s bardolatry (plus philip k. dick, booze, fathers & cave paintings)

Stories, Drinking and the World


Written in June of 2005


The literary critic Harold Bloom once said that we weren’t fully

human until Shakespeare began writing: that Shakespeare

completed our sapience. Which is both interesting and stark, utter

bullshit. Stories are what make us human. They’re an advanced form of

play. Cats have play. Sometimes very sophisticated, dramatised forms

of play. But they’re not communicated or externalised. So far, only

humans use stories to dramatise the way they see the world.


And we’ve always had them.


Go out to the ancient standing stones at Callanish in the Orkney

Islands, at sunrise. You stand in the middle of the stone circle and turn

to follow the sun. From that position, the sun is alternately occluded

and revealed by the curves of the surrounding hills. The sunrise is

dramatised as a struggle. As a performance. Shadows fall and twist

around you like spokes, until the sun claws free of the hillside and

sends light right down the middle of the circle and on to your face.

Walk down the great processional avenue to Glastonbury Tor, and

you experience a similar effect. The walk is designed to sequentially

reveal and present aspects of the surroundings, until the Tor is brought

out of the backdrop to stand in front of you. It’s intended as a religious

experience—a walk that becomes an experience of mystery and

revelation. It’s a plotline.


Cave paintings are comics. Standing stones are art installations. It’s

all stories.


And I don’t mean that in an ethereal Gaimany “the world is made

out of stories, mine’s a nice cup of tea” kind of way. I mean that we

make the world into stories. From scratching our perceptions of the

day into cave walls to dramatising the landscapes we’re born into, we

make the world into stories to make living in it all the sweeter.


Millions of us, every day, add art into our daily mundane experience

of the world by playing a personal movie soundtrack into our ears.

I knew a guy who’d put a tape into his car’s player and would

wait until Lemmy tore into “Ace Of Spades” before standing on the

accelerator and pulling out into the street. I must’ve nearly died a

hundred times because of that bastard.


An acquaintance of mine had a Lemmy story. He was living in an

apartment building in New York, and heard a terrible banging outside

his door. Going out into the corridor, he found Lemmy, throwing

himself into the walls, gripping a huge wooden spoon in one hand.

Lemmy, he said, why are you outside my door with a wooden spoon?

You know how some people have a little silver coke spoon? Lemmy

said. And then he held his wooden ladle up like it was Excalibur and

yelled, This is MINE!


Which brings me to drugs, which accompany storytelling

cultures. Being southern English, my own culture is an alcoholic one.

Mead culture. I’m from a village that began as a Norse settlement.

Thundersley. It translates from the old English as thunder clearing or

Thor’s clearing. It was a small centre of worship for Thor. There was

and is another Thundersley, fifty miles north, and the old story was

that every Thursday Thor would fly over both of his English clearings.

Thundersley was all forest and weir, back then. When I lived there, the

weir has been paved over, and the only trees in the centre of the village were around the school I went to, on a gloomy tree-lined alleyway called Dark Lane. A dramatised little passageway. We still do it. Over in rural Rayleigh, five miles away, there’s a road called Screaming Boy Lane. I’ve never found out why it’s called that.


My dad told me about that. He never found out either, and it was

one of those things that bugged him to his grave. He was one of those

people who stories happen to. He was a drummer in the Sixties. One

night after a gig, a couple of Liverpudlians came up to him and asked

if he wanted to join their band, as they were without a drummer at the

time and on the promise of playing some gigs in Germany


“I can’t think about that too much,” he used to say.


He was in the Household Cavalry, the Queen’s mounted soldiers,

and once responsible for giving the Queen a horse with the shits to

ride during a public event. He was in the Merchant Navy, and once

imprisoned on Fiji for accidentally jumping ship—said prison being a

thatched hut that he was asked to return to at night, if he’d be so kind.

