One of my favorite movies is Pepe le Moko. Jean Gabin plays the title character, a suave and powerful criminal trapped in the Casbah of Algiers. The police are after him, as are his rivals, but Pepe is safe in the fortress of the winding streets and alleys of the Casbah. If he leaves, the police will surely pick him up, and Pepe wants to leave. A lovely woman from Paris takes his heart, and Pepe risks safety for love and freedom to catch her before she leaves Algiers.
Pepe le Moko came out in 1937. In 1938, it was remade for America as Algiers> It pales in comparison, but nonetheless gained a few Oscar nominations.
In 1942, a movie called Casablanca came out. Rick, a criminal in a different light, is stuck in his purgatory of Casablanca. In pain if he stays, unable to go because of his past, Rick is in limbo. You know the rest.
Ten years or more have gone by since the initial appearance of this Casbah criminal-lover character cropped up. Why have I gone through this? Well, Casablanca is a movie that's remembered, but it is important to know the history behind it. The influence on Casablanca, a great movie in its own right, is obvious, and it is indebted to Julien Duvivier's film.* It is worth noting, however, that it could have easily been another forgettable movie that the Hollywood system of the time churned out. Algiers comes to mind. So again, why have I gone through this?
Knowing history is important to artwork, for consumers and artists. A tradition is established and new forms are built and influences from years past are worked and reworked. Traditions are enriched by serious artists because they are at the very least known, if not appreciated. The danger comes when we forget our origins and believe that the present artwork is wholly original. Bogart's Rick didn't begin in 1942 but in 1937.
In that respect, it takes some ego to call yourself an artist today. To think that you have something new to say, and that it is important for everyone else to hear -- that's something, that's really something. I don't think William Elliott Whitmore, a folk-blues singer who is constantly touted as "unique," who has "the voice Tom Waits wished he had," has that kind of ego. I think he's an artist who knows his history, and I think his marketers and apologists are doing him a disservice by not knowing theirs and comparing him to Tom Waits and Iron & Wine -- the Casablancas, the Algiers, the followers. William Elliot Whitmore is a follower too, in a larger and deeper tradition, and he's singing about death and sin and the typical fare, but I hope, I hope he knows his history, whether he's saying something new, or in his case, building on the past by not.
# Tim Barry, Josh Small
* Cartoon character Pepe le Pew (Looney Toons) debuted around the same time, if not a couple years later. His origin, at least the name and Mel Blanc's voice-acting, comes from Algiers.