Before I begin this review, I acknowledge that Woody Allen has become a divisive figure in recent years. Without getting into the politics of the accusations that resurfaced in connection with Dylan Farrow. I feel that I can carry on watching his films as I both thoroughly enjoy them and can separate them from his private life. I know that others can’t, which I understand and respect.
Since my first review of a Woody Allen film, the more recent Cafe Society (2016) I’ve been able to see a good few more of his films, allowing me to build up and understanding and passion for a director who has fallen out of favour with many for obvious reasons. For me on balance I can still feel comfortable watching his work, sure there are scenes that he should be ashamed of, such as the jokey rape discussion is Play it Again Sam (1972) to the far too young girl friend in Manhattan (1979). This comes with changing attitudes of the time. We should however not disregard these film, being able to take a step back and understand them in context of when they were made.
With my increased interest for Allen I have made a larger dent in his nearly 50 year back catalogue if work. I’m far from seen them all, with a few that I want to see before others. Such as the experimental Zelig (1983) that pushed a development on special effects that allowed for a mockumentary about a chameleon like person to be appear in numerous photos and footage. Blending him into the fabric of historical archives to produce a comedy that pushed the possibilities of narrative with direct influences to Forrest Gump (1993) that used the same technique with more finesse to weave Tom Hanks into some of America’s modern history caught on camera. Allen 10 years earlier saw the raw potential to have fun with digital special effects very much in their infancy. Zellig is a scream of a comedy that creates a character that wants to be loved at the cost of his own personality being lost at the cost of conformity, to be loved by all but not by himself.
You could say that The Purple Rose of Cario (1985) is a development of the special effects, but far more refined and not focusing on the effect to drive the narrative forward, becoming a device to allow it to go in a new direction and change the life of cinema-goer Cecilia (Mia Farrow) who chooses to escape to her local cinema during the Great Depression and from an abusive husband (Danny Aiello). She’s a woman who wants more than she has without the means to get there. She could easily be seen as a female version of cineaste that is Allen allowing her to live out a dream he had when he was developing his own pallet at the cinema as young man. Also that of many countless other cinema-goers has longed to be swept away by the worlds that film constructs and projects in the darkened screens where films come alive. I guess this is why I was drawn to this film. Also the clip that was featured in the 2011 documentary that featured the film as they worked their way through his career. I was drawn to the image of a young Jeff Daniels breaking free of the cinema screen to join Farrow in the audience. Literally breaking the fourth wall to be with a spectator.
What follows is the fantasy of two people, one real the other completely fictional that wants a life outside of what we learn is an existence of perpetually repeating the plot of the film. Whenever the film is projected the characters relive the plot to the letter, as if it’s another live performance, all word perfect, everything is seamless. Until a character created by newcomer Gil Shepherd as Tom Baxter notices Cecilia has been in the audience a number of times. Taking this as a sign and an opportunity to break free from the endless cycle he and the rest of the cast are caught in. It’s a celluloid trap that they accept as a reality and an existence created by the light of the projector.
This freak occurrence is immediately noticed by the audience and the characters as they see Baxter talk to Cecilia, shocked and surprised by the experience. Her escape from reality is mirrored by his escape from her fantasy. The two worlds should only exist in the confines of a darkened screen. Causing the film to come to a halt, the characters break their roles to react to this breach of their world and the cycle of the narrative. Shouting out to Baxter and even the staff at the cinema. The cinema manager is lost for a solution as to how he can fix the film so that everything will return to normal. Simply switching the projector on and off is seen to be fatal to the characters who really need him back to complete the plot and ensure they are in tact. There’s a built in set of laws to this projected world. Also interestingly they are all aware of the producer Raoul Hirsch (Alexander H. Cohen) as their creator, the role of the director and writer are dismissed or not even written. The importance of him allowed them to exist, to know their dialogue and cues in the film. Allen does not see the director as being an auteur or terribly that important. As much as he demands artistic control over his work you don’t feel that this is reflected in this depression era world.
The only other person from Hollywood who comes close to this is in the actor Shepherd whose required to restore order before more prints of the film begin to cause trouble for the film makers. An up and coming actor who gave his all to the role of Baxter us very concerned, after his career is threatened by the incident and the potentially bad press. His reality is very real and in danger. Whilst Baxter himself and his very limited experience of the world as defined by Hirsch and his employees have given him enough agency to interact with Cecilia who comes to fall for him, whilst coming to realise his own perception of the world. He’s not meant to be part of it but can’t let him go. Acting as an escape from her own awful domestic situation, that is shown in broad strokes with Aiello.
I’m reminded of The Last Action Hero (1993) when a child enters the fictional world of Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who then breaks into ours. Basically Purple Rose for children and overloaded with that leaves you with a headache at the ended. It’s not as playful, trying to do too much during the run time, instead of focusing on a few ideas it goes too deep. Allen has a lighter touch, the immediate effect of the act of exiting a narrative and how the fictional interacts with the real. The notion of escapism is very much in both of the films, taking us into a fantasy that we would all like to play out at one time or another, to even cross over into their world and the effect we would have on it.
With Rose of Cairo we live out an audience fantasy, complete with the knock-on effect of a character entering into our lives. Maybe our dreams should stay on the silver screen, allowing them to play out over and over again where there’s no chance they can be touched by the realities we. We know that those dreams will remain in tact.