By Stephen Thanabalan (Singapore)
“The Very Art of Cinema: Where Fantasy & Reality Blur to Charming Delight!”
If there is a film that sums up the magic of cinema, this surely is it. Woody Allen may have stamped some signature masterpieces on the world of film but even he outdoes himself with this one. The Purple Rose of Cairo is not only beautifully titled, but it also is a wonderful throwback to a bygone era where RKO and the MGMs ruled the world (some say they still do, but in different forms), and actually sought to enchant and capture the essence of entertainment on film with that old chestnut: blending the mise en scene of composite reality with an element of fantasy. After all, after discovering the power film could harness, isn’t that what movie masters always then sought out to do? Inspire and captivate audiences?
And this is precisely what Woody Allen does with this film, delightfully blurring the lines between reality and fantasy with an absolutely bewildering charm that keeps you enchanted. I’m not sure Allen was paying little tributes to the eras he must have grown up watching film in: from Capra-corn to Billy Wilder, but it is certainly with deliberate irony that the era that this film is set in goes back farther than either of those two eras, almost to an earlier era when film art began. It is almost as if Allen wanted to go back to a similar time (it was the 1985 economic crisis that audiences were facing the year this gem was released), and what better way, then to go back to the genesis of film art- the era of the ‘talkies’ during the economic crisis that was the Great Depression. It is almost as if you can hear Allen whisper as the movie opens (with his traditional black and white style credits), “welcome to a world where you can remember when films would transport you out of your world and into mine…out of your reality and into mine…”
Allen’s world is a world where to believe in the magic and complex tapestry of the art of fantasy filmmaking can be bent and interwoven in with false realities. It feels as if Allen is telling them at once and at insistence, the very tension any director worth his salt must tether and constantly hold in tension to be able to comprehend Allen’s creative ilk. I must say, I think that’s the only way to enjoy this film. And this film is the very proof of the taste of such pudding. This film blurs these two elements to charming delight by playing not only on imaginative fictional dream material but also acting as a commentary satire on how audiences (not just in America) react to film and the relationships and escapades they share as a result of its influence and their chimera or more derogatorily, the ignis fatuus effect on their very subsistence.
Never done in film till that point, Allen’s plot is as original as it was and still is today, a sheer whimsical reverie to say the least, and is thus very entertaining, much the way you’d assume a true Jewish director (tales of hope amid pain) wanted his films to function – as an imaginative escape from the hum drum banality of this world. That fiction drives the film and the very plot of having a leading actor, a dashing Jeff Daniels pre-Dumb & Dumber (we can understand how Michael Keaton got the boot from Woody, seriously) LITERALLY walk off the screen and romanticize an ordinary down-trodden, abused waitress in depression era New Jersey, who is played elegantly by Mia Farrow pre documentary expose (we can’t understand how Soon Yi got the loot from Woody, seriously), is simply spell-binding as a plot line. I mean, for all the clichés done in film, one is gobsmacked to realise that no other film maker had ever thought of this. Forget the breaking of the fourth wall or the proverbial fifth in theatre, this was just fantastically novel.
Moreover, if that were not just the start of a delightful afternoon’s tea party, one starts to realize that the technical splendor that emanated out of editing this film to ensure the imaginative figments came out all jazz and tangible also stand as an attestation to its quality even upon current viewing. The film’s pacing is sensationally rhythmic, almost keeping time with the lilting and jazzy soundtrack of ‘Charleston-esque’ swing, which for me, really kept the filming dancing ‘Cheek to Cheek’, with a highlight peaking at the scene where Farrow enters the phantom world of ‘the movie within a movie’ in a montage of apparition proportions. Now, the concept of a ‘movie within a movie’ is one of the hardest feats to pull off, but not that many have tried, and gotten away with, complete with dignity intact. Woody Allen is one of the few filmmakers around who can not only pull it off, but swing the rabbit out the hat and into even a vaudeville cheering audience and do it with style.
