Monday, March 01, 2010


He's Fictional, But You Can't Have Everything

By Jonathan Pacheco
It's no tall order to write a tragedy set during the Great Depression, but I imagine it takes some restraint to write one where the era's circumstances aren't the immediate sources of distress. The Purple Rose of Cairo, turning 25 today, tells a heartbreaking story that's sadness comes not from the Depression's difficult times, but from one person's antidote to these hardships. This gives the relatively simple tale much more depth, for the filmmaking occupies itself not with plot and historical accuracy, but with understanding its themes — namely, reality versus fantasy, cinematic escapism, and perhaps a slight warning against this defense mechanism. And it's because of this that, though I often cite Annie Hall as my favorite Woody Allen film, I have to side with Edward: The Purple Rose of Cairo is the director at his most masterful, focused, and wise.

I would argue that it's not Cecilia's (Mia Farrow) abusive marriage to Monk (Danny Aiello) that saddens the viewer as much as her fear of doing anything about it. She'll pack a suitcase and walk out on her husband, only to return later that night. She's a naive, submissive, meek mouse of a woman, fragile physically as well as emotionally and psychologically. Her only escape from the disheartening New Jersey world around her is the local cinema. Many people turn to movies to distract them from personal troubles, but Cecilia carries it further, captivated by the film world for days at a time. She can barely function at work without breaking plates or forgetting orders due to her enraptured state.

Imagine her excitement when, after an emotionally damaging day, she watches three straight showings of the newest film in the theater, "The Purple Rose of Cairo," only to have one of the minor characters on screen take notice of her in the audience. Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) literally leaps off the screen and runs out of the theater with Cecilia, hopelessly in love.

Every time I watch the film, I'm impressed by Jeff Daniels' performance as Tom, straightly playing the pitch-perfect innocence the adventurer-poet is meant to embody. I'm even more amazed when Daniels shows up again as the actor who played Tom, Gil Shepherd (in town trying to convince his character to jump back into the limboed film on screen). Gil's a man desperately reaching for Hollywood stardom, making him susceptible to anyone willing to flatter him. Watch the scene where he meets Cecilia at her house to inquire about Tom's whereabouts. Gil starts the conversation with one purpose, and the next thing you know, he's taking Cecilia out for a meal, completely smitten with her; the turnaround is nothing short of astonishing, and Daniels plays it brilliantly. Every compliment Gil receives turns his character's attitude a few more degrees, and oh, how fluidly Daniels performs this transition.

Daniels' dual roles and Tom's self-aware existence aren't new to anyone who knows their Woody Allen (more recently, think of Melinda and Melinda and the literally out-of-focus Robin Williams character in Deconstructing Harry), but it's in this film that the director simply nails all of it. It's been widely quoted that this is one of the few films Allen feels turned out closest to his original vision, and I believe it. The Purple Rose of Cairo is a taut 82 minutes — always focused, even while on tangents, like when Tom unknowingly wanders into a bordello, nearly roped into an orgy. In this seemingly unrelated scene, Tom turns down sexual offers because he's completely in love with and loyal to Cecilia, and the sequence becomes an emphasis on Allen's idea that women, even working girls, desperately want to believe in the romanticism that Tom personifies. In this film, everything falls in line with the greater narrative.

Allen has often toyed with the idea of shooting films through the mind of the protagonist. Annie Hall's original cut was heavier on this concept, but the final film still supports this idea, from Alvy's words to the audience to his literal trips down memory lane. After the dead rabbit moment in the kitchen, the rest of Stardust Memories is intended to be filmed from the mind of Sandy. And everything in Deconstructing Harry, from the events to the editing, represent Harry's state of mind, not necessarily his reality. Although I never considered this during my initial viewing, I now see the events of The Purple Rose of Cairo as taking place almost exclusively in Cecilia's mind. This viewpoint takes a sad love story and turns it into a depressing tale of what this poor woman resorts to to deal with her terrible life.

Think of the film's title: "The Purple Rose of Cairo," described in the film-within-the-film as an Egyptian rose painted purple. It takes something commonly associated with romance, and perverts it to make it even more exotic. In the same way, Cecilia takes the romantic notion of escaping through movies, and one-ups it: what about escaping from a movie, or escaping into a movie? Tom relays a legend that claims the purple rose of Cairo now grows naturally within the Egyptian tomb, and so Cecilia wishes that her altered, unlikely, and unrealistic romance (first with Tom, then with Gil) can blossom into something true and natural.

When she chooses between the character of Tom and Gil the actor, she's choosing between fantasy and reality. But try to imagine her heartbreak when she realizes that her "reality," in this state of mind, is still a fantasy, as Gil jets for Hollywood the moment Tom hops back onto the screen. Cecilia's become so far removed from true reality — the reality of her trapping marriage, the reality of the depression that surrounds her — that it takes the loss of two lovers to bring her crashing back. But Allen still doesn't let us off the hook, because instead of fully accepting her true reality, Cecilia once more chooses to escape through the movies, "the true love of her life" as Edward puts it. Yes, it's sort of a beautiful tragedy when you think of it that way, but by not dealing with or fully accepting her reality, by alleviating the pain from her fantasy letdown by trying to escape into fantasy once again, Cecilia refuses to heal. She perpetuates the cycle that caused her mental breakdown to begin with. As the film fades to black, Cecilia has the same look on her face that she had shortly before Tom Baxter stepped off the screen and indulged her fantasies, and it's only a matter of time until it happens again.

While the film boasts countless laughs and even a bit of Hollywood satire, Allen firmly holds onto this one, never letting it fly apart in a wild mess. Instead, a tragic air permeates even the laughter of nearly every scene as the director crafts a balanced, cohesive film with such an emotionally important message.

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Well done (though of course I'm biased). I wonder if Woody will ever make another film that comes as close to being perfect as this one is.
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