Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Power and Weakness of Fiction: The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)

** Some spoilers ahead for both The Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris **

"If you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie," says Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).  Happy endings.  Beautiful people.  Beautiful people who fall in love, who say all the right things, who have plenty of money – those are things Cecilia (Mia Farrow) in Allen’s earlier film The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) goes to see when she goes to the movies.  For Cecilia’s own life in New Jersey in the 1930’s doesn’t offer her much to speak of in the way of luxury, love, beauty, or wit.  Her husband spends his days with the fellas, making a game of throwing rocks at walls instead of scrabbling for what little work there is to be found, and he spends his nights belittling Cecilia, beating her when he’s irritated, and taking her money out of her hands for himself.  Cecilia spends her days as a waitress, daydreaming about the films she’s seen, 

about the films she will escape into when she gets off work and before she has to go home to her husband; the cinema is a refuge, the place where she might, momentarily, forget the life she leads and immerse herself into a more beautiful life.  Cecilia becomes particularly captivated by a new film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and she goes to see it over and over again, memorizing every line, every inch of footage.  One evening, however, the film changes – it goes off script: a minor character, Tom Baxter, walks off the screen.  

He’s noticed Cecilia, and he’s in love with her.    And she’s not just dreaming; it’s not that the she’s become so immersed in the film that Tom’s exit from the film seems real only to her – it is real: the character from the screen really loves her and really wants to - and somehow can - leave the world of the film to be with her. 

What follows is utter delight to anyone who has been enchanted by any fictional world and who has wished - believed for a moment, even - that that world is real.  For isn’t it true, that when we are immersed in a good story, there is no need to force a suspension of disbelief?  The disbelief simply disappears and belief takes its place, unaided by volitional force.  Yes, that belief may be a matter of seconds, but it’s there – we do, truly, believe what we are seeing on the screen or what we are reading in a book or what we are seeing on the stage.  There are no little black marks on a page representing character and story, there are no actors playing characters and saying lines, only real people living naturally, speaking spontaneously.   Signifier and signified are one.  Here, in this film, Woody Allen plays joyfully - and yes, mischievously - with our desires for a fictional world, with our dips into belief in those other worlds.
Allen is a savvy creator of his own fiction, of course, and he teases our awareness of the layers and levels of the film -  the meta-ness, the story upon story, of the film within a film, two films of the same name – the one we watch and the one we watch the characters watch.   Story circling story circling story.  Tom Baxter’s exit from one story, his story, his exit from the film within the film, causes all sorts of problems, both for the film he’s in and for the world outside that film – his exit halts that film’s story (even while it drives forward the bigger film we are watching).  Tom is a minor character in his film, but he is nonetheless needed to move its plot forward; the rest of the characters must wait for him to return before they can get on with the script – they are stuck, for the time being, drinking pre-dinner cocktails in a drawing room.  And Tom’s refusal to follow his plotted story, his entry into the real world (*ahem*, Cecila’s world, not ours – not the real real world), also disrupts the cinema’s schedule – the proprietor can’t continue the film, but he can’t show another one either.  Likewise, the lives of the producers and screenwriters back in Hollywood are thrown into chaos; other Tom Baxters living in other reels in other cinemas begin walking off their screens, too; Gil Shepherd, the actor who plays Tom Baxter, rushes to New Jersey, worried about his image and career.  Tom Baxter must be stopped – the fictional must not intrude so on the real; it just won’t do. 

Tom Baxter though, has found freedom and love – he’s a little naïve, of course, he knows only what’s been written for him in the script; worldly knowledge is not his forte, and his backstory is a little sketchy.  His talents, too, and his wealth are good only for the film’s world, not Cecilia’s world – he has only his personality, his bonhomie, and his love for Cecilia to offer.  He finds all his failings out but thinks he still, in himself –whatever that may be—is enough.  He thinks perhaps he can push beyond the bounds of the character written for him, grow beyond it, past the actor who played him, past the screenwriter who wrote him.

But, tempted as we might be to think of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when we watch Tom try to manuveur around the script written for him, it is Cecilia’s dilemma, not Tom’s, that is really at the heart of this film.  And since Cecilia is the protagonist, her dilemma is ours, too; it’s the one with which we identify.  Cecilia is swept along by Tom Baxter – he’s handsome, he dashing, he’s brave, he’s kind, he loves her – he’s like no man she’s encountered before.  She longs for what he has to offer.  And so herein lies the dilemma: can she really have what she longs for?  Can this fictional world offer her real things? 

It has been said that Woody Allen’s best work is behind him, that his films in later years have been, in large part, disappointing.  His very latest though, Midnight in Paris, many have said is a return to form; here, they say, is the Allen we know and love.  Midnight in Paris is, indeed, a delight in so many ways; like The Purple Rose of Cairo, it blurs the line between the real and the fictional, it puts the world of historical and literary imagination on the screen.  Midnight in Paris’s protagonist, Gil (Owen Wilson), a struggling novelist, finds time and space collapsed, and he visits the Paris of the 20’s, the Paris of Hemingway, of Dali, of the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Luis Bunuel, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso – the time he’d dreamed of as ideal, beautiful, invigorating.   

