Fundamental Things Need Not Apply

So here’s a couple of things we probably have in common, and another one that we probably don’t.

You and I (probably) remember Casablanca: failing which, we have both (again, probably) heard at least one of the six lines it contributed to the AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes list. If you are already losing interest I will list them out so you can snap your fingers and go Oh! before you close this tab:

  • “Here’s looking at you, Kid.” —5th
  • “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” —20th
  • “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By’.”—28th
  • “Round up the usual suspects.”—32nd
  • “We’ll always have Paris.”—43rd
  • “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”—67th

Still around? Man, that Ingrid Bergman was some bird, wasn’t she? And Bogey with that world weary grimace. Sigh.

“We will always have Paris.. assuming the Germans are nice enough to give it back.”

The other thing (the one we probably don’t have in common… yet) is the writings of Robert Coover. More specifically, a basic familiarity with the same.

Coover is amongst the earliest American postmodernists (although he prefers metafictionist or fabulist), which means he likes to muck about with time/space/language/narrative/dolphinsexpectations.

What sets Coover apart from a Barthelme or Pynchon is his stories’ insistence on keeping pop culture at the forefront, as well as the darker tone he adapts (at least in the pieces I have read so far).

tl:dr version: not recommended if pastiches or the occasional touch of the macabre put you off.

Anyhoo. The story I want to talk about today (ever notice how the intro always takes up roughly a third of these reviews?) is from his 1987 anthology, A Night At The Movies, which is populated with movie clichés chopped up and spliced together and played at 10x the original speed.

Coover’s preoccupation appears to be with how these images and ideas accumulate in a towering mythology; the collages are extremely well-written and delicately put together, but too many in-jokes and throwaway gags require a working knowledge of tropes and idioms of American film/cartoons from the silent era right up to the rip-roaring 80’s.

Indeed, I was ready to return to the more imaginatively titled Pricksongs and Descants before I flipped to the final story. And now I will probably have to go back and read the entire damn collection from end-to-end.

The endpiece is a meditation on Casablanca called You Must Remember This.

Fans of the movie will remember a certain tasteful cut when Bergman‘s Ilsa Lund goes to Bogey‘s Rick Blaine in order to beg for the letters of transit that can save the life of her revolutionary husband. The story simply takes the black screen as a takeoff point, painting a picture of what exactly goes on at Rick’s apartment.

To those of you already sniggering or nodding knowingly: have it your way.

The story starts off unsure whether it wants the former lovers to kill each other or rekindle their old flame; once it takes the latter path it commits fully to leaving no details out.

I couldn’t help but cringe for the first couple of pages – not because it is badly written (Coover’s eye for pacing and detail is formidable) but because it is thorough enough to be almost clinical. You will visualize every single moment in your head, whether you wish to or not; and every single line of dialogue stays true to character. It is as if Ilsa and Rick simply crossed the aisle from a PG-Rated B&W romance to an X-Rated feature shot in crisp 1080p.

And then the insidious Coover begins with his flashbacks.

Every single action after the impromptu first embrace carries shades of the whirlwind courtship in Paris that we only saw as a brief montage; the story remains X-Rated, so the portrait we get is clear-eyed but almost grotesque in its intimacy.

Flaws in both characters rise gradually to the surface and are highlighted – Ilsa’s naivete, Rick’s belief that he is Humphrey Bogart when he is actually a lonely and uncertain drunk – until the deft touches that sweetened the original screenplay are blown into the psychological equivalent of the original Grimms’ folktales.

Kid‘ becomes less a term of endearment than an indictment of Rick’s prematurely aged cynic; the storied Paris that was once hallowed ground turns into an overwhelming reminder of everything they have lost.

Even Rick’s humidor, unlike most movie props, contains a finite number of cigarettes.

And still their sexual congress continues, the participants more and more self-aware with each passing moment, desire giving way to dread, sensation losing ground to compulsion.

It wouldn’t be a postmodern story if the narrative stood straitlaced throughout, of course.

The final act is to be read to be believed. To say more would spoil the best bit about the story.

Let me conclude simply with a tiny factoid: the famous song that Ilsa exhorts Sam to play again was initially to be replaced by the music director with an original composition. Bergman, however, had already cut her hair for a subsequent role and was unavailable for filming; As Time Goes By stayed.

It is depressing to think something so apt, so elegant in its simplicity was originally considered dispensable.

Coover’s story, on the other hand, goes beyond the hommage inherent to its title, both tipping its hat to the various renditions that pepper the movie and anchoring its more experimental turns to the song itself.

The passage of time is unidirectional and inevitable, but here is one way the rules can be subverted, a possible tangent that the lovers’ welcome can take.

You Must Remember This is among the best short stories I have read.

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