Movies are pre-packaged, condensed adventures for the masses. Life, at times, can seem dull and monotonous, but on the big screen heroes come to life and go on adventures we could only dream of fulfilling in our own lives. We watch romances blossom, witness the discovery of hidden treasure, observe wars being fought and honor upheld. While all that unfolds before us on screen, we sit in a dark room, attempting to forget our own world and the numbing effects it often has on our senses. It’s frightening how the absorption of media without conscious discernment becomes the prevalent hobby of the public at large. Movies are an escape from reality, something that you can get lost in and sink in to. How often do we wish what was happening on screen would happen to us? Woody Allen’s 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo knows full well how the typical audience feels about the pastime of escapist entertainment, and he turns the tables. What if the characters staring back at us through the screen long for real life. It’s a classic “Grass is always greener” type of tale that approaches its subject with creativity, humor and a sobering dose of reality.
Taking place in the midst of the great depression, The Purple Rose of Cairo centers on the life of Cecilia (Mia Farrow) a woman who’s struggling to support her deadbeat husband by working at a local diner. She spends any free time she can down at the movie theater; she is a cinephile of the highest order. She knows all the actors and all the movies, she goes there to get away from the depression to get away from her life. In doing so night after night, something strange happens. One of the characters in the film, not one of the actors or one of the crew, but a character straight off the screen notices her and acknowledges her, admiring her dedication to the film. He’s interested and simply must meet her. In a split-second decision, Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels), one of the minor characters in the film (arguably minor) jumps off the screen and begins a whirlwind relationship with Cecilia. This upsets just about everyone. The characters stuck in the movie can’t progress without Gill and spend their time anxiously waiting for the character to return to the screen. Likewise, those involved with creating the movie are disturbed, particularly the man that portrayed Gill Shepherd in the film, who now has a double running around doing who-knows-what?
The Purple Rose of Cairo manages to swap places with the audience. Instead of simply watching a movie about two people whose paths cross, we watch a woman watching a movie wishing her life were like the ones portrayed on the screen. We ARE Cecilia; she represents everything that a motion picture audience is. She day dreams and longs for what she sees on the screen, the difference between her and us is that she gets what she wishes for, even though she soon learns at what price she will pay. The story is masterfully told with an incredible cast. It’s witty and funny while simultaneously sobering and, at times, downright sad. To watch the characters on a black and white screen interact with an audience that we ourselves are observing is surreal and hilarious in it’s achievement to mock us. These actors stuck up on a projection screen aren’t making fun of a fictional audience, they’re making fun of the real audience that’s sitting in their living rooms watching The Purple Rose of Cairo, which ironically enough is the same title that the film in which Gil Shepherd waltzes off the screen. It begs the question: what if we got our wish to be apart of an exciting movie premise? would it be as fulfilling as we would hope?
The Purple Rose is a whimsical piece of film fiction that draws the audience into it’s premise by relating with them on every level; essentially WE are the protagonist. It’s an absolute joy to watch. The social commentary is spot on. Woody Allen manages to create a movie that projects it’s exuberant nature onto the audience without compromising the integrity of the film. Despite the fantasy nature of the movie, we realize that we can relate with Cecillia on far more levels than we may have originally anticipated.