A Defense of Clichés

There is no groundbreaking reason to watch Casablanca again. Nothing new to be gleaned from it, nothing new to be said about it. Indeed, there was nothing new about it when it came out 80 years ago this week. There’s a reason the New Yorker review at the time called it “pretty tolerable.” That long forgotten reviewer failed to appreciate the core reason Casablanca has become recognized as one of the greatest films ever made. It may have no pretense, no hard edge to show that it is high art, but it is true.

The story of Rick and Ilsa may, on the surface, seem removed from modern day life—they use rotary phones and write letters—but just because the trappings of their lives look different doesn’t mean the contents of their lives are. Love and jealousy, self-interest and self-sacrifice, freedom and tyranny. With little effort, the plot of the film could be updated to modern day. (That’s an observation, not an invitation, Hollywood. Remake Casablanca at your own risk.)

The greatest works of art, the ones that transcend generations and enter our cultural canon, manage to capture timeless themes of human existence. They explore love, heartbreak, sacrifice, devotion to a higher cause, or the score of other emotions and experiences that fill life. It is for this reason that the world has turned to Casablanca over and over again for the last 80 years and will continue to until the last humans die off. It is timeless. It is human. It does not matter that Rick and Ilsa’s story is told in black and white, nor that their telephones don’t have touch screens, nor that the story is set in a time and place that most of us never experienced. It captures a slice of the human experience on the silver screen; both depicting and giving insight into elements of life we can all recognize.

Perhaps the greatest bit of writing about Casablanca comes from semiotician Umberto Eco, who honed in on how the film achieved such a depth of the human experience in its script: its use of clichés and archetypes. While a certain type of cinephile insists on gritty realism for films to be considered great or even good, Casablanca shows how something can speak to audiences without any of the pretense critics seem to require from films today.

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