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Casablanca on St. Valentine's Day 

Play those heartstrings again, Sam

Wednesday, Feb 20 2008
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There are too many people in love in Los Angeles. This Valentine's Day, half of them seem to be at the Silent Movie Theatre watching Casablanca. (The other half are right where they should be, at home, watching a DVD of Casablanca.) They are kissing, exchanging bons mots and roses and heart-shaped boxes of candy, preparing to grope each other as the theater lights dim. We had never seen Casablanca before, my cousin Clarissa and I, and in defiance of all that is soft and romantic in the world, we had come here, two lonely but feisty single girls, in the manner of Sex and the City or Bridget Jones's Diary or Felicity — or any other show, for that matter, that glorifies the travails of the unwed modern young woman — to brave the most romantic movie ever made. But we failed to see the forest for the trees: Hell is not other people, hell is other people making out in front of you while Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman they'll always have Paris.

"Love is babies. Love is women. Love is a feeling. Love is an emotional feeling," a man is saying onscreen. He's a prisoner in a detention facility, circa 1979, and is one of a series of everyday people talking about their definition of love for the The Love Tapes documentary, which is the appetizer before the Casablanca main course. Watching The Love Tapes is like when you're on the bus and a crazy person sits down next to you and starts talking and won't shut up and you have about 50 more stops to go. Occasionally, what he's saying is brilliant. If you are in a relaxed mood — drunk from too much wine, perhaps, or on Valium — and are feeling particularly receptive, you might even sense a greatness to the monologue, to the complex simplicity of the concept. Cousin Clarissa is none of these things. She hadn't even had a chance to finish her glass of Cabernet at dinner before I'd whisked us off to the theater, mistakenly thinking we'd missed the start of the film.

At the midprogram stretch break, we inquire about the running time of the movie. "Let's see," says the head programmer, "Casablanca is 102 minutes long."

"Good," says Clarissa, who was expecting four hours. "Nobody has to die."

It's like a siege, all of us trapped in here waiting for Casablanca to screen. A love siege. We feel like we've bonded, Stockholm syndrome-style, with the rest of the crowd — from the mysterious single man to Clarissa's right, to the gay couple sitting next to us, to the lesbians behind us, to the older gentleman across the aisle nuzzling the girl half his age. We've come this far, might as well push on through! Still, it's tough to tell if the groans coming from the audience are groans of joy or horror as The Love Tapes documentary reel fades to black, signifying the end ... of part one. Another person onscreen launches into another definition of love.

"Love is painful," says Clarissa. Her glare bores a hole into the head of the person in front of us. You can practically see his brain ooze out the back of his skull. Clarissa's wearing her gray contact lenses, which are itchy but turn her brown eyes the color of concrete. "Don't you know any nice, cute single men?" she sighs. We'd exchanged the hoochie, Victoria's Secret shopping bag-toting crowd at the Grove's Cheesecake Factory for the Silent Movie Theatre's artsy, cinephile crowd, yet both crowds are impenetrable when viewed from the outside.

Every woman in the audience, of course, wishes she were Ingrid Bergman. That flawless porcelain skin, those quavery full lips, those fabulous outfits: How many of us are not picturing how we would look sitting in a Moroccan cafe in a smart little black beret, or in a long, slim silk skirt, ruffled blouse and a sash nipping us in at the waist? Oh yeah, and that Bogart guy. He's not so bad. Even those in the room who are not actively in love are at least in love with love. For 102 minutes, the Silent Movie Theatre is Rick's Cafe Americain, the guy at the door taking the tickets is the German Major Strasser, the audience is a mixed bag of resistance fighters, thieves and spies, and Fairfax Avenue is Vichy-controlled Casablanca.

After the movie, Clarissa and I pile out, not even minding the smooching couples, not as much anyway. Such is the power of film. The funny, stiff seats with makeshift butt pillows, the missing cup holders, the distinctly uncorporate ambiance, the baby grand piano with the Tiffany lamp, the single-stall women's bathroom — how quaint! — even the cupcakes and cookies in the concession stand, have morphed into glowing, rosy versions of their previous selves. That glow is strong and will carry us far, maybe even as far as the parking lot.

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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