The Purple Rose of Cairo
As incredulous a comparison as it is, the monoliths that are DC & Marvel have an awful lot in common with that rare, super prolific class of directors which Woody Allen belongs to. Both parties present the uninitiated with an unwieldy mass of titles to consume and no clear starting point and both have celebrated and maligned eras. Pick unwisely and it may well put you off investigating any further, personally, that has been my experience with the veteran comedian. Historically, my exposure to the films of Woody Allen has seen me cultivate a disinterest in the man and his work. And therein lies the biggest test, do any Woody Allen films exist that could possibly turn this wave of ambivalence into something a little more positive? After watching the Purple Rose of Cairo (as part of Arrow Academy’s 1979-1985 set) the answer to that question is a resounding yes.
Observing that ever rare tactic of using the title as a reference to a film within the film is this American depression-set entry into the Canon of Woody Allen. Mia Farrow is Cecile and her life is just rotten, she works at a diner with her sister and upon returning home she has to do everything for an ungrateful husband (Danny Aiello), who is all too ready to beat her at a moments notice. Her only escape in this broken-down New Jersey suburb is the local cinema and the film showing, a golden era romance called the Purple Rose of Cairo. Day after Day she turns up, her love of the movies her only escape from her dire circumstances. Then, on her fifth viewing, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) turns around and says to her,“my god, you must really love this movie”, walks up to and out of the screen and runs out of the cinema with Farrow hand in hand. Back in Hollywood, the producers and Gil Shepard, the actor who played Tom Baxter, rush to the scene to solve this issue and continue on with the picture.
Euro label, Second Run’s first release of 2016 was Escape from Liberty Cinema by Polish director Wojciech Marczewski after he was banned from making a film for 8 years for his 1981 film Shivers. That is a furiously satirical film battling against censorship, its relevance in this reviews comes from it having the exact same plot as the Purple Rose of Cairo, and Marczewski goes as far as openly referencing Allen’s film. Together they form one of the best double bills of the past 30 years, with one extolling the virtues of love and the other anger at the state. And therein lies the beauty of the Purple Rose of Cairo, Cecile has every right to be angry but to the contrary, her story tells of the transformative powers of movies and their ability to transport us away from all our troubles and strife.
Through expressing his love of film, Woody Allen’s script also invokes and satirizes the very idea of wish fulfillment. Just like Mia Farrow’s Cecile, anybody who becomes absorbed by film will fall in love with a character or characters, it’s how fandom occurs for a lot of people. Cecile falls for Tom Baxter and through some mysterious fantasy device, he is rendered real and therein lies the rub. From the perspective of Tom Baxter and all the other actors in the self-contained film, they live in a reality outside of reality and each film screening acts as a cycling performance and with the completion of screening, there is only darkness. Upon escape, Tom Baxter transitions from black and white to colour, a change that represents the difference in these two worlds. Tom is like a child, knowing nothing of the world, picking fights and being unaware of the darker recesses of depression hit American life – as that is how his character was written.
This idea isn’t looking at the characters who inhabit our favourite movies with a condescension, on the contrary, it is presenting them as the icons of escapism that they are. Tom Baxter and his fellow characters from the contained Purple Rose of Cairo, their alien quality is the embodiment of the suspension of disbelief and escapism. Furthermore, Cecile develops a relationship with the actor Gil Shepard and finds someone who she gets on with, but he is an altogether shallower person than the creation he gave life to. Is this Woody Allen’s attempt to poke fun at actors? Perhaps, but the way their relationship develops talks of the strength we, as viewers, find from our love of the cinematic medium. An oft-overlooked trait of the medium are those occasions when cinema changes the way we act and think in our normal day to day lives. Now, whether or not that is a notion that isn’t fully reciprocated I’ll leave to ambiguity, however, when real life friendships and relationships let us down the next love affair with the big screen is never too far away.
A common trait of the Woody Allen film is the persona. A massive majority of his works features either him in the lead role of a proxy for him (with varying degrees of success) if you are a fan that will be welcomed with open arms but if you aren’t it pushes his works further and further away from appreciation. To this non-fan, that doesn’t appear to the case here. Mia Farrow is all but unrecognisable as Cecile, the dowdy and long-suffering housewife has none of the self-effacing sarcastic whit that your typical Allen lead has and the sensitivity of the shy every man that allows the piece to function as beautifully as it does. Jeff Daniels as Gil Shepard is the closest the film comes to that proxy and with a degree of distance from the center-stage too. And therein lies the joy of the Purple Rose of Cairo, it takes the ideology of Woody Allen as a person and uses his loves and enthusiasm as the film’s nucleus and when such passions are communicated this beautifully its hard to not get caught up by it all.