You are listening to the Pop Culture Academy podcast. On this week's episode we'll focus on Casablanca but we'll also explore a little bit the question of what goes into making something a cult classic. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter. Check out our YouTube channel for playlists and videos and of course, visit us at popcultureacademy.com.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to season two episode 22 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit of an academic slant. It's a rainy day here in Little Rock as it has been a lot lately. So, please forgive the drips and drops that you might hear in the background. In terms of reporting on what's been going on in the last week, it's been a busy week in a lot of ways. I feel like I've been exploring a lot of different pop culture artifacts this week. I don't know how much of it I should report on because I mean I feel like I'm in the middle of so many things or really just starting so many things. And typically I much prefer to talk about films and shows and albums once I finish them and really once I've had some time to think about them a little and digest. That's sort of the point of this show, right, is to think about things from an academic perspective not kind of rush into what's new and current and you know just get it out there as quick as you can but to take our time and really think reflectively about what these things really mean.
But all right, I finally started the last seasons of Bojack Horseman, a few months behind I know that. But if you've listened to this show, particularly my episode on Seinfeld a little while back, you know that I have this aversion to lasts, right? Last episodes, last seasons; I tend to put them off. It's some kind of bizarre psychosis. But honestly I love this show so much, really I do. It has been a comfort to me over the last several years that I've been able to go back to and you know when you are done with - when you've watched that last episode you are done with a series, you're done. I mean I know that's obvious but there's something about that and I know you can always go back and rewatch and if any show sort of would bear up to deep scrutiny and repeated viewing it's Bojack Horseman. That show's just got so many - it's so rich and deep and so many things going on in it. But even still, it's not the same as the new and I'm about four episodes into this last season and I'm already dreading that last episode. I can see it coming up on my Netflix; I can see that last episode and I'm already cringing. I will say, though, I have found this season to be very thoughtful as really Bojack always is but maybe more insightful and reflective than the previous seasons, particularly at least so far in terms of the way it's been dealing with its female characters. I mean despite the fact that Bojack is about Bojack and he's sort of, I think this is by design, sucks up the energy of that show and in a very meta way to a certain extent. That's the point, right? Bojack is a character is a person is a personality who just sucks everything out of life and there's no room left for anybody else. And yet this series has always had very strong female characters and this season in particular it just seems like they are really kind of thinking about in some, not just clever ways but in some insightful ways about these characters and particularly the struggles that they face as women. I think this show has a lot to say on a lot of levels. Obviously one of the things that draws me to it is that it is quintessentially postmodern. As much as any show ever has been. But it absolutely can be read I think as a work about women, a work informed by the Me Too movement which sort of exploded as the series was just beginning to take off and again you can think about Bojack as this figure against who these women are kind of juxtaposed. And in that sense it's a series that I think ultimately we'll be able to say really came to address its own time. Something happened as that series got started and to its credit the series, the producers the amazing talent that makes up that show, they chose to take on those issues, to take on the Me Too movement as that was going on. And I'm always impressed with a show that has the vision to do that; to recognize its own moment, to be able to shift in mid-stream to deal with that moment and to do it, frankly, so well as well as Bojack has done over these seasons.
All right so for you 80s fans and I really do hope that I have a few of those because honestly, and I don't know if this comes across on the show, but my whole ethos as a human being grows out of the 80s. What can I do? It's the decade I grew up in. I turned 10 years old in 1981. That decade, in every sense of the term, was formative for me. Everything. All of my identity gets formed around MTV and new wave and LiveAid and all the things that are happening in the 80s. Now, I made a very conscious decision not to make this show into an 80s show; this show doesn't live there in the 80s. But let's say it's our hometown. It's somewhere I like to go back to. Anyway, so I'm always going back to that period to explore a new musical artist or film or show. I find that there is always another layer to dig underneath. Now that stunts my growth to some extent. I don't feel like I have progressed and matured over the later decades perhaps as I should have. But there's always something else to explore in the 80s. And so this last week I've been flirting with this band Blue Nile, now, not the name recognition of some other groups but a great band and I think a very influential band. So if you're into 80s or really if you're just looking for good music this is a nice deep dive into someone. They are definitely what you might call synth-pop which some people like, some people don't. Very very sophisticated and their music has a lot of what I would call ambiance and I'm not really sure how to define that term. I mean the Pet Shop Boys hit this sometimes, a song like "West End Girls", you just feel the place. You feel the time, the setting. There's something in the music that puts you there and Blue Nile does that as well as any group that I can think of, just this sort of very romantic with a big "R". Anyway, I've been listening to their album Hats which is widely regarded as a ground-breaking album but my understanding is that this is a band that grows and evolves and so I'm hoping to explore them further. And like I said, I'm just at the beginning and I almost hate to mention it at all but I'll try to keep you updated as I go.