You become part of your father’s story, and you can feel like maybe

you haven’t done enough to live up to his stories. My dad was an

unpublished writer, and I didn’t realise until late on that he felt that

he’d become part of my story, and that he loved it. I’d phone him on

my mobile from other Countries, places he’d never visited, or had only

seen once. From my usual hotel in San Francisco I can see Telegraph

Hill, where he’d gone during his single trip there. I called him from the

black shoreline of Reykjavik. Our stories, then.


Dad and I had similar histories in our drinking. Both woke up

in our late teens/early twenties finding ourselves doing a bottle of

something in a single sitting without trying. For the rest of his life,

I never saw him have more than a small can of beer at Xmas. I just

control mine, ferociously. I know to the drop the point at which I can’t

return from, and can fine-tune my drunkenness so I don’t wake up

naked and halfway up a tree. Again.


Read the rest…

paul ricoeur on narrative, identity and robert musil


The lesson that narrativity also has its unsettling cases is taught to perfection in contemporary plays and novels. To begin with, these cases can be described as fictions of the loss of identity. With Robert Musil, for example, The Man without Qualities — or more precisely, without properties (ohne Eingenschaften) — becomes ultimately nonidentifiable in a world, it is said, of qualities (or properties) without men. The anchor of the proper noun becomes ridiculous to the point of being superfluous. The nonidentifiable becomes the unnameable. To see more clearly the philosophical issues in this eclipse of the identity of the character, it is important to note that, as the narrative approaches the point of annihilation of the character, the novel also loses its own properly narrative qualities … To the loss of the identity of the character thus corresponds the loss of configuration of the narrative … these unsettling cases of narrativity can be reinterpreted as exposing selfhood by taking away the support of sameness.

—from Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992



robbe-grillet on film: “reality… is problematic. we run up against it as against a wall of fog”


The history of cinema is still rather short, yet it is already characterized by discontinuities and reversals. The majority of contemporary films that now pass for masterpieces would have been rejected by Eisenstein and rightly so as altogether worthless, as the very negation of all art.


We should reread today the famous manifesto Eisenstein and Pudovkin wrote in the 1920s on the sound film. At a time when, in Moscow, a brand new American invention was being announced that would permit the actors on the screen to speak, this prophetic text warned vigorously and with extraordinary clarity of vision against the fatal abyss into which cinema was in danger of sliding: Since the illusion of realism would be considerably strengthened by giving the characters a voice, cinema could let itself be led down the cowardly path of glib superficiality (a temptation that never stops menacing us) and from then on, the better to please the multitudes, could remain content with an allegedly faithful reproduction of reality. It would thus surrender all claims to the creation of genuine artworks works in which that reality would be challenged by the very structures of the cinematic narrative.


Now, what Eisenstein demanded, with his customary vehemence, was that sound be used to create, on the contrary, new shocks: To the shocks between sequences created by montage (which links, according to relations of harmonic resonance or of opposition, the sequences to one another) should be added the shocks between the various elements of the sound track and still others between sounds and simultaneously projected images. As one may have expected, good Marxist-Leninist that he was, he called upon the sacrosanct "dialectic" in order to support this thesis.


But Communist ideology alas! could not save the Soviet cinema (which today is one of the worst in the world) from falling into the snares of glibness. In fact, good old "bourgeois realism" triumphed everywhere in the West as well as the East, where they simply rebaptized it "socialist." Eisenstein and his friends were rapidly subjected to the new universal norm: The montage of the visual sequences of their films (¡Que viva México! for example) was redone by the right-thinking bureaucracy, and all the sounds were made to follow obediently the recorded images.


Even in France, it was a theoretician of the extreme Left, André Bazin, who, merrily letting the dialectic go by the board, became the spokesman of illusionist realism, going so far as to write that the ideal film would entail no montage whatsoever, "since in the natural reality of the world there is no montage"! Thus, the numerous and fascinating forms of expression created in Russia and elsewhere during the silent era were summarily repudiated as if they were nothing but childish stammerings born of a merely rudimentary technique. Sound, wide screens, deep focus, color, long-duration reels all of these have allowed us to transform cinema today into a simple reproduction of the world, which, in the final analysis, is tantamount to forcing cinema as an art to disappear.


