In the Eyes of the Beholder: Perspective in Casablanca

When Rick Blaine sees the love of his life, Ilsa Lund, at the door of Rick’s Café Américain in the 1942 classic film Casablanca, he is utterly dumbfounded. The beautiful woman he so loved, the woman who left him at a rail station in Paris years ago, has suddenly reappeared. The cinematic gaze of the camera follows Ilsa as she crosses the room on the arm of another man, just as Rick’s eyes do. It captures the onlookers gaping at her, marveling at just how dazzling she is. From the moment Ilsa enters the room, she is objectified: by the eye of the camera that with choice shots tracks her every movement, by every man in the saloon, and by every individual watching the movie.

The camera in effect turns every viewer into a restaurant customer seated at a table. And the eye behind that camera is a man. Not only is the cast of Casablanca almost exclusively male, but the creative minds behind the production are as well. In fact, the three screenwriters and director are all men, as are the cinematographer and film editor.[1] The plot and the historic timeline that it follows reflects stereotypically masculine concerns: war, duty to country, and freedom. Every decision-maker depicter, regardless of his political affiliation, is a man. All viewers, both male and female, are forced to see the world of Casablanca through the eyes of a man – the lens of a masculinized camera.

The gendered viewpoint that the film adopts is very much indicative of the time period in which it was produced. The manpower of Hollywood cinema, especially in the 1940s, cannot be overstated. The movie itself features three female characters in prominent roles (Ilsa, Yvonne, and Annina Brandel), and several other woman in ancillary roles.[2] The camera portrays these women literally in a different light than it does the men: they are more brightly lit, without shadows, and very often in soft focus. Both in her entrances into scenes and in her conversations with other characters, Ilsa maintains the attention of the camera; in several instances the lens remains fixated upon her even when she is not speaking.[3] When the female singer performs in the middle of the café, she is in the center of the camera’s shot.[4] She is illuminated, while the saloon audience is relegated to the shadowy periphery. The perspective of the film audience parallels that of the restaurant-goers: sitting in the dark, grouped around and staring at the singer. This double audience becomes a congregation of Peeping Toms who, from their seats hidden in the dark, watch a woman perform for their pleasure. The female character is implicitly objectified and sexualized; her function in the scene is to be looked at. Her thoughts and perspective are ignored.

This is the crux of Laura Mulvey’s argument as to why female characters are relegated to subordinate roles in film. She uses psychoanalysis to define three distinct “looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the profilmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion.”[5] She contends that Hollywood’s editing style, known as continuity editing, harms us as viewers. It controls our viewing with its coercive close-ups, forcing us to focus on whatever the camera, and its operator, so choose. And since the chosen perspective is that of a male, Mulvey suggests that most films celebrate masculinity over the feminine, and portray women only as men perceive them rather than as they truly are. According to her, the only choice left to a woman watching such movies is “to identify with figures relegated to inferior status and silenced.”[6] If Hollywood productions such as Casablanca are so hopelessly misogynistic, is there an alternative?

One possible answer lies in the conception of the ‘woman’s film.”[7] Molly Haskell argues in her volume From Reverence to Rape (1973) that “female actresses of the 1930s and 1940s” had some roles that “offered images of intelligence, forcefulness, and personal power, far surpassing roles of actresses in later films.”[8] After its peak in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Haskell believes that “woman’s film” became less prevalent because men felt threatened by women holding positions of power, either within or without film.[9] Ilsa, the female lead in Casablanca, does not present the image of intellectual potency that characterize the women of Haskell’s “woman’s film,” nor does she wield any sort of power. She is even incapable of making her own decisions. When Ilsa professes her love to Rick and confides in him that she cannot decide what is best for her, she tells him: “You have to think for both of us.”[10] It is the man who then makes the choice of duty over love. Yvonne is a hapless one-night-stand who Rick simply casts aside without any concern. The newlywed Annina Brandel is just as powerless. She imagines that sexual favors are the only tools by which to change her destiny. When she pleads Rick to help her and her husband, the camera gravitates to her face. Film viewers are then able to see exactly what Rick sees: a beautiful young woman. Is this the reason he takes pity on her, helping her husband win money on a game of roulette? One cannot be certain, but the film certainly offers this possibility. All of the supposedly prominent female characters are essentially irrelevant and subservient to the male-driven plot.

