Sunday Nov. 26, 2017

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The Partial Explanation

Seems like a long time
Since the waiter took my order.
Grimy little luncheonette,
The snow falling outside.

Seems like it has grown darker
Since I last heard the kitchen door
Behind my back
Since I last noticed
Anyone pass on the street.

A glass of ice water
Keeps me company
At this table I chose myself
Upon entering.

And a longing,
Incredible longing
To eavesdrop
On the conversation
Of cooks.

“The Partial Explanation” by Charles Simic from Selected Poems: 1963-1983. © George Braziller, 1990. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The movie Casablanca premiered in New York City 75 years ago today, in 1942. The film starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, with notable support by Claude Rains and Paul Henreid. It’s the story of a cynical American expat, Rick Blaine, who runs a bar in Morocco’s largest city during World War II. He’s unexpectedly reunited with his former love, Ilsa, who is now married to a leader of the French Resistance. By the end of the movie, Rick finds he still has a selfless heart under his bitter exterior. The movie was originally intended for release in January 1943, and that is when it came out in the rest of the country, but the producers moved up the New York premiere to take advantage of the free publicity surrounding the landing of Allied forces in North Africa.

The film was based on an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. A story analyst called it “sophisticated hokum,” but recommended it to Warner Bros. anyway. Unlike most movies, Casablanca was filmed in story order rather than out of sequence, because the screenplay was only half done by the time filming began. Ingrid Bergman wrote in her autobiography, My Story (1980): “We were shooting off the cuff. Every day they were handing out dialogue and we were trying to make some sense of it. Every morning we would say, ‘Well, who are we? What are we doing here?’ And [director] Michael Curtiz would say, ‘We’re not quite sure, but let’s get through this scene today and we’ll let you know tomorrow.’” She didn’t know which man her character ended up with until the final scene was filmed.

The movie was filmed almost entirely indoors, because a Japanese submarine had been spotted off the coast of California and everyone was worried that Japan might attack the mainland. The production crew also had to cope with war rationing and shortages of things like rubber and aluminum. They couldn’t use nylon or silk in the costumes, so Ingrid Bergman wore cotton. Even casting was affected: refugees from Nazi Europe played about half of the non-starring roles. For such a quintessentially American film, there were only three Americans in the cast.

Casablanca received great reviews, but at the time most people just seemed to think it was going to be one of many boilerplate movies intended to raise American morale during World War II. The New York Times wrote, “Yes, indeed, the Warners here have a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “a drama that lifts you right out of your seat” and added, “Certainly a more accomplished cast of players cannot be imagined.” Variety wrote, “Casablanca will take the [box offices] of America just as swiftly as the AEF took North Africa.” Another reviewer said, “It certainly won’t make Vichy happy — but that’s just another point for it.” It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and won three of them: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Not every critic since the movie’s release has considered it a masterpiece, however. Pauline Kael said, “It’s far from a great film, but it has a special appealingly schlocky romanticism, and you’re never really pressed to take its melodramatic twists and turns seriously.”

Today is the birthday of American novelist Marilynne Robinson (books by this author), born in Sandpoint, Idaho (1943). She was inspired to write her first book, Housekeeping (1980), while working on a Ph.D. at the University of Washington. She was writing about Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II, and began jotting down all the metaphors she noticed. She says: “I read through the stack of metaphors and they cohered in a way that I hadn’t expected. I could see that I had created something that implied much more. So I started writing Housekeeping, and the characters became important for me.”

Housekeeping is about two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are cared for by an aunt after their mother commits suicide. The book earned a devoted following and became a surprise best-seller, but Robinson didn’t publish another novel for 24 years. When her second book, Gilead (2004), was published, it won the Pulitzer Prize. When asked why it took so long between novels, Robinson answered: “I’m dependent on the emergence of a voice. I can’t make them; they have to come to me. There’s no point in my worrying about it.”

Robinson’s parents were married for 54 years and met at the state fair when they were teenagers. She was a voracious early reader, tearing through Moby-Dick at the age of nine, even though adults in town laughed at her.

Her novels and essays are concerned with faith, philosophy, and the human condition. She once said: “The human situation is beautiful and strange. We are in fact Gilgamesh and Oedipus and Lear. We have achieved this amazing levitation out of animal circumstance by climbing our rope of sand, insight, and error — corrective insight and persistent error. The working of the mind is astonishing and beautiful.”

About writing faith into her novels, Robinson said, “At this point, right across the traditions, there is nothing more valuable to be done than to make people understand that religion is beautiful and it is large.”