If today we want to restore its life, its former power, and its ability to give us veritable artworks, worthy of vying with fiction or painting of the modern era, then we must bring back to film work the ambitiousness and prominence that characterized it in the days of silent film. And so, as Eisenstein urges, we need to take advantage of every new technical invention, not in order to subject ourselves even further to the ideology of realism but, quite the opposite, to increase the possibilities of dialectical confrontation within film, thereby intensifying the "release of energy" that is just what such internal shocks and tensions allow for.


From this point of view, the alleged realism of contemporary commercial films, whether they be signed by Truffaut or by Altman, appears as a flawless totalitarian system, founded on hackneyed, stereotyped redundancy. The least detail in every shot, the connections between sequences, all the elements of the sound track, everything, absolutely everything must concur with the same sense and meaning, with a single sense and meaning, and with good old common sense. The immense potential richness that is concealed in this stuff of dreams these discontinuous, sonorous images must be utterly reduced, subjected to the laws of normative consciousness, to the status quo, so that, at any cost, meaning may be prevented from deviating, swarming, bifurcating, going off in several directions at once, or else getting completely lost. The technicians on the set or in the various recording studios are there precisely to see to it that no imperfections and divergences ever occur.


But what is the significance of this will-to-reduction? What it all means, in the final analysis, is that reality and a living reality at that is reduced to a reassuring, homogeneous, unilinear story line, a reconciled and compromised, entirely rational story line from which any disturbing roughness has been purged. Plainly put, realism is by no means the expression of the real, of what is real. But rather, the opposite. Reality is always ambiguous, uncertain, moving, enigmatic, and endlessly intersected by contradictory currents and ruptures. In a word, it is ”incomprehensible." Without a doubt, it is also unacceptable whereas the first and foremost function of realism is to make us accept reality. Realism, therefore, has a pressing obligation not only to make sense but to make one and only one sense, always the same, which it must buttress tirelessly with all the technical means, all the artifices and conventions, that can possibly serve its ends.


Thus, for example, prevailing film criticism may blame a certain detective film for lack of realism, ostensibly because the murderer’s motives are not clear enough, or because there are contradictions in the scenario, or because there remain lacunae in the causal chain of events. And yet, what do we actually know about nonfictional attempts to solve real crimes? Precisely that uncertainties at times essential ones always persist until the end, as do unsettling absences, "mistakes" in the protagonist’s behavior, useless and supernumerary characters, diverging proofs, a piece or two too many in the puzzle that the preliminary investigation in vain tries to complete.


Reality, then, is problematic. We run up against it as against a wall of fog. Meanwhile, our relation to the world becomes still more complicated because, at every moment, the world of realism presents itself to us as if it were familiar. We become so used to it that we hardly see it: It is our habitat, our cocoon. Yet, actually, we stumble against what’s real with a violence we never get used to a violence that no amount of previous experience can ever assuage so that reality remains for us irremediably foreign and strange. The German words heimlich and unheimlich, which both Freud and Heidegger have used, though in different but here overlapping contexts, give indeed an idea of this lived opposition fundamental because it is inescapable between the strange and the familiar. Both the psychoanalyst and the philosopher insist that the familiarity we think we have with the world is misleading (i.e., ideological, socialized). To acknowledge and explore (even to the point of anguish) the world’s strangeness constitutes the necessary starting point for creating a consciousness that is free. And one of the essential functions of art is precisely that it assumes this role of revealing the world to us. This explains why art does not attempt to make the world more bearable (which undoubtedly is what realism does), but less so: because its ultimate ambition is not to make us accept reality but to change it.


the iconic imagery of Last Year at Marienbad

read more…

“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.