What Haskell proposes as a replacement for Casablanca and the like is a variety of film that places women “at the center of the universe.”[11] Instead of their typical supporting role, actresses should be the leads in movies that have more inherently feminine concerns than the male intrigues apparent in Casablanca. Mulvey seems to agree with such an idea. She believes that a new type of feminist filmmaking “can… only exist as a counterpoint” to Hollywood convention.[12] In that sense, her work is a battle cry that is meant to inspire women to seize control of the culture that they consume. Casablanca is in almost every sense the polar opposite of every desire Haskell and Mulvey have for a feminist film alternative. The movie is made by men, about men, and for men. It is symbolic of what it means to be male: to be in power. Haskell and Mulvey see no need to analyze Casablanca and its equivalents, as they are simply indicative of a culture that is inherently male in character.

Some literary critics disagree with this notion of a separate “male culture.” In the mind of Lucy Fischer, discussion of women’s art should not be severed from everything that is male, but rather structured as an “intertextual debate” or “dialogue” between the two cultures.[13] As Myra Jehlen notes, “women cannot write monologues; there must be two in the world for one women to exist, and one of them has to be a man.”[14] Fischer thinks a film produced by a man can still on some level defy conventional norms, those norms being stereotypically male cinematic plotlines and power structures. So although a film like Casablanca may not deviate in the least from typical Hollywood masculinized film, it is still important to discuss it.

But the discussion of feminist cinematic concerns, even in the context of popular culture and the Hollywood filmmaking within it, still encounters issues of male domination that are apparent in Casablanca. Even as gender stereotypes have faded in modern movies, its manly cool continues to transfix, and that helps perpetuates a sexist perspective that men drive the plot and that women are merely interesting interludes along the road of a manly plot. Contemporary films still employ close-ups and choice POV shots that objectify the actresses they portray. Although women may play more active roles in cinema today than they did in 1942, they are still subservient to their male counterparts. The pattern of male domination is still apparent, and men still hold the majority of production positions. Women remain a distinct minority as executives, directors and cinematographers in the movie business. Only when they achieve that level of control will the scripts and the eye of the camera frame a different image of women. The powerful women who have risen to the top tier of the pop film industry demonstrate how the lens refocuses when a woman wields the camera.

[1] “Casablanca,” IMDb, May 18, 2016,

[2] “Casablanca,” IMDb, May 18, 2016,

[3] Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz (1942; Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Entertainment, 1942), DVD.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, ed. Douglas Kellner and Meenakshi Gigi Durham (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 403.

[6] Screening Genders, 18

[7] Molly Haskell, “The Woman’s Film,” in Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, ed. Sue Thornham (Washington Square, NY: New York University Press, 1999), 21.

[8] E. Ann Kaplan, “A History of Gender Theory in Cinema Studies,” in Screening Genders, ed. Krin Gabbard and William Luhr (New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press), 17.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz (1942; Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Entertainment, 1942), DVD.

[11] Molly Haskell, “The Woman’s Film,” in Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, 21.

[12] Lucy Fischer, Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women’s Cinema (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 11.

[13] Ibid, 12.

[14] Lucy Fischer, Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women’s Cinema, 12.

Hope for the Best? Utopianism in The Great Gatsby

On the most basic level, people consume entertainment purely for the sake of amusement.[1] There is no pretense, only an honest desire for pleasure. One popular conception of entertainment is that it serves as a form of transportation away from the monotonies of daily existence.[2] All of its forms, especially the vivid imagery of musicals and movies, can make your wildest dreams come true. Each offers the chance to imagine an alternate utopian universe where everything and everyone is better. The elements of music and dance are essential in constructing that imagination, as they indicate to us through their performance and cultural context how we should feel.[3] The most powerful movies incorporate those elements into the fabric of the production.

The award-winning Australian director and producer Baz Luhrmann excels in blending elements of theater and film to create an especially utopian brand of popular culture. Luhrmann is a progeny of the culture industry: his father was a movie theater owner and his mother was a ballroom dance teacher, and his own career began in theater.[4] The first movie he directed was Strictly Ballroom, which was first a critically acclaimed play.[5] He has directed and produced several other films, including Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge.[6] These three pieces make up a collection known as the Red Curtain Trilogy, so named because each movie incorporates theatrical motifs.[7] Luhrmann’s rich theater background enabled him to fashion a unique direction and production style.

