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Weekly Classics: The purple rose of Cairo

March 22, 2013

Haven’t we all dreamt of a time where our favourite character walks right out of the screen to whisk us from the narrow seat in a dark theatre and take us wherever our heart goes?

It is more than a dream in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Cecilia (Mia Farrow) may perceptibly be the clumsiest waitress in downtown New Jersey, struggling to even differentiate the orders between oat and wheat cereals. Drab, gauche, simplistic and just one stop away from being a classic push-over, Cecilia is ‘unfit’ to survive in the era of the Great Depression; which is just as well, because she does not want to live perpetually under the crashing plates in a run-down diner either. All she wants to be is in the town’s only movie theatre, where she can find bliss among the dim lights and fantastical characters that inhibit the flickering, black and white screen, temporarily keeping her mind away from her unromantic, callous reality.


Elsewhere, we meet the man who made reality insufferable for her by doing absolutely nothing at all. Monk (Danny Aiello), a thuggish wife-abuser and alcoholic, sometimes womaniser, who gambles away Cecilia’s hard-earned money, but is incongruously the only person who can make Cecilia feels less alone in this pathetic, brusque world.


The magical moment finally dawned during one of her darkest hours, when Cecilia is watching the latest film in town that has her spellbound in its riveting mix of adventure and passion – The Purple Rose of Cairo. We find ourselves watching the movie with her as she views the movie repeatedly, willing for a moment of genuine connection with the onscreen characters, and perhaps, even reciprocation.

Then we meet Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), poet and explorer in a safari suit and pith helmet who seeks the purple rose of Cairo (the legend of a pharaoh who had a rose painted purple for his queen), on screen at first. He delivers his lines about being “on the verge of a madcap Manhattan weekend” repetitively till the one time he said it differently. Baxter is distracted by something off-screen, outside of the rectangular grid that differentiated his reality and the real world’s.


He saw Cecilia.

“My God, you must really love this picture.”

“Me?” an incredulous Cecilia exclaimed while the remaining audience members stared, jaw-dropped.

“Yes, you. This is the fifth time you're seeing this. I gotta speak to you…”

And Tom steps right off the screen, whisking Cecilia away from her seat to a faraway land where they live happily ever after …  perhaps, not so fast.

We still have to consider the casts left on the screen, taken aback and enraged by Tom’s escape. They have to stay stagnant in that one scene because of Tom the “linchpin” who made it impossible for them to move on to the next scene. An indignant few threatened to escape the screen, while some cast rude barbs at the audience on the ‘unimaginary’ side of the world, as all of them squabble on who is really the lead character.


Whereas somewhere else, the off-screen excitement (or romance) continues at the ramshackle of an amusement park, with a bewildered Cecilia and enamored Tom indulging in the glorious fact that anything could come true, and had indeed. Some of the biggest laughs of the movie came from the impractical Tom and his acclimation to reality with all his film world naivety.

“Where's the fade-out?” asked Tom after he kisses Cecilia deeply under the aphrodisiac trance of moonlight.


The real conflict comes in when the Hollywood bigwigs realised how big of a public relations crisis this could be, when news had spread that their movie characters can step off the film screen. They hustled Gil Shepherd (also played by Jeff Daniels of course), the celebrity who starred as Tom Baxter, into New Jersey to persuade his doppelganger to return to the big screen. But of course, where else than a romantic comedy would you find two of the same man falling in love with the same woman. Like Tom Baxter, Gil falls in love with Cecilia as well, which is hardly unbelievable since every word she utters praised him to cloud nine.

The more amazing thing is how everyone in the film is seemingly unconcerned with the film’s corporeal impossibility. Such bizarre collision of fiction and realism should demand more attention from viewers both outside (like us) and within the screen. But the movie-goers in this iconoclast are surprisingly, more worried about not getting their money’s worth while, we on the other side, are just laughing at the absurdity instead of wondering HOW a fictional character can take life just like that. In fact, Woody Allen has not given a sound justification to Tom’s Pinocchio-like fate, and neither does he address the farce with self-explanatory moments. A scientific rationalisation is simply not Allen’s style, especially since magic has been his long-time hobby from young; neither is it ours, since most film audience seeks none other than escapism in their viewing experience, which is also the gist of Cecilia’s role and the entire movie.


We have in us, this largely overlooked desire to cross the barrier into a movie screen, or for film characters to join us in the real world when life becomes too harsh and a sprinkle of undivided love would do us just perfect. It is no doubt a romantic notion from the way Allen sees it, because that is how he has painted these two situations in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

My favourite line comes from an insignificant role, Larry Wilde the countess’ date, who declares, “The most human of attributes is your ability to choose.” But coincidentally, Cecilia’s choice turns out to be my only true regret of the movie.

“I'm a real person. No matter how tempted I am, I have to choose the real world,” says the suddenly rational Cecilia. Since when has pragmatism been her strongest point?

Allen has regarded The Purple Rose of Cairo as one of his favourite works, and that “it was the one which came closest to my original conception."

The original conception is, I believe, a paradox which sums up to: yes, life is disappointing, but great art like the cinema is always ready to provide you with a lifetime’s worth of fantasy and escapism. However, fiction can never truly replace reality, no matter how beautiful it is.

So, does the purple rose of Cairo exist? I can’t be too sure.

The author is an Intern at from Singapore who likes to write on films, books and music.