Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’

Everyone has a comfort zone, and I suppose they’re entitled to it: it’s part of human nature to simply want to relax and take it easy sometimes. This is as true of film-makers as anyone else, if not moreso. Indeed, if we consider a field considering so many specialists of different flavours, in a way it’s more than usually commendable to be one of those individuals who’s willing to push their creative boundaries once in a while.

Most people, inasmuch they’re aware of the massive bulk of the Woody Allen back catalogue, would probably tend to peg his films as primarily contemporary and metropolitan, before going on (if they were especially well versed) to make a few well-chosen comments about the common motifs and themes of his various films: nice guys often finish last, it’s often completely acceptable and normal for fantastically attractive young women to get into relationships with physically unremarkable but very cultured (much) older men, there’s always time for a discussion about existentialism, and so on. And this is generally true. However, it does overlook the sheer range of settings and genres he has covered in his movies – he’s done rather accomplished sci-fi, historical pastiche, mockumentary, thriller, broad comedy, a (fairly dire) musical, and many other things, and it’s fair to say that some of his most successful films come from amongst these excursions into parts unfamiliar. Historical fantasy seems to be a particularly rewarding seam for Allen: his last really big hit, Midnight in Paris, was arguably in this genre, as is one of the best films from the middle period of his career, 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Purple Rose is set during the Great Depression (pedants would insist no earlier than the second half of 1935, though this is really the wrong kind of film to break out that sort of attitude for) and focuses on Cecilia (Mia Farrow), an unhappily-married and rather incompetent waitress working in New Jersey. (Allen himself stays behind the camera for this film, though it does hail from the period when he was more often found acting in his movies than not.) Her job is chaotic and her home life (married to Danny Aiello’s unemployed, unfaithful jerk) is miserable. All her pleasure comes from visiting the local movie house, which she does over and over again.

Well, basically things go from bad to worse, and when she’s actually sacked she virtually takes up residence in the cinema, watching one particular escapist romance, The Purple Rose of Cairo, numerous times back-to-back (you could still do that in British cinemas when I was a lad). Eventually, partway through the film, Tom (Jeff Daniels), a supporting character, starts addressing her directly about her obvious love of it. Moments later he walks out of the film and into the ‘real world’ in order to talk to her more directly…

Pictures, statues, and so on coming to life have been a bit of a staple of romantic fantasy since the genre began, but normally the existence of the fantasy lover – or at least their true nature – remains a special secret of the film’s protagonist. What makes The Purple Rose of Cairo so distinctive and indeed powers the film along to some extent is the way in which it absurdly and systematically undermines this convention: everybody notices it when Tom walks out of the film.

People in the theatre audience scream and faint. The other characters in the film are outraged and yell at him to come back, because they can’t finish the scene without him. The theatre owners place angry telegrams to the film studio in California, insisting they keep better control of their characters – and the spectre looms of other iterations of Tom leaving different showings of the film. As things threaten to spiral out of control, the studio sends Gil, the actor who played Tom in the film (Daniels again, naturally) to go and reason with him and get him back into the picture somehow so things can begin to get back to normal. But will Gil prove susceptible to Cecilia’s charms as well?

As you can probably tell, something by one of the Russians this is not, but as a (fairly) extended piece of whimsical drollery it is really very charming, as Allen grabs a ridiculous idea and pursues it towards a number of logical conclusions. I have to say that the central love triangle between Farrow and the two Jeff Danielses didn’t much grab me, not because Daniels is ever less than solidly watchable, but because I usually find Mia Farrow to be a less than captivating screen presence and this film is no exception. (Plus, there’s a scene where she has to fake playing the ukulele, and I have to say it’s the worst fake-uke-playing I’ve ever come across.) Indeed, I’m almost tempted to suggest that the real joy of this film is in all the incidental jokes and dialogue happening around the periphery of the main story – Tom wanders into a brothel and is utterly bemused (brothels don’t exist in film world in the 30s, naturally), while the maitre d’ of a restaurant in the film, upon learning he’s no longer obligated to keep acting out the role prescribed for him, instantly reinvents himself as a flamboyant tap dancing star.

Not quite, though, because the nature of that central relationship (one woman and two versions of the same man – one real, one fictional) is a perfect metaphor for Allen to consider the complex relationship between reality and fantasy and what we really want in our lives. Is it better to try and live in the real world, or escape from it into some fictional paradise? The standard Hollywood answer would probably be the former, naturally, but Allen is daring enough not to stick quite so closely to the approved answer. He even goes further and gives his frothy, silly fantasy one of the most painfully downbeat endings of any of his films – though again it’s not quite as simple as that, and the film has one final moment of transcendent joy to offer, courtesy of Astaire and Rogers (Fred is thanked for his assistance in the closing credits). In the end, the film doesn’t offer a simple or easy message – life will hurt, it seems to assure us, but look on the bright side: going to the movies can take the edge off this.

Woody Allen is such a noted misery these days that even such a qualified note of positivity feels like a great revelation, and this is probably one of his most likable films, as well as playing to his strengths as an absurdist playwright and a lover of nostalgia. The Purple Rose of Cairo  may be a very slight movie (rather less than 90 minutes long), but it’s overflowing with ideas and jokes and never less than a pleasure to watch. It’s as good an argument for a director staying well out of his perceived comfort zone as any that I can remember, and definitely one of his best films.

Read Full Post »