Your History, my History and Rick’s History…..
Posted by inspir3d on January 1, 2007
I crossed the New Year lastnight watching a Warner Brothers HD-DVD edition of “Casablanca.” You know that fuzzy black and white melodrama based on the broad way play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by M.Burnett and J.Allison. The plot moves roughly at the speed of a motorized wheelchair from scene to scene under the guidance of veteran director Michael Curtiz.
The main character is, of course, Richard Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart. He’s a figure not so very different from Huan Guan in the confessions of the Singaporean gangster in London only a whole lot, street wiser with a heavy dose of world-weary cynicism. He’s the quintessential antihero, a man who proclaims,
“I stick my neck out for nobody. You hear me, nobody!”
At least that’s his philosophy until old flame Elsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) shows up, only for him to utter those famous lines,
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she has to walk into mine.”
Then all bets are off as Rick turns back into a noble and caring human being.
The accolades, awards, and adulation were nothing short of spectacular for a film that almost never was. In 1942 when it was being made, it was considered just another Warner Brothers back-lot melodrama only to end up being one of the all time silver screen greats.
I first chanced upon Casablanca the movie one muggy Friday night in the mid 1990’s.I into my final year in Engineering college, bored, and surfing between a baseball game and the wheel of fortune when Rick suddenly appeared – I remembered the tune, it was catchy, you know the one played by a sambo “yezzzzzz basssssss” caricature side kick, whenever the antihero says, “Play it again Sam.”
By the end, I was fascinated by something that would normally have left me cold fish indifferent -a romance! (I am a Sci-Fi buff). I had no idea how popular the film was, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, nor how much more popular it would become on TV, eventually attaining the status of most-often broadcast film in history. I only knew I loved it!
So, what’s the attraction? Why does “Casablanca” consistently show up in the public’s and critics’ lists of top-ten films of all time? I suspect it’s the characters, the atmosphere, and the dialogue as much as anything else. Sure, it’s a riveting love story, but without the colorful cast, oily locales, and memorable clichés, it would probably be just another run of the mill melodrama, which, as I said, is about what its producers initially expected it to be. But the movie eventually took on a life of its own in the eyes of the public. I guess one reason why most people found it affecting is precisely because, it was one of the first times Hollywood actually produced a movie where the main character Rick had such a tremendous amount of emotional baggage rooted in the past – in fact, throughout the movie, we are reminded of how everything he thinks, feels and decides to do isn’t so much determined by events in the apparent present or future, but rather his distant past with Elsa.
In a sense watching Casablanca yesterday night when the New Year passed, underscored for me, the importance of appreciating our history as individuals, a community, a tribe, a nation and perhaps even the wider spectrum of a broader based history of others who we may not even know.
I cant help but feel, the appeal of movies like Casablanca lies precisely in their capacity to tap the age old human yearning of questioning: who were really are and where are we going? In a sense, when we watch the antihero Rick struggling emotionally with the past as he tries to do the right thing in the apparent present of the silver screen– we can’t but reflect and draw analogies with our own existence and how our personal and broader sense of history eventually shapes our reasoning and perspective of the world.
On a larger schema or bigger canvas one may even juxtapose this question to ask the question for the rest of humanity: Where will our understanding of today and, more critically, the next century be, if we didn’t have a clear appreciation of our own sense of history? So much of how we presently see ourselves resides the cobwebs of our past. In not necessary referring to the history depicted to by historians, yes, sort of history does help us make sense of our place in society and community, but I referring to the small stuff – your history, like the moment when you first learnt to ride a bike, or the first time you ever scored a goal. You know the small stuff where history is a “h” and not the big booming authoritative voice of “H.” There is a certain uncertainty about even the notion of what really is history, I suspect.
I mention this only because the history of history is replete with endless contentions as to what actually once transpired – everyone from individuals, firms, institutions, governments and continents feel the need to gain a foothold over their equity of the past in order to help them make sense of their sense of futurism, losing our sense of history is like losing a limb, we hobble, we fall.
The recent debate on history textbooks in Japan and its impact on the neighboring countries like China and Korea, shows historical revisionism is a deadly serious business – no one wants this past to be snuffed out, not the comfort women not even the pygmies who once fought alongside the Australians against the Japanese in WW2. Or for that matter people who go around creating crop circles – everyone wants the benefit of clear light.
