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Purple Rose of Cairo, The
"I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week. Otherwise, what's life all about anyway?"The Movie:
Starkly realistic social dramas and disruptively experimental indie films aside, the vast majority of movies that get made are designed to give audiences the comfort of escape from their mundane or even painful lives. During America's Great Depression of the 1930s, the contrast between what was happening on the silver screen and in the real world was incredibly stark: Hollywood offered films about glamorous socialites and witty rich people romancing, singing and dancing, solving crimes, and doing just about anything other than worry about the struggling state of the country. Certainly, that disconnect must be why Woody Allen picked this time period for his 1985 fantasy about the movies, The Purple Rose of Cairo. Watching '30s pictures like Top Hat and The Thin Man in a present day setting can be utterly intoxicating; back then, it truly must have been like stepping into another world.
Mia Farrow follows up a career-best performance in Allen's Broadway Danny Rose with another unforgettable turn as mousy Cecilia, who works as a waitress to support her ne'er-do-well husband Monk (Danny Aiello). Monk is a grade-A lout, spending his time gambling, boozing, and chasing other women, so it's no surprise that Cecilia seeks the constant solace of her local movie palace. When Cecilia's clumsiness and tendency to daydream gets her fired, she retreats to the comforting glow of the Jewel Theater and a globe-trotting cinematic soufflé called The Purple Rose of Cairo. She's already seen the film twice, but she needs somewhere to hide from the world, so she sits through a few more showings until something amazing happens. One of the characters in the film, the dashingly boyish archaeologist Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), stops what he's doing to acknowledge Cecilia in the audience. Everything we understand about movies is suddenly thrown out the window, as Tom decides to leave the film entirely to find out who this woman is.
The conceit of crossing the threshold of the movie screen has been done before (Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr.) and since (Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero), but Allen's story is the most grounded version of the fantasy, which makes it oddly more resonant. As the film sees it, Tom Baxter and the other characters are essentially trapped in the film, enacting identical situations in front of hundreds of viewers again and again. They are aware of the audience and are as real, in their discrete way, as the actors who originally played them; when someone suggests shutting off the film after Tom has escaped, one of the remaining characters stranded onscreen pleads, "No! Don't turn off the projector! It gets black and we disappear!" (Certainly neither Keaton nor Schwarzenegger put so much thought into the existential angst of self-aware fictional characters.) The theater owner lets the projector run, and the film characters are left stranded, mid-narrative, bickering among themselves and with the confused audience members who have chosen to stick with the film.
Allen gets a fair amount of solid comedy out of Tom's two-dimensional nature, while simultaneously mocking many of the tropes of classic Hollywood. When Tom and Cecilia need to get away quickly, they hop into a stranger's car and then fail to move because Tom understands the concept of driving (it's been written into his character) but he's never had to deal with an ignition key. Later, Tom kisses Cecilia and marvels at the failure of a fade-out to arrive, eliding past potential smutty bits to come. When Monk finds the two of them together, he boxes with Tom and eventually triumphs because Tom's character has been written too idealistically to fight dirty.
Soon, the actor who plays Tom, Gil Shepard (also Daniels), is dispatched to New Jersey to corral his creation back on the screen. In the midst of his campaign to convince Tom to return to the movie, Gil ends up falling for Cecilia as well. Both Tom and Gil offer Cecilia a better life than the one she's living with Monk, but does the fact that Gil is a product of the real world give him an edge over the ever-faithful, ever-fictional Tom? In some ways, the love triangle Allen has created plays out exactly as one might expect, but the film's melancholy, thematically ambiguous ending seemingly leaves the reality-vs.-movie-magic debate without a clear winner.
Though Allen never fully reveals whose side he's on, it's tempting to hope that he's not just being a bitter cynic, that he is sympathetic to those naive picture show values. For instance, looking back at a sequence where Tom is propositioned by a hooker played by Dianne Wiest, Tom's failure to grasp the basic concept of prostitution and inability to be intimate with anyone besides Cecilia does more than wring laughs from Tom's lack of worldliness: it subtly exposes a romantic steadfastness in Tom that arguably makes him a better partner than the charming but career-minded Gil. Jeff Daniels does an excellent job of defining his two characters, allowing them to fall in love with Cecilia in similar but still distinctly different ways.
There's a lot thematically to chew on in The Purple Rose of Cairo, but the movie itself is a little underfed. Even at a slim 82 minutes, the movie feels somewhat padded. There's such a clarity and simplicity to The Purple Rose of Cairo's finest moments that one wishes that Allen could have again followed the lead of Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. and cut the whole darn thing down to its 45-minute essence. Still, on a scene-by-scene basis, the film is consistently amusing.
Every Woody Allen fan has their own personal ranking of his films, and while The Purple Rose of Cairo may not be near the top of my personal list of all-time favorite Woody Allens, I consistently take pleasure in revisiting this film again and again.
Like most Twilight Time releases, The Purple Rose of Cairo comes in a limited edition of 3000 copies, and is accompanied by a color booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo.
Gordon Willis's almost sepia-toned cinematography translates nicely in this AVC-encoded 1080p 1.85:1 transfer. The fine detail is nice and crisp, complimented by a tight film grain structure. There are some specks of dirt during the dissolves and optical effects shots, but otherwise the film print looks clean.
There are no significant technical problems with the DTS-HD MA mono audio track. Allen leans on Dick Hyman's old-fashioned jazz score to carry the film along, but it never overpowers the dialogue. The disc offers one subtitle option: English SDH.
- An alternate audio option featuring Dick Hyman's musical cues in DTS-HD MA stereo. Oddly, in the scene where Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels sing songs in the middle of a music store, their vocals have been nixed on this audio track.
Another good-looking, good-sounding, bare bones Woody Allen reissue from Twilight Time. The film's brilliant premise, plentiful chuckles, and note-perfect performances make it a pleasure to revisit -- even with that other-than-Hollywood ending. Recommended.
Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. His new album of experimental ambient music, Joyce, is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.