“How many times is a man so taken with a woman that he walks off the screen just to get her?”
This line spoken by one of Jeff Daniels’ characters is really the key to opening up the fantasy that is Purple Rose of Cairo. Here is a film where Woody Allen most blatantly gets to parade his love for the movies and it revolves around the Depression, a love story, and a movie theater. Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a woman who gets by working in a diner with a bum of a husband (Danny Aiello) who beats her more than he loves her. Her one getaway is the escapist thrills derived from the weekly romances and melodramas found at the local theater. She’s one of the most faithful attendees making it out to the movies religiously and she goes back out into the world reciting all that she has seen to anyone who is willing to listen.
And there is a bit of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. here as well. It’s not as inventive visually but several scenes that include the firing off of dialogue between the screen and reality work to great effect. That’s something Keaton could not do in a silent picture, have his movie characters and audience members interact so directly.
It’s striking that the scenes that have been constructed as “film” really do look like films of old. There’s an attention to the craft rather than the shoddy caricature of grainy black and white that we’re often accustomed to. Even the striking resemblance of Edward Hermann to Edward Everett Horton as well as the makeup work complete with black eye shadow lends itself to the whole charade.
And Purple Rose of Cairo is literally about a man coming off the silver screen to interact with one of his viewers — one of the people who is devoted to him — and he loves her. The woman is, of course, Cecilia, and the man off the celluloid is Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels the first time around) a man who was written as a supporting character, an archaeologist.
That in itself might be enough to play with but Allen takes his story a step further so it’s not simply about this unlikely romance of worlds colliding. But it gets even more intriguing when the famed actor who plays Tom in “real life,” the man Gil Sheppard (Jeff Daniels again) crosses paths with Cecilia. At first, he’s interested in her because she has a way to assist him in his predicament since she knows his unruly alter ego. However, over time it turns into a certain amount of awe because she is devoted to his characters and by a certain amount of transference, him as well. The question that is then raised rather obviously is, do you take the perfectly constructed fantasy man or do you go with reality? That which is right in front of you, both living and breathing and fully human.
It’s also a commentary on the rigid conventions that storytellers are often forced to adhere to. Aside from “art-house,” there can be little to no films with people talking or dealing with philosophical issues. That’s too mundane. Of course, Allen is notably one who matches his comedic delivery with his own philosophical quibblings. And this film is light but it still raises some of the questions he is often preoccupied with. Whether or not he comes to a satisfying conclusion is for only the viewer to decide, and if the film itself is any indication they are the ones who must decide. The viewer, in this case, has great agency. They are the focal point of this film, again, in the literal sense.
As is Woody Allen’s penchant, the film opens with an old standard, in this case, the crooning voice of Fred Astaire knocking off a few bars of “Cheek to Cheek.” And the story ends with Astaire & Rogers dancing the night away. While Purple Rose of Cairo cannot quite top Top Hat, it’s a bittersweet dose of 30s nostalgia all the same. It shows once more that Woody Allen truly does love movies with a passion. That’s one thing that’s difficult to take away from him, but it does beg the question, can movies really be your be all, end all?
Some of the implications are rather troubling as we leave Cecilia completely immersed in a film, her real life completely ripped to shreds without a marriage or a job or really anything else. But she has a movie. Except movies can only go so far in how they emulate reality. They cannot replace it or perfectly replicate what is real. They can only help us understand it better. That is why, while movies can and should be entertainment at times, they should not only be pure escapism. Because the reality is that life is still right outside our door. We cannot get rid of it or lose sight of our role in it — both in good times and bad.
We are probably all just as messed up as the next person and perhaps little better than Woody Allen in some ways, still, if we don’t simply love movies but hope to glean a little from them about life then we are better off. They cannot be the ultimate thing in life but they can direct us towards the important things.