Also I am halfway through (and I know that it's kind of sacrilegious to say this in some ways), I'm halfway through Spike Jones' new film I'm Thinking of Ending Things which is on Netflix at the moment and again, you know, if you're really a film lover or a film connoisseur or you care about cinema, it really is - I really feel guilty, crass maybe is the word, for watching a film in pieces. But I've got a three year old and I just have trouble finding two and a half hours to watch anything in a row or do anything. Nothing in my life can last for more than say thirty minutes at a time and then it has to move into something else, it has to morph. But my wife and I are in the home stretch of this film. Really a fascinating film and I'll confess that I'm sort of waiting to see if there's some kind of payoff or punchline. Of course it's postmodern-y with all sorts of indie references to people like David Foster Wallace and in that sense what's not to like? I would say this one is not for the faint hearted. If you like Jones you should definitely watch it; I'm hoping, I haven't seen the end, but I'm hoping it's a rewarding film but I will say I think so far at least it's the least accessible of Jones' work that I've seen. Not a knock, that's not a knock, I'm just saying in terms of general audience appreciation, I think this is the hardest sell. But again if you like Jones you probably need to see this one.
All right and then somehow this afternoon I find myself watching a bit of a recent Chappelle standup. I don't know how I came across this exactly. It's on YouTube. It's called 8:46 and it's about half an hour long, it's an unusual sort of routine. I really do love Chappelle; I place him on one of those pedestals of comedy with people like, you know and I - this name won't, some people may not like this name but people like Louis C.K., I mean when Louis C.K. was at his best before all of this, before all of his world fell apart (and rightly so). But before that happened he was, the guy was functioning as a comedy mind on the level that you don't see very often. Hannah Gadsby seems to have that right now as well. You know and I absolutely probably shouldn't mention Hannah Gadsby and Louis C.K. in the same sentence, something bad is bound to happen out of that. Maybe some of Seinfeld's recent work but Chappelle isn't just a comic though, right? He's an artist in the vein of someone like Richard Pryor or George Carlin or you know the person I was thinking of as I kept watching this particular bit is Lenny Bruce. And I think if you watch this you'll immediately recognize that. Chappelle has something to say, something to confront us with and he understands, Hannah Gadsby does this as well, that the stage, a comedian's stage is one of our last remaining spaces for social commentary. We will show up there and listen to people talk. Where else do you get that? We don't have the great debates anymore. You're never going to have the Lincoln-Douglas debates or anything like that. The presidential debate is coming up this Tuesday and for the last twenty years, maybe longer, we watch debates they are just little sound bites. There's no capacity, there's no room to expand on thought and to think through ideas. It's just sort of who can blurt out the best sound bite the fastest and who can come off as more dominant or more sympathetic or whatever the emotion is you are trying to get. How can you get that across? But in terms of ideas and just being able to talk through ideas, that's gone except in comedy. So this one again, this one is called 8:46; you can find it on YouTube. It's very recent. I don't know how recent but it seemed to have been done within the last few months. It's outdoors; people separated in the audience. I thought it was interesting the way they did this - you'd have a couple of chairs set up and then ten feet away you'd have another couple of chairs set up and everyone in the audience is in masks. But as the title suggests, this is all about George Floyd and it is absolutely gripping and I don't dare give things away because it would just, you just have to see it. But it is so complex, so nuanced and so layered and at the same time all that complexity, it's also incredibly straight forward. I mean the point just smacks you in the face. Again, it's only half an hour but it's some of his best work, we can just leave it at that.