Marilynne Robinson’s books include Gilead (2004), Home (2008), Lila (2014), and The Givenness of Things (2015).

It was on this day in 1942 that President Roosevelt ordered nationwide gasoline rationing to begin on December 1.

The United States was in the thick of World War II. Fuel wasn’t actually the problem; there was plenty of that. But there was a rubber shortage; many of the traditional sources of rubber were in Japanese hands. In September of 1942, a report known as “The Baruch Rubber Report” was presented to President Roosevelt. The report called the U.S. a “have-not nation” where rubber was concerned. The military needed rubber, and voluntary gas rationing wasn’t working. Civilians simply weren’t cutting out enough nonessential driving to conserve on tire wear and tear. The only way to get civilians to cut down on driving was to limit the amount of gasoline they could buy.

Americans were issued a gas rationing card and stamps. To be out of stamps at the filling station was to be out of luck, unless you had money and could buy on the black market, which soon thrived.

Drivers were separated into different classifications. For instance, “Class A” drivers received only three gallons of gas a week. “Class B” drivers, like factory workers and traveling salesman, received eight. “Class C” drivers were deemed essential to the war effort. They were policeman, war workers, doctors, postal workers. “Class X” was reserved for politicians. Class C and Class X had no gasoline restrictions.

Americans were told to take good care of their prewar cars and tires since there were no new automobiles or tires to buy; the last automobile manufactured for civilian use rolled off the assembly line in February of 1942.

Popular slogans like, “Remember: gasoline powers the attack — don’t waste a drop” soon appeared on advertisements.

Three days after President Roosevelt ordered gas rationing, coffee was rationed. After that came butter, and then sugar. Coffee came off the rationing list in 1943, but sugar held on until 1947.

It’s the birthday of the cartoonist Charles Schulz (books by this author), creator of Peanuts, widely considered the most popular comic strip in the world. Schulz was born in 1922 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and was raised in neighboring St. Paul. Schulz’s father was a St. Paul barber who ran a three-chair shop that charged 35 cents for a haircut. His family often ate pancakes for dinner. As a child, Schulz thought his parents were just quirky; later, he understood pancakes were all they could afford. He was unpopular in school, and one of his cartoons was rejected from his high school yearbook. “I was a bland, stupid-looking kid who started off bad and failed everything and hated the whole time,” he recalls. He once received a C- in an art class unit on drawing children. He flunked plenty of other classes, he remembers, and “I even flunked dating, which was understandable, because who’d have gone out with me?”

Schulz’s mother died of cancer when he was 20. He was drafted into the Army, and the woman he wanted to marry turned him down and immediately married someone else because, he said, “her mother convinced her I would never amount to anything.”

Young Schulz lived in St. Paul above his father’s barbershop. The local paper Pioneer Press published the earliest renditions of Peanuts under its first title, Li’l Folks. By the time Schulz was 27, his luck had changed, and his cartoons were running in seven newspapers across the country.

Schulz’s style was shaped by World War II newspaper needs: short comics with simple art and smart humor. The cartoonist created new strips almost daily until his death. When he developed a tremor, he figured out how to “prop one hand against the other” and keep drawing.

Schulz learned to draw cartoons at an art school in Minneapolis and spent half his life living and working in the Twin Cities. He and his wife raised their family on Minnehaha Parkway in Minneapolis. He spent his later years in Santa Rosa, California, and in 2000 he died in the house on a hill where he had lived since the 1970s. Schulz’s home burned in the wildfires that ravaged northern California in October of 2017. His widow was evacuated, but innumerable memorabilia were destroyed.

Schulz’s real-life tribulations made their way into the strip. The woman who turned him down inspired Charlie Brown’s illusive love interest, the Little Red-Haired Girl. When asked whether his main character reflected himself, Schulz replied: “Oh, definitely, the poor guy. I worry about almost all there is to worry about. And because I worry, Charlie Brown has to worry.” Peanuts was innovative in its explorations of insecurity, anxiety, and the darkness of childhood, which helped the strip find its way into 2,600 newspapers.

“I wish what I did was fine art, but I doubt it is,” Schulz said four years before his death. “Comic strips are too transient. Art is something so good it speaks to succeeding generations. I doubt my strip will hold up for several generations to come.”

A plaque commemorating his career hangs in his high school, and bronze statues of Peanuts characters can be found all over St. Paul. The walls of what was once Schulz’s father’s barbershop on Snelling Avenue, now O’Gara’s Bar and Grill, are decorated with Peanuts characters, at least one of which was hand-drawn by Schulz. Toward the end of his life, he still considered the Twin Cities home.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®