Like books and songs, many movies have been made that cannot escape their particular time. In writing my academic book, for example, I aspired to speak beyond those living to generations not yet born because my aim was the production of knowledge beyond mere artifacts of the world in which I live. I knew that the verdict on whether the text passes that crucial test could only come long after my own death. Among films, even though Casablanca is a film immersed in, and thus reflecting its time—the context in 1942 being of course World War II—the film transcends all that to resonate in the following century. In his oral commentary, Rudy Behlmer argues that the film “transcends time.” He goes on to provide us with a list of the usual suspects behind what lies behind the making of a classic.
Firstly, the interplay of the characters still resonates, in that it means something to people outside of that context and is thus still able to illicit emotional responses. In this sense, the film still lives. For example, being torn between two lovers is hardly a dated concept, as the experience renews itself in each generation. Rick’s dejected mood following being betrayed while in love is also something that resonates with many people, and undoubtedly in generations to come. Unfortunately, even a corrupt public official, personified as Louis in the film, is all too familiar to us today, whereas Laslo’s willingness to sacrifice for a higher purpose is largely lost in all the tussle of the business-oriented, consumerist cultures today. Yet the salience of the ideals—sacrifice and renunciation in fighting the good fight against the bad guys—still resonate because ideals themselves are timeless.
Secondly, although Laslo and Louis may be too cliché, Bogart’s character (Rick) is both complex and dynamic (i.e., follows a character arc). As Behlmer puts it, “he is not a bad guy . . . He was an idealist, lost it, and then regained it.” Additionally, Elsa is not some stereotypical love object, and she undergoes changes as well. She becomes caught in the emotional struggle of loving two men in different ways or for different reasons. Rick too is conflicted, most notably whether to send Elsa on with her husband. In fact, as Roger Ebert points out in his oral commentary, the German-expressionistic lighting being associated with the two characters on screen sends a message of emotional turmoil to the viewer’s subconscious. Both this multi-layered approach and internal emotional conflict itself help the film resonate with viewers in any era.
Lastly, the build-up of suspense, owing in part to the difficulty a first-time viewer has in predicting the ending, points to the plot itself as contributing to the film having become a classic. Weaving together strands from melodrama (i.e., plot-driven), drama (i.e., character-driven), comedy, and suspense-thriller helps the film itself avoid stereotyping and provides it with a certain multivalency—a term that Margaret Mead applies to symbol. Perhaps having a multidimensionality renders a film more interesting, and in this respect too makes it more likely that a film will survive into succeeding eras.
In Socrates’s dialogues, both narrative and dialogue of course are salient. In reading them, I noticed that very little that only an ancient Greek would be familiar with is in the texts. The orientation being philosophical, timeless ideas are major players, and, in The Apology at least, the narrative of an innocent man being put on trial and sentenced to death still resonates. In fact, early Christian theologians such as Jerome and Tertullian wrote of Socrates as anticipating Christianity as a “Christ figure.” In fact, the notion of the immortality of the soul comes from Socrates’s Meno (pre-bodily existence being necessary for us to be able to recall knowledge not taught). In short, avoiding things that people in other epochs could not know and privileging ideals and principles that transcend a particular time and place may be vital ingredients to making a film into a classic.