Well that's a lot to tell you about in one week, you know and some weeks I do feel like I could spend the whole episode just talking about whatever I'm watching and I don't know how interesting that'd be to you but I actually do have a topic for this week. I want to talk a little bit about Casablanca. This is a film, well, let me back up. I came to classic film I guess in my teens. Different people - some people never come to classic film, some people get heavy doses early, some people wind their way into it at different points in their lives. For me it happened in my teens and not probably through the usual way. My parents, normally you get these things from your parents and my parents liked things they grew up with and from my perspective I guess those were classics. The Graduate, The Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers and James Bond films. Woody Allen films. But my sense of film didn't go back very far or very deep I think, at least not through them. Now, my first real girlfriend - I mean how influential is our first love? Actually, I'm not sure I should even call it that. It was one of those three-month summer things, when you're fourteen. It was a girl named Gina McCool and Gina, and I think this came from her father, had gotten something of a film education. At least she knew way more about film than I knew. And the first thing that she did was make me read Lauren Bacall's By Myself which is a book that we have to talk about on the show at some point. It's such a landmark of pop culture and I'm so grateful that she forced me to read this book. It was the best education in classic film that I could have gotten. But of course, suddenly I'm into Bogey and Bacall and now I'm watching all of these Bogart films. Casablanca, of course, is Casablanca. It's the greatest romantic film of all time. What else are you going to put in front of it? Really? I think you can make a case it's the greatest film of all time, period, full stop. You know my affinity for lists. I think AFI, the American Film Institute, listed Casablanca as #2 behind Citizen Kane and let's face it, Casablanca is much more watchable than Citizen Kane. So let's say this, I'm looking for a superlative knowing that I overuse superlatives. I have trouble thinking of another movie that you just absolutely have to see. And if I'm forgetting something, please let me know. But it's the kind of thing, if you're only going to see not just ten films in your life, if you're only going to see one film in your life you really have to be able to say you've seen this one.
All right, so let me think. If I were throwing other films in terms of significance in terms of cultural significance as touchtones, maybe Sound of Music. But I'd say Casablanca has Sound of Music beat. What else might be in the running? Certainly To Kill A Mockingbird is a hugely important film and I think you're really missing out if you haven't seen Gregory Peck in that role. That film, that book is just so important. I've never been a Gone With The Wind fan. Star Wars, I suppose but honestly I don't think I could put Star Wars above Casablanca as a touchstone. I'm sure I'm missing others but I'm also sure that none of them are the film, again, I want to distinguish here between great film and what I'm talking about in terms of cultural significance. I don't think there's a film that can touch Casablanca for cultural significance. But that sort of begs the question, why? And I mean there are all sorts of answers to that question. For one thing it's probably the most quotable film ever made. Think of the quotes: "hold me as if it were the last time", "play it again, Sam" (which is never really actually said but close enough), "of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine." Something like "round up the usual suspects", we have a whole film The Usual Suspects that comes out of a quote from Casablanca. "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship", you could just got on and on. This was such a quotable movie. It's is referenced by so many later films which tells you something about how important it is. It comes out in 1943 so it's about the war but it's produced during the war which I think gives it a certain feeling. If you're going to talk about love triangles, I mean this is the film, this is the love triangle. The central character is as cool as any character you will ever find. Ingrid Bergman is as beautiful but also as deep and as conflicted as you'll ever find. It's full of amazing, I mean amazing character work. I mean, my God, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, it's like a who's who of actors from the time and they are all pulling out these brilliant performances. But then there's that ending and I mean there are a lot of great endings to a lot of great films. I am especially fond of the ending to Some Like it Hot. But here's an ending that you absolutely hate, that you're furious at, the whole time it's happening, you're just angry at the movie and then in like the very next instant you are thinking to yourself that's the most perfect ending to any film I've ever seen. And how does a film pull that off? How does a film make you so angry at the ending and so satisfied with the ending at the same time? It's really amazing.
But I think the best explanation of Casablanca comes from the writer and scholar Umberto Eco. Now most people know Eco for his novel The Name of the Rose which was turned into a fine film with Sean Connery and Christian Slater. Great novel; not an easy novel. I mean I remember reading at the time, The New Yorker or somebody said - it was on the bestseller list, it might have been number one on the bestseller list - but it was a book that everybody owned and no one read because it's a tough read. Eco happened to write some "popular novels" but he was the real deal when it came to academic scholarship. He was a medievalist. He's a guy who worked very deeply in postmodern theory. So I mean his novels are dense with latin and all kinds of literary references. There's one of his books that I go back to periodically - Foucault's Pendulum - and I go back to it regularly to see if, to sort of measure what I've learned, right? Like every five years, oh I get that reference now but I still don't get that one. You know, what have Iearned? This book is so dense with those kinds of things it offers a good measurement. So Eco as a postmodern guy was very interested in pop culture and he's another one that we might talk about in more detail one of these days but for now let's just focus on his response to Casablanca.
