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The Importance of Archetypes in Improvisation

I’m reading a collection of Umberto Eco’s essays, Travels in Hyperreality, where I learned that the movie Casablanca was improvised:

Forced to improvise a plot, the authors mixed a little of everything, and everything they chose came from a repertoire that had stood the test of time. When only a few of these formulas are used, the result is simply kitsch. But when the repertoire of stock formulas is used wholesale, then the result is an architecture like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia: the same vertigo, the same stroke of genius.

What’s interesting, is that Eco goes on to talk about the overuse of archetypes in the film, and I wonder whether this was something they had to do, given that they were improvising and under great pressure from the film company.

Every story involves one or more archetypes. To make a good story a single archetype is usually enough. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that. It uses them all.

It would be nice to identify our archetypes scene by scene and shot by shot, stopping the tape at every relevant step. Every time I have scanned Casablanca with very cooperative research groups, the review has taken many hours. Furthermore, when a team starts this kind of game, the instances of stopping the videotape increase proportionally with the size of the audience. […]

However, I think that the first twenty minutes of the film represent a sort of review of the principal archetypes. Once they have been assembled, without any synthetic concern, then the story starts to suggest a sort of savage syntax of the archetypical elements and organizes them in multileveled oppositions. Casablanca looks like a musical piece with an extraordinarily long overture, where every theme is exhibited according to a monodic line. Only later does the symphonic work take place. […]

Let me then try only a sample analysis of the first part. […]

  1. First, African music, then the Marseillaise. Two different genres are evoked: adventure movie and patriotic movie.
  2. Third genre. The globe: Newsreel. The voice even suggests the news report. Fourth genre: the odyssey of refugees. Fifth genre: Casablanca and Lisbon are, traditionally, hauts lieux for international intrigues. Thus in two minutes five genres are evoked.
  3. Casablanca–Lisbon. Passage to the Promised Land (Lisbon–America). Casablanca is the Magic Door. We still do not know what the Magic Key is or by which Magic Horse one can reach the Promised Land.
  4. “Wait, wait, wait.” To make the passage one must submit to a Test. The Long Expectation. Purgatory situation.
  5. “Deutschland über Alles.” The German anthem introduces the theme of Barbarians.

Eco goes on to list dozens more archetypes, and I can’t help but feel that the archetypes were essential to their success, and even to completing the film.

This is from Donald Spoto’s Notorious: The Life of Ingrid Bergman (thanks to Amazon’s new search feature):

A classic in spite of itself, it was improvised daily by many authorial hands, and its success is entirely due to a certain kind of haphazard good fortune that sometimes occurs in Hollywood.

Casting was not the major problem, but the writing was. Warner Bros. production files clarify that the brothers Julius and Philip Epstein worked more than others on the screenplay, but Howard Koch is also credited, and a number of uncredited writers made important contributions (Willy Kline, Aenas McKenzie, [etc.]). The director, producer and cast also had a hand in adding some dialogue. Contrary to the academic understanding of moviemaking, this is not as rare as it may seem.

So there were also many writers collaborating, which I guess made it even more important to use not only proven, but concepts that were familiar with those involved in developing the plot (makes me think of high concepts).

The above was posted to my personal weblog on November 15, 2003. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.

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