MOVIE OBJECTS (13)

By: Madeline Ashby
May 7, 2020

One in a series of 25 nonfiction narratives about significant objects spotted in movies. Presented to HILOBROW’s readers by Project:Object.

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LETTERS OF TRANSIT | CASABLANCA | d. MICHAEL CURTIZ | 1942

The plot of Casablanca revolves around the letters of transit that guarantee passage out of the Nazi-occupied country and onto the plane to un-occupied Lisbon that will likely connect to a flight to Allied America and freedom. The film takes great pains to explain this in a sequence depicting the arduous journey: “And so a tortuous, round-about refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train or auto or foot across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here the fortunate ones through money or influence or luck might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca, and wait… and wait… and wait.”

The letters of transit are more than just pieces of paper. They’re the difference beween oppression and liberation, desperation and hope, life and death. And yet, paper is all they are. The letters of transit speak to the nightmarish, Kafkaesque absurdity of life under the Nazis, when a single stamp on a single piece of paper could destroy entire families and countries and ways of life. If you visit any museum that documents the Holocaust, you will find similar such pieces of paper.

Perhaps for this reason, we hardly ever see the exit visas on film. They’re the film’s primary McGuffin. They’re all anyone talks about. They’re bargained for and killed for and they’re worth sacrificing marriages for. But for the most part, all the viewer sees of them is a white envelope. Just a simple slender white envelope, like any other, utterly quotidian. If we saw what they really look like, some of their magic — and their menace — might evaporate. “Oh, it’s just a letter,” we might think. But letters are made up of sentences, and some are death sentences.

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MOVIE OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Ramona Lyons on EYE OF THE SERPENT (CONAN THE BARBARIAN) | Faythe Levine on BEDKNOB (BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS) | Gerald Peary on CUP OF COFFEE (THE BIG HEAT) | Christopher Orr on TOM’S HAT (MILLER’S CROSSING) | Lynn Peril on TRANSISTOR RADIO (DR. STRANGELOVE) | Whitney Bowers on DUCT TAPE (NOW AND THEN) | Kio Stark on CANDLE (DEBBIE DOES DALLAS) | Tom Roston on CALCULATOR WATCH (BREAKFAST CLUB) | Miranda Mellis on LIMOUSINE (MELANCHOLIA) | Carolina A. Miranda on HAUNTED ACCORDION (THE WIND JOURNEYS) | Vanessa Berry on FIBREGLASS MARLIN (LOVE SERENADE) | June Thomas on CERAMIC DUCKS (A TASTE OF HONEY) | Madeline Ashby on LETTERS OF TRANSIT (CASABLANCA) | Dave Walker on ETTINAUER 226-XL (REAL LIFE) | Jonathan Lethem on SINGLE-JACK HAMMER (EARTH ABIDES) | Guy Trebay on STAMPS (CHARADE) | Annie Nocenti on PASSPORT (THE PASSENGER) | Tony Arcabascio on SHEEPSKIN COAT (BEAT STREET) | Alix Lambert on TYPEWRITER (MARY AND MAX) | John Sellers on WHITEBOARD (A QUIET PLACE) | Carlo Rotella on POWDERING CONE (REIGN OF TERROR) | Laura Miller on SEVERED EAR (BLUE VELVET) | Josh Glenn on CASSETTE TAPE (BREATHLESS) | Vicente Lozano on NOTEBOOK (WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOME?) | Jeff Malmberg on SPAGHETTI SAUCE (THE GODFATHER).

LOST OBJECTS (vol. 2): INTRODUCTION | Joe Yonan on MACRAMÉ ART (ill. Theo Ellsworth) | Ben Katchor on LUCITE CARRYING CASE | Debbie Millman on GLASS POODLE | Lydia Millet on ROCKY HORROR NOVEL (ill. Berta Valló) | Ben Greenman on WARHOL CAN (ill. Clara Selina Bach) | & 20 MORE.

FETISHES: INTRODUCTION | Josh Foer on DEATH MASK | Beth Lisick on MURDERED-OUT KFC BUCKET | Christina Couch on LEECH ACTION FIGURE | Kenneth Goldsmith on THEWLIS SOCK | Abby Rapoport on MAGNATILES | & 20 MORE.

FOSSILS: INTRODUCTION | Allegra Huston on SKATAWAY JACKET | Kevin Obsatz on HOMEMADE NUNCHUKS | Ian Bogost on DESKTOP TELEPHONE | Jeff Lewonczyk on CHA-CHA JACKET SCRAP | Kelly Horan on VOLVO KEY | & 20 MORE.

FLAIR: INTRODUCTION | Cliff Kuang on ROLEX DATEJUST | Ethan Zuckerman on LAPTOP STICKERS | Ann Shoket on LEATHER JACKET | Kembrew McLeod on KEMBREW MERCH | Paola Antonelli on MERMAID TEARS | & 20 MORE.

LOST OBJECTS (vol. 1): INTRODUCTION | Kate Bernheimer on MULLET WIG (ill. Amy Evans) | Dan Piepenbring on COLOGNE (ill. Josh Neufeld) | Doug Dorst on STRATOCASTER (ill. John Holbo) | Paul Lukas on VANILLA BEAN (ill. Alison Bamcat) | Mimi Lipson on DODGE DART (ill. Mister Reusch) | & 20 MORE.

ILLICIT OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Kio Stark on PEEPSHOW TOKEN | Sari Wilson on TOMBSTONE PARTS | Annalee Newitz on CAR-BOMB REMNANT | Tito Bottitta on MOONINITE DEVICE | Eric Bennett on DIRTY MAGAZINE | & 20 MORE.

TALISMANIC OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Veda Hille on CROCHET SHEEP | Gary Panter on DINOSAUR BONES | Jami Attenberg on SELENITE CRYSTAL | Annie Nocenti on MINIATURE DICE | Wayne Curtis on CLOCK WINDING KEY | & 20 MORE.

POLITICAL OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Luc Sante on CAMPAIGN PAMPHLETS | Lydia Millet on PVC POLAR BEAR | Ben Greenman on MATCHBOX CAR | Rob Baedeker on PRESIDENTS PLACEMAT | L.A. Kauffman on WHEATPASTE POSTER | & 20 MORE.

SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018) | FETISHES series (2Q2019) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 2 series (4Q2019) | MOVIE OBJECTS series (2Q2020). ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.

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