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COPY FOR: RealTime

Casablanca - Movies and Memory

by Marc Augé; Tom Conley, Trans.
University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 2009
120 pp., illus 5 b/w.  Trade, $57.00; paper, $18.95
ISBN: 978-0-8166-5640-0; ISBN: 978-0-8166-5641-7.

Reviewed by Mike Leggett
University of Technology Sydney


I pause as the machine tells me the file is 'Loading into memory'. As the gaze is averted from the screen to the bits and pieces around the desk, the workbench, the room, they receive an unaccustomed glance; synapses fire as the object that holds my attention summons from memory its raison d'être.

Presumably this is why so many applications will 'beep' upon completing the task they have been set, to bring us back to the task in hand. Moments of immersion in the past are like the immersive experience of the re-run repertory cinema, shared with an audience of fellow devotees. This is not the isolated penumbra of the home theatre but the common space of the unchanged, where the spectres on the screen appear like the objects on the desk, with a significance attached to somewhere in the personal past.
Marc Augé re-runs the 1942 classic movie Casablanca starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. The film was an instant hit and provided the American public with an exemplar of moral fibre, no doubt required at the time as a morale booster for the troops prior to the liberation of Europe. Augé lived in France under the Nazi occupation as a child and was not able to see the film until 1947. In this extended essay he traverses the spaces between reminiscence, recall, recollection and reconnections with past moments, conjunctions between the fixity of the motion picture image and personal memory. As an anthropologist (and student of Levi-Strauss), his self-observations are carefully linked, like cinematic montage, cutting between his personal story and that of the film and its history.

The director of the film Michael Curtiz he relates, worked quite freely with the script and the material that was shot, improvising as each day of shooting led to the next and gradually to the film's conclusion. The process of pulling it together is compared to "….the past - even the relatively immediate past - most often comes to us as an array of dispersed 'scenes'. At the moment of remembrance we try to retrieve the bond that unites them, the thread that runs from the one to the other, the very thread of existence."

As terrified refugees, the Augé family fled before the invaders, like that of the characters in the film, scattering across France, across memories of movies, across memory of family histories, of stories passed on by distant relatives, partial accounts, filtered observances. The family of screen stars from the 1940s re-visited today is as, "handsome as gods and goddesses … they haven't acquired a wrinkle. They remain faithful to the first image they gave of themselves when we were young." They remain on the screen unchanged and we remain as they…. the clothes and décor may be of another country, but "To see a film again is to recover a past that retains all the vivacity of the present."

This enjoyable volume does not fit easily into any category: it is part memoire, rumination upon the nature of memory, travelogue (through a wartime France); it reasserts the part mid-20th Century cinema had to play in entrancing Western audiences not only by providing romantic role models but also by pointing towards notions of national consensus and moral choice. The translator Tom Conley, as an academic and most appropriately as a fellow cineaste, provides further context to Augé's story in a short afterword.

Last Updated 1 December 2010

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