You know, I think it’s generally easier to discuss things through the lens of fiction – or easier to discuss things that are fiction. The less personal, the less real, the easier not to offend.

I’ve been ill this past week – jet lag -> weakened immune system -> nasty cold – so I’ve been watching a lot of DVDs.

I was watching CSI with a friend, and I commented that I really didn’t like one of the main female characters. There are a few reasons, but the main one is that the show makes it very clear that her career takes priority over the emotional well-being of her kid.

My friend defended the character, and added that, as a woman, I should unquestioningly support other women in their ambition.

It made me think of something I had heard another Arab woman say – that she was shocked to see how, in the United States, women don’t automatically look out for each other – that she was used to a much greater sense of solidarity.

That the character is a single mother in the United States and is estranged from her extended family I would say strengthens my critique. That she is the only strong support for her child is all the more reason for the child to be her top priority, especially considering the fact that in her career, while she is important, she is not unique. Nothing drastic would happen if she quit.

This is obvious and reasonable to me. I wonder what it says about me. That I am a US resident, accustomed to individual needs and individual responsibilities? That I am an nth-generation feminist, more concerned with abandoning the playing field than leveling it?

I really wanted to talk about the American Way of Life and Casablanca.

Casablanca is a very enjoyable movie with great actors, great dialogue, an exciting setting, and a genuinely interesting story. It’s easy to see why it’s a classic, but the thing is, it is also supposed to be a great romance. However, a) there is no chemistry between Bogart and Bergman that I could see, and b) I don’t see how the Paris story really fits either of their characters. I mean, sure the idea of the romance in Paris in which they were escaping their problems – but they way it’s shot it seems more like Roman Holiday (which has fantastic on-screen chemistry, by the way) than anything set during a war.

So I really wonder, how and why did Casablanca achieve its reception, its reputation, as a great melodrama?

The only thing that comes to mind is to link the dialogue, which is romantic, with something very literally minded about the WWII American mindset. Something in line with the fact that even though the politics in Casablanca appear to be very cynical, very ambiguous, the “sentimental” romance is linked to the moral dichotomy – Germans Bad, French Resistance Good. The tension between Rick’s cynical exterior and his lovelorn heart is also a tension between his outward neutrality and his ultimate decision to kill the German officer and allow the Resistance leader to escape, even subordinating his personal romance (“the problems of three little people”) to that greater goal.

Hell, I think it’s a compelling story, and I could see how, leaving the theatre, one might retroactively imagine the romance to be more believable than it actually was.

(Even as a nth generation feminist, no, I’m not happy about Ilsa telling Rick to do the thinking for both of them, but on the other hand… it fit the era, and it does simplify the story, so I‘m not terribly perturbed.)

What concerns me more is the idea of Rick as an American Hero. Even presented as an anti-hero, it is understood that Rick’s true nature is Heroic – I’d say, primarily because he is American, and America in Casablanca is the ideal realm of strength and freedom to which everyone wants to escape. The fact that Rick supported the underdog in Spain and in Ethiopia (really?) is enough to warrant his being a top priority for the Germans and, more importantly, prove his strength and virtue in the eyes of the audience. Even though he supposedly spent a year in Paris doing nothing but make love and after that becomes avowedly neutral and cynical, his Masculine Americanness (in a sea of non-Americans) demands innate heroism.

Even this I wouldn’t say bothers me – this is an American film released during World War II; it’s only to be expected. But the assumptions that came out of WWII – war is a conflict of good vs. bad; America is the ideal society – I should say that these ideas didn’t originate with WWII but were very powerfully reinforced by it. Really set the tone for the 20th century, at least the US narrative.

Cut to present day. Here I am in the Middle East, realizing how powerful an idea the American Way of Life really is. I’m used to critiquing consumerism, imperialism, the all-consuming expansion of American culture – but on the other hand, the idea of having access to global culture, having access to all the conveniences of modern life – it’s a very compelling notion, and it’s one thing to critique it from within the culture, but it’s another thing to not have access to that culture.

Which I guess brings me back to the idea that most people, all over the world, want pretty much the same thing. They want to be able to live comfortably, with dignity, and most of all to provide security and dignity to their families. They want to be able to give their kids what other kids have. That there are consequences to the achievement of this way of life… that’s another question.

And speaking of WWII film tropes, every now and then, when I read something along the lines of “collateral damage” and what’s “fair” in situations of, say, civilian death tolls or human rights abuses, I think about this Mitchell and Webb sketch.