Luhrmann’s most recent opus, the 2013 film remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s popular novel The Great Gatsby, deviates from the typical Hollywood blockbuster in its strong emphasis on song and dance. He reconceives the story of enigmatic mogul Jay Gatsby much like a Hollywood musical, with frequent scenes of lively dancing and revelry that fuel the plot development. Luhrmann’s theatric background explains why this nonstandard blockbuster film resembles a musical. Richard Dyer, Professor of Film Studies at King’s College in London, believes that such Hollywood musicals present to their viewers how their own lives could be “something better.”[8] The integration of music and dance into the storyline makes viewers wish that their own lives were equally exciting and fulfilling.

The character Jay Gatsby himself epitomizes what it means to yearn for “something better.” The young tycoon, born the son of “dirt-poor farmers from North Dakota,” was able to quickly ascend the ranks of society through his ambition and shrewd intellect.[9] The level of wealth and fame that he attains seems to signify the fulfillment of the quintessential “American Dream.” Gatsby seems to have it all, yet he is not satisfied. A simple green light that shines from a dock across the bay captivates him; it symbolizes all the things for which Gatsby yearns. From his home across the water, Gatsby often watches it with great intensity, and even reaches for it. Yet he can never quite grasp it: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… – so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”[10] Gatsby’s past shortcomings and failures haunt him, yet he continues to believe that he can right them. This attitude of persistency and hopefulness is what endears viewers to Gatsby despite his many flaws. Baz Luhrmann encourages us to wish in the same way he does, and the entire audience shares Gatsby’s longing for the unobtainable.

Luhrmann manages to infuse some elements of hope into an otherwise deflated plotline; he understands that the audience, too, needs hope. The time period in which the movie takes place is the height of “Roaring ‘20s,” a time of great prosperity during which stock prices reached record highs.[11] Luhrmann is very ostentatious in his depictions of this great wealth. He spares no expense in representing Gatsby’s summer parties, creating sensational spectacles of colorful and cacophonic chaos. These dance scenes closely resemble theatrical numbers in their choreography, sweeping the film’s audience onto the dance floor and giving them a chance to experience how such a party looks and sounds. During these raucous moments, Luhrmann wants viewers to consider what their own lives would be like on such a grand scale. The music that accompanies both these wild scenes and the tamer moments of narration dictates to the individuals watching the movie what they should be feeling. As philosopher Suzanna K. Langer describes it, “Music is a tonal analogue of emotive life.”[12] People are conditioned to attach certain emotions to the moods of the music they hear; musical tones are similar in structure to human feelings.[13] Luhrmann capitalizes on this capability. He excites his audience with raucous party anthems, allowing his audience to discover what a utopia feels like; he makes them want it.

Musicals and their film counterparts offer utopian solutions to contemporary problems: abundance eliminates scarcity, energy eradicates exhaustion, and intensity replaces monotony.[14] During these truly extraordinary parties, there is only excess, effervescent liveliness, and passion. These solutions are, Dyer says, ones that capitalism provides: “abundance becomes consumerism, energy and intensity personal freedom and individualism.”[15] In essence, these cinematic musicals suggest that capitalism can resolve its own problems. But there some issues that the musical film simply does not address.

The Great Gatsby celebrates capitalism, even as it conveniently ignores the legitimacy of class, patriarchal, and race struggles. This film offers a glimpse of a “better” world, but it is world that is only better for the wealthy white male. It completely ignores the needs of any characters who do not conform to that definition, even if those needs are indeed legitimate. Tom Buchanan, the incredibly wealthy husband of Gatsby’s true love Daisy, bluntly captures the stark class divide of the film when he tells Gatsby that he and other “old-money” socialites “were born different, it’s in our blood.”[16] Despite his newly acquired affluence and renown, Gatsby can never attain the same status as Tom and Daisy because his family was poor.

Gatsby’s mansion on West Egg, the home of “new money” families.

This disregard for the needs of marginalized groups within contemporary society is not simply an isolated case of a single movie. Dyer argues that entertainment, although it “is responding to needs that are real, at the same time it is also defining and delimiting what constitutes the legitimate needs of people in this society.”[17] In choosing to respond to certain issues and not others, the creators of that entertainment (i.e. big film corporations) have the power to determine what issues merit attention and discussion, and what issues do not. The dominant ideology within today’s capitalist society is the rich white man; why expect the pop culture industry to be any different?[18]

Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s estate on East Egg, where the “old money” socialites live.