Let me just read the second paragraph of his essay on the film because I think that kind of sums it up:
According to the traditional standards in aesthetics, Casablanca is not a work of art-if such an expression still means anything. 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 manneristic way. Nevertheless, it is a great example of cinematic discourse, a palimpsest for the future students of twentieth-century religiosity, a paramount laboratory for semiotic research in textual strategies. Moreover, it has become a cult movie.
So I mean, Eco nails every flaw in the film. Later, for instance, he points out that one of the accidentally great aspects of Casablanca is the ending and it's because when you look at Ingrid Bergman's face she has absolutely no idea whether she will leave with Laszlo or stay with Rick. She's absolutely conflicted, she betrays nothing on her face. She honestly doesn't know who she is going to leave with and there's something very romantic in that notion of being torn between these two lovers. Only that's because even up to the moment that they filmed the final scene the director Michael Curtiz still hadn't decided what she was going to do. So she looks torn and undecided because Bergman herself as an actress doesn't actually know what's going to happen. And that tells you something about the state of the film. It's not being made on the fly.
All right, Eco tells us it's a hodgepodge of references and some of those references are to other films but he also talks a lot about archetypes. Of course archetypes for the uninitiated are stories or story forms that seem to reoccur over and over in our culture, they are stories that we just always seem to come back to. The Fisher King, for instance, shows up in King Arthur but also in Star Wars, in Lord of the Rings, in The Lion King, in Hamlet, any story that involves a quest of any kind takes us back to that model of The Fisher King story, the archetype. There are tons more of these recurring ideas in literature and culture and then those get added to by famous moments in cinema. So we've got all kinds of archetypal references going on through the film. We've also got references to cinema itself. I mean here's Eco's list of some of the different, I don't know, stories that are playing out. So right at the beginning, for instance, he says we get African music and then we get the Marseillaise and immediately right from the very beginning we've got two genres of film that are being evoked. One is the adventure movie and one is the patriotic movie and we're trying to do them both. We go a little way down the adventure movie then we go a little way down the patriotic movie. Then we get a news reel. That's a whole other genre that gets thrown in. Then we get a fourth genre which has to do with The Odyssey, the quest of the refugee to find a home. Then we get a fifth genre which has to do with international intrigue, Casablanca is this central point for spies and international intrigue. And so, you know, as Eco says, we've gone two minutes into the film and we've already got five different genres. The film is trying to pull us in five different directions. He goes on - there are elements of the purgatory archetype. There are elements of trying to get to the promise land. Elements of the magic key archetype. On and on and on and on and on. So as the movie, I mean Casablanca becomes a string of these ideas, concepts, one put together after the other and it shouldn't work. Again, they are all pulling against each other in some ways. They all should be taking us in completely different directions, that's not a stable film. It's constantly threatening to collapse in upon itself. But here's the thing if I haven't made it clear yet, Eco certainly makes this absolutely clear, Casablanca is a great film. He defines it as a great film because it is what he terms a cult classic. And now, two or three episodes ago, I was talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer the television series as a cult classic and I wasn't sure exactly how we define that. How DO we define cult classic? Because Buffy had a very enormous following so you couldn't say, often people define cult classic as this sort of niche film that only a few people know and are very devoted to it but I mean that's the whole idea, a cult following. But it's just the cult following. Buffy is so mainstream in so many ways that can we really call it a cult classic? But here's how Eco defines it, first he says, "a cult classic must have some organic imperfections." Right? It's got to be flawed. It must be already wobbly and disjointed in itself, he says. And it must "live in and because of its incoherence." That is, its flaws allow it to become the great film that it is. Now there's something here about a films ability to make us feel all the threads of the different stories and the different directions it is going in, we feel all of those at once. Eco calls it, Eco says "the cliches are talking to themselves...". And he says if it were just one cliche or two that it would fall completely flat. If we come across a cliche in a film we groan, we roll our eyes but because there are so many cliches that we're almost overwhelmed with cliches we recognize them, there's a certain kind of satisfaction in saying "oh, I know what that is" and they keep coming at you fast and furious and it's satisfying at a certain point. It's not eye-rolling, it's satisfying. And the cliches start to take on a life of their own and as he says, they are beginning to talk to themselves and - he actually goes so far as to say the film sort of makes itself. The film makes itself out of film. And of course, it barely hang together and we can feel that too, there's a kind of energy of it's almost coming off the rails through the whole thing. But then because it isn't a perfect film, it also leaves room for interpretation and that's what draw the cult following in the end. That we can turn Casablanca into whatever we want because when you've got that many cliches, when you've got that many different genres, that many different story threads going you can kind of push it any way you want to go.
