A Proper Classic
Put simply, a semiotic approach to cinema is concerned with the function of signs and their classification. In cinema, this means that rather than seeing film chiefly as a medium of transparency, as realists like Andre Bazin insisted upon, however complexly, it should be viewed as a medium of codes. "Semioticians talk endlessly of code. A code is nothing other than the logical relationship which allows messages to be understood." So says Dudley Andrew, later adding, "codes have at least three basic characteristics which enable us to understand and analyze them. 1. degrees of specificity, 2. levels of generality, and 3. reducibility to subcodes." (The Major Film Theories) What this means in the context of film is understanding which codes are specific to cinema (1), like montage or non-diegetic music. Then one comprehends others that are more broadly cultural and can be transposed into film, like the way a car functions for example, or a large house. When a film shows us a Rolls Royce to indicate a character's new-found wealth, or shows them living in a villa in the South of France, these are codes that go beyond the specifics of film: they are more generally culturally coded (2). Then there are the codes that aren't specific to cinema but aren't quite general either. A common example would be chiaroscuro lighting, a specific code in painting that can also be utilised very well in film, or flashbacks that work in novels but can work efficiently in cinema too (3).
Andrew draws on one of the most important of film semioticians for these examples and for this taxonomy: Christian Metz whose book Film Language remains a key text for anyone interested in semiotic analysis. But other important thinkers in the field would include Pier Paolo Pasolini (who was also a filmmaker, poet and novelist), Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco (both of whom were interested in others arts as readily as film). Metz remains the name most affiliated with film semiotics, yet it is Eco we will initially turn to in understanding an aspect of Casablanca.
In looking at this much-loved Michael Curtiz film that more importantly stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Eco, distinguishing between common and intertextual frames, says, "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 story of the vierge souillee [dishonoured virgin]." ('Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage') Eco's argument gets a lot more intricate than that, but what we need to rescue from it, while taking into account Metz's threefold analysis of codes, is that a film shouldn't be taken at face value but at a subtly coded semiotic value. When Eco says "Rick (Bogart) slowly shows up, first by synecdoche (his hand), then by metonymy (the check)" he adds, 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." At face value, the film introduces us to the central character but that introduction is very codified, evident in the specifics of the form, the generalities of culture and in the sub-codes the film accesses. We are already eight minutes into the film before it introduces us to Rick and the film, doing so with very specific means, using synecdoche and metonymy to make us aware of his presence. Synecdoche suggests the part that signifies the whole; metonymy (often used interchangeably with synecdoche) is strictly speaking an association with something rather than a part of something. The hand is the part of Rick we see before rest of him; the cheque is an association that suggests the man of business that he turns out to be. The terms might come from literature but they are utilised in a very specific cinematic way: in close-up. There is no strict equivalent in the other art forms of such a device. Within general culture there happen to be businessmen, people living out in a country far from their own and so on. But Eco makes clear that Rick is a type, or an amalgamation of types, familiar to us from film and literature, from narrative art forms that play up certain characteristics which lead to narrative momentum and event. When Eco describes Rick as a Tough Guy and the Fatal Adventurer we want to know what his story happens to be; how come he ended up in Casablanca; what skirmishes he has been involved in before and which one in the future. He is a character ripe with narrative expectation.
Central to Eco's essay is an intertextual conglomeration of expectation and cliche, of tropes and teases. Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) isn't just the woman who was once in love with Rick in Paris, she is also a La Femme Fatale, while her husband Laszlo is the Uncontaminated Hero rather than just a husband whose wife fell in love with another man. He is a man Ilsa thought dead as he escaped from a concentration camp. The love affair with Rick wasn't adultery but an error of information: she believed Laszlo to be dead but he was still alive and she left Rick to be with her ailing husband. In this sense, one can see Casablanca rich in sub-codes, with Eco emphasising those codes by capitalising letters: Disenchanted Lover, Cynical Seducer, the Promised Land that is the US. Rick is a man making a living in Casablanca but he is also the Disenchanted Lover. Yet part of what makes Casablanca so great a film isn't that it absorbs numerous tropes but that it does so with a certain semiotic unconscious. As Eco says, "it would be semiotically uninteresting to look for quotations of archetypes in Raiders or in Indiana Jones: they were conceived with a metasemiotic culture, and what the semiotician can find in them is exactly what the directors put there." Central to the appeal of Casablanca rests not on the semiotically inflected in itself but the ease with which it absorbs so many conventions without demanding self-reflexivity on the part of the viewer. Unlike Spielberg's films, Casablanca remains semiotically innocent, a film drawing on stereotypes but not asking us to be wise to them.
Could an argument thus be made that semiotics is potentially a disenchanting experience; that the charm of Casablanca is that both the filmmakers and the viewers leave their semiotic apparatus at the door and allow the film to work obliviously upon them? Perhaps. But if we accept the difference between common frames and intertextual frames, banal daily experiences that we live, and the sort of experiences generic cinema utilises, and if we accept the difference between specific codes, general codes and sub-codes, then we can see that while cinema isn't the same as life, it isn't quite separate from it either. A cut from a long shot to a close up is specifically cinematic as the street it shows us and the man it cuts to are not. But if the street happens to be shrouded in chiaroscuro light and the man is a gangster on a street corner, the specific code meets the sub-code and the general code becomes the least important of the three. One might say the more generic the film, the more the general code is ignored; the more realistic the film, the more it is pronounced. No film will be properly realistic (it is still using aspects of the specific code by the very fact of filming), but many a realist film will try and minimise the cinematic code by using long-takes with minimal cutting, and the sub-code by using non-professional actors in the sort of setting closer to the common frame than the intertextual frame.
