Listening to Mitt Romney and the President duke it out, however flaccidly, complete with incoherent mutterings from Clint Eastwood, the iconic High Plains Drifter of Italian spaghetti westerns, loved by conventioneers, who only wanted to hear him mutter his threatening, “c’mon and make my day” to satiate the group lust for blood, I decided to take refuge at the movies. Only to find a remarkable similarity between real life and idealized American male fantasy , aiming to claim our hearts and minds.

I decided on an old favorite. Casablanca is the ultimate lonely guy film.

Rick, an enterprising if dodgy American expatriot with a tarnished heart of gold, falls heavy for Ilsa, a Norwegian princess, who  withholds that she is the widow of European superpatriot and Resistance King, Victor Laszlo. But Victor isn’t dead.

Laszlo and Ilsa exist in a world of soft focus and cooing words. Despite hideous suffering and travail, their aspiration DeGaulle-like, is to lead the Resistance; but from America. And therein is the dramatic twist: Rick has the valued letters of transit, stolen by an associate who had killed to obtain them.

The backstory of their brief, idealized sojourn together in Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion, powers the film. Rick bears the loss as unresolved mourning. Its key is a song, “As Time Goes By”, played by Sam, Rick’s sidekick. But for Rick, the song endures as an absence. It is the tune that Sam is prohibited from playing. Rick is agonized when he hears Sam play the tune one night— and then sees Ilsa.

We know that Rick does the right thing just as we know that he and his comrade in contingent action, ultimately head out, like Tom and Huck, for the Territories— this time, Brazzaville and the Free French Garrison.

As the credits roll, the viewer does not ask himself, “hey, what happens to Sam?” He knows about Rick, he knows about Ilsa, but what about Sam? Sam has effectively been passed to the next owner of Rick’s bar. The viewer has no idea whether there was any talk between them. Having furnished a link to Ilsa through his piano playing, a link now broken with Rick’s resolution of his prolonged mourning, Sam’s loyalty has been rewarded with a salary raise; and Rick turns from him as he picks up another contingent chum, Louis Renault.

In the end, it is two lonely guys, paired. For Rick, it is his second chumship— thin and based in action. He is free to congratulate himself on doing the right thing and on sacrificing his relationship with Ilsa, a relationship that could never be.

Rick is off to new adventures. I think about Sam, traded to the unctuous Sidney Greenstreet character, Ferrari, and languishing without a friend in Casablanca. He’d hitched his star to the wrong wagon. Sam is the fall guy. For Ferarri, it is business as usual. For Rick and Louis, it is the “beginning of a wonderful friendship”, just as idealized as with Ilsa.  Rick is absorbed in his adolescent fantasies of bravery and nobility. Ilsa and Victor, of course, either save the world or, in achieving America, wind up in Levittown.

Back at the Campaign, I fear that whatever the outcome, we Americans hope only that there is a good ending to the current mess; and that the Lisbon plane flies like a precious Ark holding our gilded fantasies of the future. But then I think of Sam.  Seems to me that we’re all Sam, loyal during the primary, and left in the end, in a desert we’d come to, misinformed about the waters.

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Obama, Romney, and US: Scripting the American Fantasy


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