Thursday 16 August 2018

1,001 Films: "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985)

Important to note for future generations that there was a time when Woody Allen wasn't a monstrously problematic figure, rather a mere gagman, and that he was once able to peaceably negotiate with Mia Farrow. The textured miniature The Purple Rose of Cairo dates from roughly the same prelapsarian moment as Radio Days: it was part of Allen's tribute to the mass media he and most other Americans had been raised on, and a near-perfect iteration of the kind of daffy what-if conceit he would later dash off with scant care for story progression and individual performances. Not so here. Farrow is winning indeed as Cecilia, a lowly waitress who escapes her no-good husband (Danny Aiello) and the rigours of the Depression by settling in, bag of popcorn in hand, for each week's lavish slice of escapism at her neighbourhood picture palace. At a particular low - finding herself temporarily jobless and homeless - she ducks into the latest presentation, a frothy nothing going under the titular title, and watches wide-eyed as its dashing adventurer hero Tom Baxter, embodied by matinee idol Gil Shepherd, and played in our reality by Jeff Daniels, steps down off the screen, takes our gal by the hand, and promptly pledges his affection for her.

It had taken sixty years, but this was Hollywood finally adding emotional layers to the sight gags of Keaton's Sherlock Jr (Cecilia's local, the aptly named Jewel, is an almost replica of Buster's, right down to the permeable screen), while anticipating both the films-within-films postmodernism and the myriad spectatorship and star studies essays that were to make up the rest of the 20th century. The straightahead romance is a charming enough spectacle in itself, as a woman overlooked in all other walks in life is suddenly spotted by the man of her dreams, fictional as he might be. Yet Allen has almost as much fun with the chaos the errant Baxter leaves behind (co-stars peering anxiously into the hole the leading man tears through) and the ripples his diversion sends through the movie business at large ("This could be the work of Feds or anarchists!"); more complicated yet is the arrival of the actual Gil Shepherd (as opposed to Shepherd-as-Baxter) in smalltown America, himself making a play for our heroine's heart even as he's recruited to reel in his out-of-control alter ego.

Every subsequent narrative development is its own quiet, perfectly appointed joy: the ever-underrated Daniels came up with smashing work, not least whenever the situation demands he act opposite some form of himself, having to differentiate between the blank-slate Baxter (making something redemptively sweet out of a tricky bordello scene: there is ample evidence, here as elsewhere, that Allen may be almost as obsessed with sex workers as Godard has been) and the understandably discombobulated Gil, vacillating between vanity (there are so many mes out there!) and insecurity (hang on, there's another me out there?). The gag - unprecedented at the time, unmatched since - is that Cecilia should wind up in a love triangle with the same man, twice over; the genius is that it effectively forces her to choose between fantasy and reality. The film's heart, though, is a scene in a church where Cecilia tries to explain the concept of God in terms a movie character could understand. For early Eighties Allen, love of the cinema - and of the shelter and deliverance it can provide - is its own form of belief: the more credence you give all this make-believe, the more it comes alive and carries you away. The tragedy of Allen's career is that he himself appeared to stop believing, content to go through the motions of making one film a year, mouthing the words that get prayers and projects alike off the ground, but rarely summoning the feeling that truly brings them, Tom Baxter-like, to life.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is available on DVD through Fox, and to stream via MGM on Amazon Prime.   

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