The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Dir. Woody Allen. Starring Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello

(Featured image links here)

In the past five or six years, I think we’ve been very anxious to find movies which remind us somehow of the past, to lighten our own sort of pessimism about the world at large, and to crown these films as “charming.” It began with The Artist, which featured a guy with a big smile, a talent for tap dancing, and a very cute dog. Make that movie with sound and it’s forgettable. Film it in black and white and make it a silent movie and people fell over themselves to love it. Midnight in Paris, which briefly recognizes that our own vision of what makes the past special is influenced entirely by our unsatisfying present and the almost unfair importance we place on that history, still managed to get most of its press for the way it portrays its Roaring Twenties characters. (I confess to laughing my butt off at Corey Stoll’s Ernest Hemingway.) And most recently, La La Land happened, a movie which has as many similarities to a Jacques Demy movie as I do, and we don’t need to litigate that any further. What I love about The Purple Rose of Cairo is that it never bends over backwards to prove to its viewers that it’s charming or old-fashioned. Farrow is so gentle and well-intentioned that we can’t help but like her in that drab brown coat. Jeff Daniels, wearing a pith helmet as often as not, is goofy and debonair by the standards of another time. The setting is just another period piece set during the Great Depression, a setting which is common enough to barely matter to us as viewers. The plot is like the postmodern inverse of Sherlock, Jr., which simply hangs over the film and is never alluded to in anything but the plot. Allen, for once, has a little self-restraint, and that makes the movie all the more fun. (Maybe part of the reason I enjoyed the movie is his absence from the screen; it’s the same reason that I love the first half of Hannah and Her Sisters.)

I loved the ending of the picture as much as anything else about it. Cecilia (Farrow) has managed to attract the attentions of both Tom Baxter, the fictional movie character come down from the screen, and Gil Shepherd (both Daniels). Tom has been over the moon with her, full of romantic phrases and gestures throughout. While he lives in our world, he crashes at an amusement park. It’s the perfect setting for him as he is. When in his proper milieu, Baxter is a thrill, a gadabout with different avenues of interest to please him; he’s come to New Jersey before the summer, before the amusement park will open and create those avenues for its own audience. The promise is still there, though, of excitement and pleasure and escapism from the darkness of the real world. Gil spends a little less time with Cecilia than Tom does, but he suits her in his own way. She accompanies him on the ukulele while he sings (seriously), and the two of them bond over a movie about Lindbergh he’s trying to nab the starring role in. She flatters him so sincerely that he seems sincerely taken with her. In the film’s climactic moment, she is forced to choose between two seemingly identical men. Despite the wonderful time she’s had with Tom and the terrific enjoyment she had with him, she chooses Gil. He’s real, after all. It is unsurprising, then, that once Tom has been returned to the screen, Gil and his Hollywood coterie return to Hollywood without Cecilia; their job is done. (Gil is not unaffected; the affection might never have been real, but he’s a careerist, not a sociopath. He fully understands what abandoning Cecilia will mean to her.) Cecilia’s husband, Monk (Aiello), yells at her and berates her, treating her like a maid. There are several references to him beating her, though the film never shows us that. Cecilia is bad at her job as a waitress and got fired early on in the movie. Monk hasn’t had work in years. It’s hard to blame her for making the sensible choice, for choosing something like real life. She’s been conditioned to prioritize real things, or at least to pin her hopes on real things, even if those real things have turned out to be drastic disappointments. The film doesn’t linger on this point, but somehow this might still be a better choice than living with Tom in his The Purple Rose of Cairo. The threat of multiple Toms coming down off the screen and doing God knows what (usually expressed as the twin nightmares of communist agitation and rape) forces the producer Raoul Hirsch (Alexander Cohen) to destroy all copies of the film as well as the negative. There’s a strong case to be made, based on the rules of this universe, that going Tom would have literally killed Cecilia.

None of this is really the ending of the movie. The ending of the movie is “Cheek to Cheek,” the song-and-dance sequence from George Stevens’ Top Hat. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as true a pair of escapist Depression darlings as anyone this side of Shirley Temple, dance their way across the terrace. And even in the totality of her despair, in the abyss of her shame for having been hoodwinked, carrying her suitcase into the theater, Cecilia manages to recognize the magic of the film on the screen. Her face is still streaked with tears but she starts to smile anyway. Fred Astaire is not going to come down off the screen and offer Cecilia a second chance; Tom Baxter’s escape from his film is unique. And when the lights come back on and the people start to shuffle out, the reels will go back into their boxes and the projector will shut down and Cecilia will have to decide if she’s going to return, tail between her legs, to her abusive husband who she’s already left twice in the span of a couple days. She will have no job and no prospects for any. She will still be ashamed. But the movie takes all of that away. The film has magic in its fabric even when its characters don’t start conversations and affairs with adoring audience members. I don’t know that film ought to function solely as escapism, but The Purple Rose of Cairo manages to honor that heritage; there’s a truth to this idea of understanding our lives almost entirely through the screen for an hour or two or three (or, if we’re lucky and patient, even four). Furthermore, it recognizes how sometimes a movie can change the way we live for a little while. None of us have had the experience of hosting a handsome, well-off, dashing amateur Egyptologist direct from a movie screen, but I think all of us have been left with the sensation of running over our memories of a film after we see what’s happened, playing back the scariest and funniest, most intimate and most sensational moments. We recite the lines with our friends and we look up clips on YouTube. I’m scared to watch Marx Brother movies anymore because I unconsciously find myself talking like Groucho for an hour or two after the film end. In the same way that our speech is a material thing since soundwaves push air molecules around, so too are our memories of a film in the way that neurons are, though infinitesimally small, still tangible. It may not be as physical as Tom Baxter, but he’s just a special case. Loving a movie means making our own Toms through discussion and recollection, and that point is hammered home as we watch Mia Farrow’s face light up watching Astaire and Rogers float on tile.

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