Casablanca: Movies and Memory, Marc Augé (Translated and with an Afteword by Tom Conley)

Casablanca: Movies and Memory (Cover)

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota PressISBN: 978-0-8166-5641-7
US$18.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

In this essay, prolific French anthropologist Marc Augé uses the means of autobiography to investigate the traumatic collective history of France during the second World War.  What sets this elegant work apart from mere remembrance or dry theory is Augé’s use of the film Casablanca (US 1942) as an entry point into the imagination and memory of the war.  The significance of Casablanca in Augé’s work lies not only in its portrayal of the period, but in the active manner that film mediates the relationship between collective history and personal memory.  Augé, in an illustrative manner, takes up the substance of what film theorist Vivian Sobchak outlines in her landmark essay “What is film history?, or, the Riddle of the Sphinxes.”  Sobchak unsettles the problem of historical experience in an era when the mediation of the past keeps resurfacing in the present again and again.  How does one write a history that is both personal and collective when our media continually re-produces our past in the present?  Here, Augé poses a thoughtful and poetic response that embraces that constantly shifting terrain of collective history, filmic experience and personal memoir.

This long essay unfolds its meditations on memory via the intertwining of memoir and criticism.  Like the action of memory that it considers, the short sections follow one another like scene cuts, alternating smoothly between autobiographical remembrances, critical consideration, and philosophical musing.  As with his previous works, Augé’s language is as precise as its evocations are evasive, always receding like the subject of its contemplation.  In Casablanca, Augé hybridizes literary, philosophical and historical methods to create an essay that reproduces the medium under consideration—cinematic memory—in all its valences as memory of cinema and cinematic rememberings.  Moreover, Augé examines the palimpsestic texture when personal histories bleed into collective history, each bound to the other by historical film.  Augé’s approach is not so much interdisciplinary as it is, in a way, pre-disciplinary.  For American academic audiences who are used to a certain density of citation, Augé makes no explicit reference to other academics from whose thoughts he draws.  Rather, he weaves many disciplines and sources together, his freewheeling manner of theorizing characteristic of a certain tradition of European philosophical writing.

A few highlights of this volume include the passage where Augé rehearses the past with his mother, going over the exodus from Paris and affixing his memories to an itinerary of wartime flight.  Augé poses memory itself as a kind of itinerary, historical and historically personal, one which, like cinema, is remembered as scenic pauses breaking up the blur of transit from one French garrison to another. The haptic-spatial as well as the ocular-temporal sneak into Augé’s recollections as what he calls “traces of sensation” find their ground in places like Lion-sur-Mer.  In this contemplative figuring, cinema itself both works on and serves as the ground of memory.  In re-viewing a film we have seen before, we cannot return to the person who first made the memory of the film. That person having passed, aged and accumulated into our present selves turns the site of re-view to a site of farewells.  Casablanca and Augé’s own memory of the trek through France in 1939 echo the figure of memory’s itinerary, which emerges prominently alongside Casablanca‘s endlessly deferred arrivals and departures.

Augé achieves, in this volume, an elegant demonstration of the productive activity of remembering history through or, perhaps more accurately, with cinema.  As always, Augé’s thoughtful prose and his lucid anthropological approach are a joy to read.  Even translated into English, Augé’s work does not lose its potency.  While Casablanca appears easy to read, Augé produces this text from an extremely dense fabric of literary, historical and academic reference.  Implicit in much of this essay is an entire Western tradition of intellectual thought, which simmmers behind the shapes of his vivid evocations.  It would help to already be familiar with French history in this time period to truly gain the most out this concise volume.  Nonetheless, Casablanca remains an intelligent and beautiful exploration of the personal experience of history, one that easily evokes the filmic through a Proustian montage.

While Casablanca provides a demonstration of the issues with studying memory, history and cinema, Augé is not concerned with setting the subject in its intellectual context.  I would suggest that readers interested in this subject to bracket their investigation into this literature with Augé’s book, reading it before venturing into the literature, and again after.  Casablanca best serves as an object of contemplation, not of explication.  Its strengths lie more in graceful meditation than sharp criticism, and I can easily imagine another scholar using Augé’s monograph as the centerpiece of a paper which speaks more to the latter than the former.

Concluding this volume is an essay by its translator, Tim Conley of Harvard University, who reflects on Augé’s work and its place in scholarship of this kind.  Where Augé remains unconcerned with explicitly indicating where his work falls in an intellectual tradition, Conley’s epilogue provides the necessary scholarly depth and texture to a work that could easily be taken at face value as mere memoir.  In particular, Conley’s sharp reading of the essay draws from it underlying concerns with the study of the traumatic as well as spatial theory.   This concise reflection on the essay serves simultaneously as an introduction to the work and as a form of epilogue that draws suggestive links from the essay to further academic and intellectual concerns.

I would suggest this very short volume to film scholars working on the intersections of trauma, history and cinema.  Indeed, academics who focus on public memory and diaspora may find Casablanca especially useful for reflecting on how, as scholars, we cannot escape having already been mediated by the cinema whose history we write. In that impasse, Augé embraces the quandary, drawing forth the moments when his memory and history are inextricably bound by the fabric of cinematic vision.  In this gesture, Augé succeeds in making something productive of our limitations.

(References: Vivian Sobchak, “What is film history?, or, the Riddle of the Sphinxes” in Reinventing Film Studies, edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, London: Arnold; New York : Co-published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press, 2000.)