Monday, July 11, 2011

Humans are messed up

I learned something about human psychology while watching Casablanca last night on TCM. Who is the most likeable character in that film? It's not clear to me whether it's Bogart's Rick or Claude Rain's Captain Renault. Bogart is, of course, the reluctant hero, but Renault is the charming knave. The idealistic resistance leader, Victor Laszlo, isn't even in the running. There is no preachy hypocrite in the story, but if there were, he would certainly be the villain.

So let's get this straight: We love a man who has no principles and flaunts the fact. We love a man who is cynical about ideals, but who affirms them in the end. At an emotional level, we are indifferent towards a man who has high ideals and lives by them without fail (a person who, by the way, is not found in real life). And we hate anyone who sings the praises of high principles, but who is inconsistent in following them.

I'm sorry, but humans are messed up.  Have we always been this way?


Anonymous said...

"At an emotional level, we are indifferent towards a man who has high ideals and lives by them without fail (a person who, by the way, is not found in real life)."

True enough that such a character is not found in real life, and that's one reason VL is not our fav character in this film.

However, John Wayne hero-type characters don't exist in real life either, yet we have adored such characters in film, in tv shows, in fiction. So, why not VL?

The simple explanation for our lack of affection for VL is that, from a narrative point of view, his character is a stock character , purely one-dimensional, a character faced with no internal conflict, only an external conflict.

Now, external conflicts can make for good entertainment (ask any boy or man who likes man versus monster flicks or hero versus villain flicks with lots of action), but in order for a character with such a conflict to make us care about him, he has to get a lot of screen time, and he has to face more than just external conflict--he must face some kind of internal conflict, such as self-doubt or fear.

VL is a supporting stock character; he exists in the narrative only to provide context and to act as Rick's foil, his opposite. By measuring Rick against VL at the beginning of the film and then at the end of the film, we can see Rick's moral growth. Casablanca is a story of redemption and that redemption is achieved through the selflessness of loving someone. Even someone as amoral as Rick is redeemed by love.

Ahhhh, such romance. It makes the world go 'round.

Sarcasm aside, it's the selflessness of love that really does result in the heroic much of the time, no?

bgc said...

Yes - Original Sin. But our culture did not always celebrate and endorse the fact.

Anonymous said...

Humans have been "this way" for a long time and it may have something to do with the basic qualities needed to form complex societies. We humans have fancy "mirror" relationships with others. We identify with others and we imitate them. Of course, we have to choose who to identify with and imitate. Few of us are stainless-hero types like Viktor Laszlo, so we identify with Rick and Renault-- they're good guys, and leaders (their authority is apparent in the film) but with flaws analogous to those we recognize in ourselves. Then we want to imitate them (or tell ourselves and our girlfriends that we would)-- though that's all imagination now, the war having been over for decades.

Why don't we identify with Strasser? Well, for one thing, he's outnumbered (in the film)-- clearly an outcast (from the society around Rick's Cafe) that we want to belong to. It's not just that he's a skunk-- after all, we like Ugarti even though he's a thief and murderer. No one wants to be an outcast-- humans want to belong to whatever social group is dominant, hence "stockholm syndrome."

If the Germans had made the movie, we would all identify with Strasser, because he would have been the hero of the film and most of the folks hanging around Rick's would have been played as villains. Either Strasser and his troops would have triumphed over them, or they would have heroically died trying (with intimations that their countrymen would avenge them and defeat the dirty French rebels along with their subhuman African minions and race-traitor American helpers). Most likely, Strasser would have saved Ilsa from the clutches of Viktor and Rick-- Ilsa would fall into Strasser's arms after he saved her from Rick and Rick's bestial henchman Sam.

Anonymous said...

"I'm sorry, but humans are messed up. Have we always been this way?"

Selection, my friend, selection.

Anonymous said...

Female viewers identify with Ilsa (or perhaps Yvonne). Male viewers pretty much have to identify with Rick or Renault-- because they attract Ilsa! Only a fag would identify with Laszlo, seeing as he can't hold Ilsa's interest (sexually-- at the end Ilsa goes with Laszlo out of duty, not amour).

Anonymous said...

I always hated those shows. I would sit there watching and thinking that no one would actually do what screenwriters write.

sykes.1 said...

I greatly prefer "The Maltese Falcon." In that film, Guttman is the lovable rogue.

Bogie yet again plays a noir character with some redeeming features. In fact, the only Bogie film I don't like is "The African Queen," where he is a bit too much goody two shoes.

Jim Bowery said...

This gets back to your "depravity of men" joke:

The depravity of men used to be taken care of by other men. Now the state supposedly takes care of men's depravity. Likewise, the depravity of women used to be taken care of by men in their lives. Now the state supposedly takes care of women's depravity.

Indeed, if a man -- particularly a white man -- acts so as to take care of depravity in his environment, it is widely accepted that the state can and will subject him to a high risk of being raped by HIV and Hep-C ethnic gangs.

Where do you think this leaves "humans"?

Anonymous said...

We women like bad boys, at least in film, because we love to believe it's their love for and devotion to us that changes them into moral creatures. Rick is a bad boy (although a good bad boy, really) and so Ilsa finds him attractive because she knows that deep down, he'll do anything for her. (Ah, fiction!)

VL (and all boys who are already good) offers a woman no chance to prove her own power over him--he's simply no challenge and yes, that means he's not sexually attractive.

Women are just like men in that regard--we love to think of ourselves as having some sway over others. We learn at an early age by the way men and boys act toward us based on our physical traits that our bodies hold power over them just as boys and men learn that their resources offer power over women and other men.

The development of romanticism as a literary movement in the 19th century stressed individualism and devotion to a goal of freedom, but the man who pursued freedom was undomesticated and it was left to women the challenge to domesticate him. (Cooper's Natty Bumpo was the first real romantic hero presented in novel form by an American writer.)

Of course, the problem is that once a woman has domesticated a man and the challenge has been met, is that man still attractive to her or does he now lack what she found attractive in the first place? If she's whipped him, in essence, will his resources, assuming he has any, really matter to her when it comes to sexual attraction?

Once a guy gets the girl, does she remain attractive to him any longer?

It's an old story, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Renault redeems himself at the end by covering up Strasser's killing and going off with Bogey to fight with the Free French.

In an early scene he is apparently selling exit visas for sex. At the time that may have passed as lovable roguishness, maybe not today.