At this point we have come to the conclusion that The Great Gatsby and other such musically oriented movies do in fact present utopias, albeit seemingly discriminatory ones. But if these alternative worlds seem bigoted, are they really any better than the real world? Fredric Jameson, Professor of Comparative Literature at Duke University, argues in his article “Progress Versus Utopia” that a society founded upon capitalism “demands a memory of qualitative social change, a concrete vision of the past which we may expect to find completed by that far more abstract and empty conception of some future terminus which we sometimes call ‘progress.’”[19] Jameson draws a connection between the utopian desire for “something better,” in the form of social change, with the idea of progress.

If utopias and progress are indeed intimately intertwined, the alternative universes presented in musicals need not be utopias at all (although they certainly can be). Though the societies depicted in cinematic musicals might be discriminatory, that does not mean the movies have no utopias to offer. We as viewers can identify the wrongs present in the films, and imagine how both that world as well as our own could be better. A production’s primary task, then, is able to make problems of class, patriarchy, and race just as apparent through its song and its dance as the problems of scarcity, monotony, and exhaustion. That I was able to imagine how the worlds of The Great Gatsby and other musical films could be massively better means that they served their purpose.


Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” In Only Entertainment, Second Edition, 19-35. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953.

“Baz Luhrmann Biography.”

The Great Gatsby. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. 2013. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2013. DVD.

Jameson, Fredric. “Progress Versus Utopia.” Science Fiction Studies 9.2 (1982): 149.

[1] Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Only Entertainment, Second Edition (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 19.

[2] Ibid, 20.

[3] Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953), 27.

[4] “Baz Luhrmann Biography,”

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Baz Luhrmann Biography,”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 20.

[9] The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann (2013; Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2013), DVD.

[10] The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann (2013; Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2013), DVD.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953), 27.

[13] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 22.

[14] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 24-25.

[15] Ibid, 26.

[16] The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann (2013; Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2013), DVD.

[17] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 25.

[18] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 25.

[19] Fredric Jameson, “Progress Versus Utopia,” Science Fiction Studies 9.2 (1982): 149.

Forrest Gump: A Feather in the Breeze

Each of us wants to find happiness in one form or another. We hope to obtain material objects or attain non-material moral and societal standards because we trust that these things will bring us happiness. British literary critic Matthew Arnold believed in adopting disciplined strategies that minimize the role of chance in order to ensure happiness. He asserted that true happiness comes only through reading the standard-bearers of literary achievement, the “classics.” Arnold insisted that only by reading the classics can a person attain culture: a set of common meanings and values that can then be applied to the real world and guide an individual on how to live a life worth living (5). To stray from this well-ordered path, he warned, is to fail to reach the final goal of perfection. Arnold, writing in the mid-19th century, rejected the notion that culture can be obtained from any other source, and dismissed contemporary film and literature as superficial, without substance, and to be avoided at all costs.

Fellow academic Raymond Williams agreed with Arnold on this topic; he too denigrated modern media as low-brow babble aimed at an expanding audience presumed to be stupid. Williams recognized the value of classic education, yet also believed that “ordinary,” working-class people, and not the elites, have a culture that can teach us valuable lessons on how to live a happy life (4). Each man overlooked the potential insights to be found in the newest generation of literature and film.

The 1994 film Forrest Gump presents a theory of happiness born of both education and ordinary experience, enhanced by the role of free will and chance. The protagonist is a simple, small-town man who by conventional standards is lacking in both culture and intelligence, yet exemplifies both in the unorthodox, almost accidental fashion in which he lives out his life. Forrest is not well-read, but heeds his mother’s sage advice. He is optimistic, avoids judging others, and is kind and respectful to everyone he meets. He is a shining example of the honorable culture of the poor that Williams touts. The film celebrates the simple truths of blue-collar values, which can be just as illuminating as classic literature. It also demonstrates that happiness can be found in a life led without a plan.

