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article imageOp-Ed: 'Casablanca' even with its classic magic, endures thanks to tech Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Aug 15, 2017 in Entertainment
Publishing a book about an old film may seem to some a moot point. But to author Noah Isenberg in his bestseller "We Will Always Have Casablanca," it says that film as an art form is transcendent.
It is that 'transcendent' aspect which owes a significant part to technology. Isenberg could argue at length that the 'special something' - (that 'transcendence') is still there within the film itself without the help of any enhancements. Regardless of the use of digital technology, Isenberg's non-fiction "We Will Always Have Casablanca' reached the Los Angeles Times best-seller list this past March. And, it did so, only a few weeks after its release in February earlier this year.
Emphasizing the importance of movies in our lives - Anita Monga, artistic director for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, said. "We are witnessing a very interesting time." As someone who has been involved with the efforts to preserve as well as promote some of Hollywood's oldest films, Monga recognizes the 'timeless' aspect. In fact, it is the SF Silent Film Festival's motto: "True Art Transcends Time." Timelessness and transcendence can exist in just about any art form.
She and her staff understand the impact a classic movie (like 'Casablanca') has upon the culture. Its reverberations can be subtle but powerful. Even so, the use of technology enables art and can build a new or varied connection to an audience. In some instances, technology can enhance an art form like never before. In mentioning Isenberg's book about 'Casablanca' as an example, Monga talked in detail the affect technology has on art — especially film.
As our 21st-Century culture gains more strides in the use of technology, the ability to resurrect, revive and share an experience captured on film will continue to change.
Monga noted that when sound was first added to what was then referred to as a 'moving or motion pictures,' it was revolutionary. The use of sound made the moving picture even more life-like. Just as now — with our current use of digital and computer tech; there was a struggle. It was a struggle between resisting and embracing the new tech of 'sound' as the new added enhancement to what was then emerging as an art form as well as entertainment. Movie theaters had to adapt to the use of sound, just as now — over the past few years, cinemas across the nation have had to adjust to the new digital format and find a way to survive.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Casablanca's initial release back in 1942. Isenberg's book is more than just a commemoration of the making of the film; it is a celebration. Few films in history make such an enduring cultural impact. So, this reporter was curious to know, exactly what is in the recipe of cinematic magic that makes 'Casablanca' endure for over 70 years?
My father was a fan of Casablanca and also of The Maltese Falcon. I can understand his generation's appreciation of the film, I said. And, I can see why the following generations right after WWII would appreciate the film, such as the Beatniks and Babyboomers. But what is it particularly that keeps the film in such high regard? Is there some sort of standard it is held to? I asked this to Isenberg because not only is he an author and historian, he is the department chair of Culture and Media at the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in NYC.
"This is a great question you raise," he said. "And, one that’s not terribly easy to answer. Sure, there is the fact that Casablanca enjoyed more revival screenings than any other movie, and was the most frequently shown film on American television throughout the final decades of the twentieth century; meanwhile, it has also enjoyed more airings on TCM (Turner Classic Movies channel) than any other movie (which makes some fans to think of TCM as the Casablanca channel)."
Like Isenberg, Monga in her work at the SF Silent Film Festival, noted that technology is moving so quickly that previous tools and vehicles for film and images have become obsolete. Yet no matter how it is labeled 'remastered or hi-def' she said simply, "a film is basically scanned and made into a digital format."
Over the years the scanning abilities have improved. "But the quality of the 'copy' or 'digitally remastered' product is very dependent upon that old film original," said Monga. "And, our ability to copy or 'remaster' the original with the current tools we have is what allows us to enjoy it at its current highest quality. This is why preservation of the original film (in whatever form 35mm, etc.) is important. When our current modes-formats of viewing a movie change, the original is there-preserved so that a new 'copy' in whatever format is the standard of the day, can be made."
The difficulty for many old films is finding a way to preserve them without compromising them and to keep them intact for future generations. "The work and research that is currently being done with regards to this is amazing," said Monga.
Questions over who owns the film and copyrights, distribution rights, merchandising, etc. is another aspect. And, like the concept of 'Intellectual properties' leads into another arena, both commercially and legally.
Meanwhile, thanks to technology many movies like 'Casablanca' would have been languishing on a shelf in a vault or disintegrating from old age if it not were for technology. And, of course, an expanding audience of fans to lift it from its 'obscurity' to enjoy it in the new formats and means of viewing, like 'streaming video,' is also a boost from technology.
Reflecting a bit more about the movie itself — its unique impact — Isenberg went on to say, "there’s something that is much less easy to quantify — something for which there are no real metrics... something that Ingrid Bergman even called 'mystical' in the epigraph I use for the book."
"Bergman suggests that the film filled a certain need, and I would suggest," said Isenberg, "that, despite the drastically different time we’re living through now, and have lived through in the past couple of decades, the need for such stories and for such a film continues to persist."
To bring 'Casablanca' in line with what is happening today, Isenberg had this to say: "In fact right now, in the Age of Trump, a film like Casablanca has acquired a renewed urgency. There is new reason to stick our necks out, to sacrifice personal need for the greater good, and to do the right thing at home and abroad."
Still even so, I pointed out in response. With its familiarity so saturated over the years, what keeps 'Casablanca' as a reference point for film historians, especially now, soon to be 80 years after WWII?
"As the Simpsons writer and producer Matt Sellman told me," said Isenberg, "In one of the few dozen of interviews I conducted for the book, 'we all drink at the well of Casablanca,' meaning that we all turn to it for inspiration, for new story material in his case, and for hope (as Senator Elizabeth Warren notes in the final lines of the book). Without exaggerating the film’s importance, I think it’s fair to say that film historian, students, and the general public will be returning to Casablanca for many years to come."
I pointed out to Isenberg an obvious comparison; that advancing technology has helped keep 'Casablanca' alive in its ability to endure. Sort of like much of the reason why Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" got resurrected and then some. When the movie went to video cassette sales soared. But it became a favorite over years because so many had seen it on TV during the holiday season.
Isenberg agreed. Yet he noted, "As for preserving a movie like 'Casablanca', that's a very costly undertaking. There's a Blu-ray edition of it available now, and I believe Warner Bros. may have a newly restored digital print they will be premiering for the 75th anniversary of the film this fall." TCM is sponsoring special showings of the movie this coming November at selected theaters.
As Isenberg told CBS This Morning when his book debuted in February, the Academy Award winning movie was initially released on Thanksgiving Day as a romance set in the wartime of 1942. Yet, even with a strong sentiment, the movie continues to have a life of its own. NPR noted that Casablanca made Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman major stars. Until that time, Bogart was mostly known for gangster movies and Bergman had just arrived from Sweden. The New York Times in its review said that "We Will Always Have Casablanca — The Life, Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie" is for movie fans "a treasure trove of facts and anecdotes." Published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. (2017) the book can be purchased directly through W.W. Norton or via other online book retailers.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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