Now Eco references T.S. Eliot who said that actually, this is why Hamlet - I mean if you want to talk about serious literature with a big L, Eliot says this is why Hamlet is the most popular Shakespeare play. Eliot thought that Hamlet was actually pretty bad and the essay that he writes is called "Hamlet and His Problems" but Eliot said the problem was that Shakespeare hadn't really written a complete play. He had a bunch of fragments, I mean this is all speculation on Eliot's part, but Eliot suggests that Shakespeare had a bunch of fragments that he'd written that he didn't really know what to do with them and finally he just sort of smashed them into one play and that became Hamlet. It's the same basic idea as Casablanca; we like it because of its imperfections. We like it because of its fragmented-ness. It allows us to insert ourselves into it in ways that "perfect" films, "perfect" plays, "perfect" novels, won't allow us to do.
And so then I was trying to think of other films that do that and I ran into a bit of a problem. The only one, really, I could think of was the original Star Wars trilogy but I'm not completely sure about it. So, Eco himself, this essay that he wrote and comes out in 1984 and he himself talked about Raiders of the Lost Ark as another example of a film that's made up of references to other films. Raiders is just a hodgepodge of stories, a hodgepodge of references. But here's the problem with Raiders, Spielberg, I mean it's not a problem but here's why Raiders isn't Casablanca, Spielberg (and he might be the first major filmmaker to do this) knows exactly what he's doing. He wants Raiders to be a mix and he wants it to be unbelievable in a lot of ways, I mean, he's paying homage to the adventure films of his own childhood. And so you can't think of it like Casablanca because Spielberg, very much unlike Curtiz is doing it on purpose, Curtiz is making it up as he goes along throwing whatever he can into the pot and stirring it. Spielberg is doing that very very deliberately. And that's a postmodern thing and of course it grows and develops and you know that post modern thing becomes more and more and more so. Spielberg was an early master of it but no one has done it quite like Tarantino and again, Tarantino is inspired by essentially the same thing although he's not just paying homage to those films. He's sort of trying to create the world as those films and it gets twisty and Spike Jones and just to go back to where we started this episode, Being John Malkovitch now the film and the reality are actually mixing. Where is the actor, who is the actor who is the real person, what's referencing what? And then it just gets completely out of hand in postmodern terms. And we've talked about postmodernism is all about references to references to references to references and we could go on exhaustively about postmodernism in pop culture. Family Guy and Community and Bojack and The Simpsons and 30 Rock.
But all right, so let me end by going back to Star Wars because I'm not sure Lucas is doing the same thing in Star Wars that Spielberg is doing in Raiders. I mean, it's close. And maybe it's just a distinction without a difference. Both are drawing on their own childhood, their own influences. Lucas is throwing in The Seventh Samurai but also all those dog fights from the war movies going back to Wings, right? Plus there's The Fisher King quest myth plus there's a lot of Eastern religion plus plus plus on and on and on. But I get the sense that he, Lucas isn't doing it intentionally. That in the same way that Curtis didn't completely have control over Casablanca Lucas didn't have complete control of this thing that he'd come up with. Of course it's only a few short years between Star Wars and Raiders but I do think there's a difference and it's not to criticize either movie, far from it. It's to say that Star Wars, for instance, isn't flawed. I mean it is flawed but it's one of the few movies that can rise to that Casablanca status as cult in a way that transcends small audience and niche, cult in the sense of it's a cult that takes over everything I guess you'd say. And I don't know, maybe there were other films. You know, what do you think? Am I missing other movies where the cliches are talking to themselves? What else is out there that I'm not thinking of?
All right, enough for one episode. If you like what you hear, please follow us on Twitter. Check out our YouTube channel, visit us at popcultureacademy.com and please tell your friends. I'll be back next week with an all new episode, see you then.
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