Time-travel is easy. All you need are a couple of songs and a whiff or two of that street, that meal, that river.
Our pasts lurk closer than we think.
We know, based on recent studies, that people suffering from Alzheimer’s can remember their favorite songs from decades ago even when they’ve forgotten the faces of their family members. And of the five, our sense of smell is the most closely connected to memory. Catch a hint of home (mine: easy-assemble furniture, pizza dough, le mistral) and, no matter where you are in the world, you’ll feel like you’re walking back through your front door.
Before isn’t a series of events as much as it is a collection of sensory experiences: the smell of flowers, the pop of a champagne bottle, the cadence of jazz. And remembering isn’t a cognitive or chronological process over which you have complete control. It’s closing your eyes to see, smell, and taste fleeting memories — before time goes by and takes them away, before after redefines what you’ll remember.
When Ilsa walks into his gin joint, Rick’s understandably angry. You can’t just leave the man you love in Paris without explanation, then walk into his bar in Morocco years later and demand a song. It will shatter the moment, the vie-en-rose dreams he’s been nursing with Sam’s jazz standards since you left. You looked good in Paris — the pink champagne dusk, your blank past. In Casablanca, neon lights illuminate your truth. In Casablanca, you’ve got a husband.
Patriotism, duty, drama, intrigue, and adventure form the backbone of Michael Curtiz’s 1946 masterpiece Casablanca. It’s the story of two ex-lovers, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), who, through extraordinary circumstances, find themselves across a bar table from one another after many years, their secrets exposed. It’s the story of a world at war and it’s the story of sacrifices men and women had to make to survive in that world.
But Casablanca hinges and cracks opens on a quiet montage of two lovers wooing one another in Paris before the story even began. Rick and Ilsa drive down the Champs-Elysees and through the Bois de Boulogne in a convertible. They ride a bateau-mouche and Ilsa arranges flowers and Rick opens a bottle of champagne. They dance, cheek to cheek, in a club.
“Who are you, really, and what were you before, and what did you do, and what did you think?” Rick asks Ilsa.
“We said no questions,” Ilsa says. She knows that you can’t drag the painful past into the Paris-present.
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” says Rick. In that moment, he believes that two people can only be truly happy if they ignore everything hard, everything ugly, everything unacceptable that has made them up until the present moment. But later, looking back, the parts of Ilsa’s life that bring her to him, here, in all the gin joints in all the world, keep him from seeing her as she was then.
Paris is the only city in the world that is exactly what you expect it to be.
It’s the collective chase of pleasure: each sound, sight, and flavor exists to promote a single mood of luxury, love, and light.
To remember my Paris, I conjure brilliant slivers of full experiences that have gone hazy with passing years: a walk, like a prayer, through the Louvre; a sip of too-bitter espresso before I’ve acquired the taste for coffee; century-old floors creaking at Versailles; tiles and stones; butter. I’ve lived in France but never Paris, which seems like a paradox to many people. To them, Paris symbolizes the mood and character of the whole country. And they’re not wrong: Paris is a collection of clips from various scenes that, for whatever reason, the director has chosen not to reveal in their entirety. My Paris is not my Paris at all. It is the Paris everyone knows.
In fiction and film, narrative vacillates between scene and summary. Scenes carry plot, build tension and character; summaries amass a collection of small details to convey momentum and show the passage of time. On camera, these details form montages.
Montages shuffle clips from various scenes, flashing forward and sometimes back, ultimately carrying us from one period in time to the next. Montages raise stakes both within and without the story: characters commit to their own case of do or die, and viewers invest more and more in their fates.
Cher gives Tai a makeover in Clueless. Forrest Gump runs across America. Kevin takes his house from suburban goldmine to field of landmines with an iron, a bucket of tar, and a tarantula. Rocky Balboa trains. Mrs. Doubtfire is born. Pacino oversees a baptism while the Corleone family takes out their enemies. Lester’s life flashes before his eyes in American Beauty. Baby learns how to dirty-dance. Harry and Sally go from acquaintances to friends who watch Casablanca together in bed, on the phone. Bogie and Bergman fall in love in Paris.
A montage builds emotion while simultaneously producing a peak of excitement. It is funny and poignant, triumphant and tragic. It allows the character — and the viewer — to experience, in condensed form, whatever mood the film wishes to build towards.
Ilsa asks Sam (Dooley Wilson) to “play it,” the song that threads through her and Rick’s shared loop of Paris memories.
“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”
“Oh, I can’t remember it, Miss Ilsa. I’m a little rusty on it.”
“I’ll hum it for you.”
Ilsa knows she’s weaving a powerful spell, one that can’t be taken back once it’s released. She hopes to catch Rick in this revolving record, this merry-go-round of recollections. Whether it’s to get him to fall in love with her again, or to procure the transit letters she and her husband require to escape to America, she wants him to see the parts of herself — the parts of their past — that will get him to say, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” She needs him to forget the scenes of heartache that bookended their montage in Paris.
But Rick says, “I thought I told you never to play that song again.”
Because Paris is lore, you don’t need to visit it to own it. You need only recite — as if conjugating a verb in passé composé — the city’s rosary.
We’ll always have Paris. And we’ll always have Casablanca. Like the city it begs us to remember, the film has become a cultural cornerstone, a collection of scenes, snippets of dialogue, and feelings that have integrated our collective consciousness. You don’t need to see it to own it. You nod, and an orchestra plays your national anthem. You put the woman you love on a plane. You say, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
What else is art for, really, than to give us memories we won’t have the time to make?
In the end, Rick isn’t the one who’s most affected by the memories of Paris. Ilsa is. She’s drawn in by her own spell. When Rick tells her that she can’t stay with him — that she must escape Casablanca with her husband — she pauses. In our minds, we hear strains of ‘As Time Goes By.’ On our tongues, we taste champagne.
You can’t move into the past, unpack what boxes you’ve since accumulated. No questions, remember? You’d regret it, Rick says, “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” The montage allures, but you cannot go back to who you were before you waltzed, cheek-to-cheek, through it.
You can visit it, though. It’s easy. All you need is a song, a taste, a perfume, a film.
Kara VanderBijl is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago, drinks tea, and falls asleep at parties. She is a former senior editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room, the previous managing editor of This Recording, and a former arts & culture contributor at Gapers Block.