#45: The Purple Rose of Cairo
(USA, 1985; dir. Woody Allen; cin. Gordon Willis; with Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello, Stephanie Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Edward Herrmann, Karen Akers, Zoe Caldwell, Deborah Rush, John Wood, Annie Joe Edwards, Peter McRobbie, Glenne Headly)

"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 consoling distraction?—but The Purple Rose of Cairo infuses real, 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 cycles, 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, dusty-amber 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 emblem for the sheer pleasure of movies, that inexplicable way in which their silvery flickers promise 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. Hence, 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 jump 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 (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 into the stratosphere of movie bliss, while somehow maintaining its ambience of poignant modesty at the same time.

The Purple Rose of Cairo doesn't quite end how you expect, though it probably couldn't end any other way. Let's say that 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 that earlier film forestalled. 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, any 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.

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