Sunday, June 18, 2006

Picked Flick #49: The Purple Rose of Cairo

"I've met a wonderful new man. He's fictional, but you can't have everything." So muses Mia Farrow's Cecilia in one of the most perfect and most perfectly played lines of dialogue Woody Allen ever wrote, a line that is equal parts honey and rue, just like the movie. Cecilia is a poor waitress, in at least three senses of the word: pitiable, without money, and wincingly bad at her job, lost as she often is in two kinds of daydreams. Some are about the movies she has recently seen, others about those soon to arrive in town. Even compared to the down-and-out customers and co-workers who surround her, even in contrast to her thuggish husband Monk (Danny Aiello), Cecilia's plight is especially dolorous, her happiness particularly moth-eaten. For some reason, this is how movies always portray inveterate filmgoers—who would haunt a moviehouse except someone in dire need of consolatory distraction?—but The Purple Rose of Cairo infuses real and enormous feeling into its characterization of Cecilia. She is constantly inspired by the movies to leave her husband and her current life and to imagine better versions of both, but then she is predictably rebuffed by how difficult it is to transform one's lot so utterly, and so she comes back. Her world is one of continual returns, and fairly early in The Purple Rose of Cairo, the misleading allure of popular fantasy seems almost as cruelly sad as the threadbare upholstery and the dim, amber-colored lighting in her apartment.

Did I mention, though, that The Purple Rose of Cairo is, at least in large part, a comedy? Alert as it is to the insuperable remoteness of reel life, it also concocts a dazzling, warm, and utterly joyful figure for the sheer pleasure of movies—the inexplicable way in which their silver flickers come to feel like a space you could happily inhabit, and the even more outrageous way in which cinephilia (which sounds a little like "Cecilia") starts to feel like a reciprocal adoration: if you love the movies enough, you start to sense or at least to dream that they love you right back. On her fourth or fifth trip to a matinée of The Purple Rose of Cairo, cheekily rendered as some mad Hollywood combo of Egyptian adventure, cabaret revue, and high-society romance, Cecilia is first noticed, then hailed, then magically wooed by the sweet-spirited movie character Tom Baxter, who literally walks off the screen to join her. The plaintive mood of small-scale tragedy has been so convincingly set by the preceding half-hour that the sudden rabbit-hole into comic farce is as unexpected as it is delightful. The rest of the movie, peppered with delicious dialogue and acted to perfection by the delicate Farrow and a buoyant Jeff Daniels, follows Cecilia's rapid courtship with Tom, then her run-in with Gil Bellows, the flustered actor who played Tom Baxter (and is also played by Jeff Daniels), and then her agitated decision about which of these figments—the matinée idol or his lovestruck alter ego—shall usher her over the new horizons of her life. The high spirits of the movie also encompass a zesty brothel interlude with Dianne Wiest and Glenne Headly; the Pirandellian fracas among the other Purple Rose characters whom Tom has abandoned; and a climactic montage, diced with expert period details and hammy innuendoes, in which Tom escorts Cecilia through the Hollywood dreamworld. All of these set-pieces and plotlines enliven the movie and invigorate the audience, but even they cannot compare to a short scene in a pawnshop, where Gil Bellows croons standards to Cecilia while she accompanies on ukulele, and the film leaps right into the stratosphere of movie bliss.

The Purple Rose of Cairo doesn't quite end how you expect, though it probably couldn't end any other way, and in wielding the masks of comedy and tragedy so deftly within the same film, it obviates any need for future Allen endeavors like Melinda and Melinda. Beyond the suppleness of the writing and the infectious, perfectly timed energies of the performers, The Purple Rose of Cairo works because the actual filmmaking emanates nostalgia and exuberance in such equal, doting measure. Cinematographer Gordon Willis, one of the truly indispensable figures in American movies, reanimates old-Hollywood idioms as perfectly as he did in Allen's Zelig, but with a sense of fun and depth that the one-joke premise of the earlier film didn't quite allow. For all of these reasons, Purple Rose situates you right in Cecilia's shoes: you recognize the limits and the artifice of movies, and you hope there is something more in your life to go home to, but nor would you want your life without the movies in it. The Purple Rose of Cairo was the first movie we saw in my high-school film studies course, where it was paired with Hitchcock's Vertigo, an even starker myth about the appeals and the dangers of gorgeous surfaces and emotional projections. In my mind, Purple Rose is also a natural companion to The Wizard of Oz, even though a reverse journey from color into black and white marks the threshold of fulfillment in this case, and the adage that "There's no place like home" echoes with even greater ambivalence. Beyond invoking connections to such undebated masterpieces, The Purple Rose of Cairo, in its admittedly tinier way, reveals itself with every viewing to be a masterpiece of its own, a witty and wise amalgam of innocence and experience. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1985 Orion Pictures.

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

This is, outside of Manhattan, and even then just barely, my favorite of Woody Allen's films. Yes. Above Hannah and Annie Hall and I treasure this write up.

I know it's not an "undebated masterpiece" but let's give it another 20 years or so and people will hopefully come around. ;)

4:04 PM, June 18, 2006  
Blogger par3182 said...

The end of the film still makes me teary, but the first time I saw, it nearly killed me.

3:50 AM, June 19, 2006  
Blogger Jill said...

After the deliriously zany Love and Death at #1, and the truly inspired Bullets over Broadway at #2, Purple Rose is my #3 favorite Woody Allen flm, and one of my favorite films of all time -- even if it makes me want to take the gas every time I see it.

2:30 PM, June 19, 2006  
Blogger J.J. said...

Much appreciated. I most recently viewed Purple Rose over Thanksgiving, and was reminded how its final shot makes the heart soar and sink at the same time. It's an emotional trajectory that few actors and directors are capable of manifesting. Such sweetness in sorrow! Such ache in joy!

4:00 PM, June 19, 2006  

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