Gil is caught up in and captivated by that world of the 20’s; it is exactly the world of his idealized and nostalgic imagination, but Woody Allen doesn’t allow his character to remain comfortably in that nostalgia for the past.  Gil discovers something about the way nostalgia operates, something about the danger of idealizing the past, of thinking an earlier time in history must have been better.  And so, in the end, Gil leaves the 1920’s and embraces his 21st century life.  At least, a sort of 21st century life.  For while Allen disrupts his character’s idealized vision of the past, he does not disrupt all of his ideals, most notably his idealization of Paris (and, we must note, Parisian women).  The film ends with a Gil who is finally happy – in part because though he parts with his visions of the past, he is still handed the Paris of his dreams, the woman of his dreams.  It is a 21st century Paris, but it is still a Paris that has very little in common with anything associated with darkness or pain or depression.   It is a happy postcard Paris made for lovers that Allen gives to Gil and to his viewers.  It is, in fact, a Hollywood ending.

So in spite of my love for being swept up into a fictional world, Midnight in Paris left me with something wanting; Gil could, perhaps, stay up on the screen in his ideal Paris, but I had to leave my seat, and Gil’s life left no real resonance with me.  

Midnight in Paris and The Purple Rose of Cairo might be considered companion pieces, for Allen is asking similar questions, playing with similar human desires in both.   Both are in love with the fictional in some sense; both play joyfully in the fictional world; both query the boundaries and overlap between fact and fiction.  Where Midnight in Paris left me feeling hollow, however, The Purple Rose of Cairo left me with something that went much deeper.  Its ending offers a real answer to Cecilia’s dilemma about the line between fact and fiction, about the power of the fictional to save her from the hardness and difficulty of her life - poor as she is, loveless as she is, powerless as she is.  The answer in Purple Rose is bitter – and Cecilia discovers, in the end, what we guess she knew all along.   And she sits in the cinema and watches the screen and weeps as Fred and Ginger – that beautiful pair – dance and sing and fall in love.  Her ending isn't a Hollywood ending

But what The Purple Rose of Cairo manages to do is celebrate story-telling, fiction, imagination, and cinema even while it also manages to say something to me about real life – about the difficulty and pain of it.   And the beautiful, bittersweet combination of those two things is what makes The Purple Rose of Cairo a story I’ll love to immerse myself in, over and over again.  Cecilia and I, you see, are very much alike.


  1. Hi!

    I've been thinking about Midnight in Paris today so I came and tracked down this post. I wanted to pin down the difference between the two films once and for all.

    I feel about MiP the way you feel about Purple Rose. I wonder, does it simply boil down to identifying with the respective characters? You say you and Cecilia are very much alike, and I would say the same of Gil and myself.

    I thought perhaps MiP was just a guys' version of the same movie, but IMDB ratings by gender doesn't really bear that theory out...

  2. Hi! :)

    Have you seen Purple Rose? And that's a great question - did we each respond to these respective films because of our individual personal identification with the characters?

    I rather think that instead of the films being divided along gender lines, they might be divided in terms of personal outlook; that is, Purple Rose is much darker, more pessimistic than MiP. The former ends with disillusionment, a dashing of dreams, and the same old life continuing on - the happy fantasy of film remaining firmly on the screen; the latter ends with a new, happier life for the main character, a sort of happy fantasy meeting and merging with reality.

    What do you think? Am I a pessimist and you an optimist? :)

  3. I did watch Purple Rose but I guess I don't remember it that well... the ending sounds considerably more bleak than the one I had in my head. Cecilia does at least come away from the whole thing with a renewed spirited at least doesn't she? I'd hate to imagine it ending without any light at the end of the tunnel, though that would be equally valid.

    You don't strike me as a pessimist btw, but you are a mom so you probably worry a lot. ;)

  4. Hmmm, well, no, her spirits aren't really renewed; she's essentially, at the end, in the same place she started: her real life is awful and she finds solace in the cinema by escaping from her real life for a while. What I like about the film is that it doesn't give that easy, happy ending; for so many/most, I think, the meeting a soul-mate and then living "happily ever after" just doesn't apply. Life is just really difficult - money is hard to come by and relationships are unsatisfying or life is a series, maybe, of failed relationships. It's not that I don't think there are many people who are pretty comfortable and happy - but films, in their endings, often, don't show us the people who aren't comfortable and happy. This one does, and I love that. It's not a hopeless film - that's the beauty of it, too, I guess; in the last scene, Cecilia is escaping again into the cinema, but the beauty of Astaire and Rogers on screen there is, truly, a joy, a lifting of the spirit that offers something tangible.

    I don't think, really, I am a true pessimist, but I do often see the negative sides of things and I'm impatient with Pollyannas. :) (And yeah, I do worry as a mom - probably too much!)

  5. I just watched "The Purple Rose of Cairo" again and came across this blog entry. I found it interesting that Cecelia does not weep at the end. I looked closely, expecting the streak of a tear or her eyes to well, but no. Her face softened and she was transported.

    1. Thanks for reading! I agree, she's certainly transported - cinema doesn't lose its magic for her - but its stark contrast to her real life, the fact that she can never live on the screen, is the brutal truth we viewers understand and she understands, too.

      And I'm pretty sure there are tears at the end! Here's a still: http://tinypic.com/view.php?pic=14jtboz&s=6

    2. Or try this link, if that one doesn't work: http://tinypic.com/r/14jtboz/6