That said, the film is not without its own detractors – the biggest being that this film probably is a victim of its own novelty and the Allen’s own reputation, so much so that many may end up trying to critique or characterize it strictly against Woody Allen’s very own body of work scale chart: constantly ranking it amongst other Allen films; weighing it against ‘Annie Hall’ or ‘Crimes and Misdemeanours’. The reality is that this is a totally different film from him. This film had its own unique purpose. I believe that was to function as a subliminal parody cum satire of film audiences and a unique look into the relationships between them and films- the latter taking on a symbolic ‘life’ of its own with characters that felt and ‘lived’ according to their fictional world, and explore the incubus of what would happen if existing coevally with Farrow’s world (representing us, the real audiences) becomes possible.
I mean, is this not what the art of bending cinema verite is all about? Playing with the tensions I talked about earlier? Purple Rose feeds and thrives on a fantasy moment that many audiences actually have dreamed of at some stage of their lives watching films, providing them with that escape from reality. In the film, Farrow’s character does precisely that which every teenage girl and mature matron has at one point in their lives dreamt of doing, walking off with their movie star hero. For one so adept at being abstract, intellectually stimulating and existential, it is fascinating to see that Allen also firmly has his pulse on the heartbeats of audience members. It may also explain why Allen is one of the most compelling directors and storytellers working today.
His is a story about how, as a movie about a movie (as Time Magazine called it in 1985), it tells us how empty fantasies were and are, how fleeting they are and how perhaps, cocooned we are to escape our realities only through film as our source of hope. Moreover, in my view, several scenes in the film actually point to the satire existing deliberately and purportedly for the purpose of suggesting that industry of film and its captive audiences were being parodied. Perhaps Allen was not just identifying with the average movie-goer, but also hitting out at over commercialisation and the over-capitalistic meanderings of the paths film studios and the industry had taken since the days of the 1930s….perhaps here, he was taking a jibe at cynical, double standard wielding critics or audiences who needed to wisen up? We will never know I suppose.
Nonetheless, there are some clear references, with the main pastiche being that all the RKO producers, agents and executives actually went along with the preposterous story of their actor jumping off screen and thus they figure: Well woopsiedo, we gotta get him back! This shows they were depicted pretty much as bumbling sycophants! Ha! You can almost hear Woody Allen sneaking a snigger in the background. Now, there are tons of other references including Daniels’ Baxter character comparing the Producers and Writers of his film to the divine (which is an allusion to the idea that most actors in the industry are clueless delusional idealists); an heiress complaining about her role; a member of the audience marching out claiming ‘the film’s not the way it was last week and I want it that way’ (probably a jibe at us the audiences for being seekers of constant entertainment gratification and whiners when we do not get a film that enthralls us). Gosh, it almost seems at times as if Allen’s social commentary is poring out, and we forgive him for that, because irony of ironies, throughout this very satire, WE ARE GETTING ENTERTAINED and we will forgive him for patronizing us!
That said, I have never seen anyone in film do this or pull this off like Allen has here. And for that alone, you have to give Woody Allen credit. After all, Allen is basically taking a burlesque view of the whole concept of film (the industry, the players, the studios, the cast, the audiences and the process of suspension of belief), in my opinion.
If a viewer of the film can’t see the aforementioned points, it’s then that the film might end up being looked upon as a one off fluffy piece. However, having said everything I have, the film is still generally watchable as a pure entertainment piece with as much sweet content as there’s deep and complicated satire- in fact it’s just like the popcorn that Daniels’ character Tom Baxter first tastes- why, it’s brittle, then the stuff is sweet, and like Baxter says, ‘gets annoying when you keep chewing on it’. Similarly, Allen’s Purple Rose is good for a one off viewing but one would be hard pressed to chew again unless you really were fond of the original fantasy, or in this case, the satire of audiences and film. Yet, let’s just say, here, Allen has blurred and enchanted reality and fantasy to everyone’s delight, and we love him for it, not because we do not know what he is doing, but because we the audience members, yes, we whisper back to Woody Allen and the filmmakers, yes, that’s all we wanted all along. We wanted our Tom Baxters and John Waynes and Cary Grants and Donna Reeds to come into our worlds. We want to be lost in the magic of cinema.