In a sense this has even transformed how modern day historians go about profiling history. For one, historians have to contend with the multitudes of views from different individuals and this in turn has led to the concept of “interculturality”, which focuses on the interdependence of these countries and peoples – unlike traditional comparative and contrastive-dichotomic research based methods of profiling history, where people from different continents are measured against each other very much like bolts ie West/Europe versus Asia/one of the already mentioned countries.
The concept of interculturality presupposes an inclusive methodological approach where no one country, people, creed or race has the right to determine their own history: since the actors concerned are not exclusively regarded as “autonomous” entities, but rather “mutually dependent” entities which influence each – in short, this analogical framework of profiling modern history is simply an extension of the “butterfly effect” – with albeit an academic gloss, one that simply reads.
“Your history determines my future and vice versa.”
If this sounds like a revisit of the demented jack in the box Jurassic Park chaos theory construct – where a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo and causes a force 10 hurricane storm over Long island, that’s precisely what it is. In short history in our age has never ever been so ephemeral or ungraspable before.
The history of mankind seen against the light of interculturality cast long disturbing shadows of what actually once transpired in the past, it simply means, its not enough these days for an individual, firm, institution, government or continent to simply understand their own histories, they need to take a proactive interest in their neighbor’s histories, if they seriously aspire to succeed in global politics, economics, trade and commerce.
Getting it wrong simply means the mother of faux pas’s like present day basket case Iraq, when military planners didn’t see the need to factor in the historical baggage of Sunni’s and Shites only for them to face the multi headed hydra of an Iranian style theocracy in the future – in short the sum of all theirs, yours and my fears put together with a bit more to spare to go around the block!
Getting it wrong simply means when the Japanese Historical Institute recently supplanted the word “invasion” for “campaign” to describe the Nanking incident, it created a diplomatic ruckus resulting in thousands of Chinese students protesting openly on the streets all across China.
Getting it wrong simply means for better or worse, our age is now either a technological nightmare or nirvana and whatever the bane or benefits that either technology or the free market capitalism has done to resolve the problems of the world’s unfairness or exacerbated it – your guess really is as good as mine. We shall never know, we will lumber like the blind, barreling head long into this architecture of the future, never really knowing whether it holds the key to dystopia or utopia for the rest of humanity.
Getting it historically wrong simply means the human race will increasingly disregard real values, philosophies and even such a thing a relationships, but instead seek solace in the powerful opium technology offers in the form of TV, pop culture, and the endless pursuit of gadgetry, even though these narcotics are addictive in the long run only to exacerbated the ills of society. The more widespread the usage of these narcotics, the more socially acceptable their use, till we will physically stop seeing it – that’s what happens when we don’t care to understand our history against the broader history of others – that’s what happens when the compact between society and history is abrogated – it becomes slightly shakier, its never entirely stable and this is where the pain of not really knowing who you or who they really are comes in, it grows dimmer and darker.
On a personal level, there is nothing as derisive as someone saying or behaving in a manner which simply sends out the message: I don’t want to know anything about your history. I am just not interested. It goes beyond disrespect, its very hurtful.
I remembered one incident poignantly some years ago during a scientific meet when I was the last speaker who presented a paper of an cracked brained scientific finding in New York about using man made generated lightning bolts to tame the weather. Hardly had I walked up to the podium half the crowd left, some had the courtesy to apologize, others simply stormed out and two thirds of the way into the seminar all but only two men remained.
One of them slumped on his chair snoring, the other an oriental gentlemen in a dark Italian suit seated in the back row listened attentively, his demeanor sharp and attentive possessing an eagle like quality. The man stayed on to the very end.
That evening as I stormed out of the lobby into the chilly sidewalk towards the subway, the stranger with the briefcase followed. I turned back and after exchanging a few words, I gathered he represented a group of interstellar colonist on an unheard of planet, somewhere in some far distant galaxy from ours – he mentioned briefly, there was a demand for what he termed terra-forming technology and expressed a wish to review the area of my cracked brain research further.
I had till then many strange conversations, but none as strange as the one that fateful evening. As I walked listening to the man, I couldn’t help but recount Rick’s closing lines to Capt Renault in Casablanca.
“I think this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
By Harphoon / Brotherhood Press/ Philosophy / 2006
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