Forrest takes life as he finds it and without any clear path, but succeeds and finds joy in every situation he faces because he responds to each in the same cultured manner: with kindness, respect, integrity, and optimism. The feather that floats through the air at both the beginning and end of the movie is a perfect metaphor: Forrest never knows where his life will take him next, but he goes with the flow and he finds happiness at all stops along the way because that is what his mother taught him to do. From a young age, Forrest listened to his mother’s advice. One quote, in particular, always comforts and reassures him: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Surprises are to be expected, and some are more pleasant than others. He lives his life by this motto, and and it guides him through a most astonishing series of random events.  He finds himself in the middle of some of the most important moments of his generation: dancing to the music of a young Elvis Presley in his home; meeting presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in the White House; and fighting in Vietnam. Through it all, he maintains his same demeanor. He even wins a Purple Heart simply because he keeps two promises: he promised Jenny he will run away from the conflict when things got bad, and he promised his good friend Bubba that he had his back, just as Bubba had his. Bound by his culture to keep these promises, he carries countless wounded men out of the field of battle, including Bubba (who does, however, die). This keeping of promises as a means of survival is exactly what Raymond Williams is talking about when he discusses the culture of the ordinary people.

In his essay entitled “Culture is Ordinary,” Williams describes the selfless deeds his neighbors perform in assistance of his family while his father was on his deathbed: “one man came in and dug his [father’s] garden; another loaded and delivered a lorry of sleepers for firewood; another came and chopped the sleepers into blocks; another – I don’t know who, it was never said – left a sack of potatoes at the back door; a woman came in and took away a basket of washing” (11). His neighbors perform these acts of kindness without even saying they did them and with the expectation that, were they in the same situation, Williams and his family would do the same for them. Forrest does the same, even when he is mistreated. He generously gives Bubba’s share of profits from the business they hoped to start together to Bubba’s mother, even though she called him stupid for even starting the company on his own. He also donates large sums of money to institutions that have helped him in the past, thereby returning the favor. Forrest’s life is grounded by his values, and he is a happy man.

The life of Forrest’s one true love, a hometown girl named Jenny, illustrates a life defined by chance and whim and unanchored by culture. Jenny did not have good parenting, and her childhood was filled with brutality and betrayal. Her adult life is defined by a series of poor choices. She is dismissed from college because of a series of lewd photographs, performs topless at a club in Memphis, continues a harmful relationship with an abusive jerk and Black Panther Party member, and samples various psychedelic drugs with hippies. She achieves nothing of permanence in her life, and as a result is so unhappy that she considers suicide on several occasions. This unhappiness is consistent with Arnold’s theory that happiness is created by doing things that cannot be taken away.

But when Jenny needs help, and even when she really doesn’t, Forrest comes to her aid. He punches out a myriad of men who he believes to be a threat to Jenny over the course of the movie. His constancy is a perfect counterbalance to her many missteps, because, although his life is far from well-ordered, he is steady, anchored by his values, and finds happiness in simple things. He tries to help Jenny do the same.

With all of the poor choices Jenny made throughout her life, she acts as a foil to Forrest. The fact that they grew up together in the small town of Greenbow, Alabama, did not result in them internalizing the same culture. The fact that it was a small town should not be romanticized, because that town included much meanness and treachery. Forrest and Jenny are products of the best and the worst in rural values.

Greenbow contradicts Raymond Williams’ notion that culture of a town is particularly good just because it is small and ordinary. The people of Greenbow call Forrest abusive names. The school principal extorts sex from Forrest’s mother as a condition of accepting Forrest into the school. Mrs. Gump does what she has to do to make sure that Forrest gets the education he needs so he can fit in more with the other kids his age. In this light, Mrs. Gump’s conduct aligns with the ideas of Arnold in that she believes Forrest will be better off if he learns “the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon [his] stock notions and habits” (Arnold 5). She believes that the knowledge Forrest will gain in the regular elementary school will improve the quality of life. She realized what Raymond Williams did not: that a child like Forrest needs education to complete his “culturization” and ability to more intimately relate with the world around him.

Arnold and Williams are both products of their time and place. It is understandable that, as a highly educated British theorist, Arnold would assume that only people of comparable intellectual potency could be considered cultured. So, too, is it understandable for Williams, a small-town boy who, although he attended a prestigious university, grew up in a working-class town, to believe that his own origin is a superior place of culture and intelligence. Both Arnold and Williams refuse to acknowledge that a culture other than their own is indeed legitimate. In the final analysis, neither of these men took into account that a work such as Forrest Gump could reveal so much about culture. Neither Arnold nor Williams imagined a person quite like Forrest Gump – a feather blowing in the breeze.


Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Williams, Raymond. “Defining a Democratic Culture.” Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (London: Verso, 1989).