Looking closely at Casablanca one can see the importance of both the specific code and the sub-codes but if the film moves us, if it remains a classic despite all the cliches it works with, it may finally rest on the general codes that the film absorbs into its thematic: that out of the common film techniques it utilises, out of the stereotypes it adopts, moments of true feeling seep through. When near the end of the film Ilsa asks Rick to give her a couple of papers of transit so that she and her husband can leave the country, we watch her in close up as she pleads with Rick to give her the documents. The light on her face, the non-diegetic music playing on the soundtrack and the use of the close-up, are all very specific codes familiar to classic Hollywood, and can be accompanied by notions like The Beseeching Lover talking to the Stubborn Fool, the Dutiful Wife speaking to the Lovelorn Ex. If one responds knowingly to the conventional lighting techniques and the amalgam of character typologies one can have a lot of fun watching Casablanca.
However, it seems while many similar films prove very entertaining, and for some of the same reasons, they don't attain the status of this particular film. Casablanca is more than a cult classic; it is a classic. How we define the difference between the former and the latter might just rest on how pronounced we view the specific codes and the sub-codes and how willing we are to regard the general codes as irrelevant. "Casablanca is a cult movie precisely because all the archetypes are there", Eco reckons, "because each actor repeats a part played on other occasions, and because human beings live not 'real' life but life as stereotypically played in previous films." But it is at the same time a classic because it taps into feelings that can't be reduced to those codes. For a good semiotician concerned with specific and sub-codes, Eco would insist "when all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity. Two cliches make us laugh but a hundred cliches move us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion." Yet imagine quoting back in the cinema the lines that Rick and Ilsa offer; it could be seen as the height of rudeness and not least because many viewers will be responding to the general codes the film accesses, the common frame as opposed to the intertextual frame. A proper cult classic, as opposed to a classic, allows for interactive engagement, aware that the film isn't to be taken seriously because it is so clearly a work of codification, however sophisticated or inept. Hence Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Room and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, are all cult classics, however well or badly made they happen to be. But Casablanca, like It's a Wonderful Life, All About Eve and Psycho are more than cult films and would seem to demand a response to the image that cannot be reduced to the filmic and generic codes deployed.
In a short book on the film, the French philosopher Marc Auge makes numerous interesting points but a couple of them are pertinent to our discussion. First, he says "No, I am not what is called a true cinephile. My memory is lacking" Secondly, "if the stereotypical exoticism of the streets of the Casbah in the film has always left a strong impression on me, it's because it corresponds to the images from early childhood the name of this African city had awoken in me, along with a few others with strange names, such as Diego Suarez or Djibouti." Auge reckons that "all these names punctuated the travels that the great man of the family, my uncle, made to distant lands during the war years." (Casablanca: Movies and Memory) Auge notes the cliches but also the resonances, the world beyond the film that his uncle was travelling through. For Auge it isn't that, as Eco believes, "works are created by works, texts are created by texts, all together they speak to each other independently of the intention of their authors," but that works are created partly out of the general codes one brings to a film experience. Eco wouldn't deny this but he doesn't make much of it either, just as most semioticians usually focus on the codifications to hand rather than the reality out of which they come. It was partly why Pasolini so disagreed with Eco. Rather than attending to the specific codes and the sub-codes and all but ignoring the reality out of which such codes originate, Pasolini insisted on a semiological naivety: that a proper understanding of semiology couldn't ignore the reality out of which images come.
Pasolini asks: "...does the phenomenon of visual communication not also correspond to the "natural Im-sign" consisting of Mona Lisa herself in the flesh and blood (even though now dead), or to the Inter-Bologna soccer match itself, played one afternoon of one Sunday of this November and unfortunately lost by Bologna because of a questionable penalty kick? Or do you want to relegated all these "real im-signs' to the limbo of that nature which cannot be transformed into cultural phenomena?" (Heretical Empiricism) For Pasolini, as for Auge, the reality matters. In Casablanca this reality consists of the actual place (if not the location, which was of course filmed in a Hollywood backlot), the living actors, all now passed away, and the war during which it was made and which provides its backdrop. When at the end of the film, just before Ilsa and her husband will get on the plane to leave the country, Rick can finally acknowledge that his sour sense of loss is nothing next to the greater good expressed in one of the film's many famous remarks. "I'm not good at being noble but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." To know the line is one thing but to be knowing about it doesn't capture the film's capacity to move us. To access the sentiment behind such tropes, to create beyond the cliches the film adopts a feeling that is more than the cliche, is partly what makes a classic. Semiotics is very useful in helping us comprehend the specific codes and sub-codes which no film can be made without, but to ignore altogether the general codes out of which cinema comes can seem the height of semiotic sophistication containing an underlying affective naivety.
© Tony McKibbin