Sunday, March 01, 2015

Fantasy Does Have Its Problems

"I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional but you can't have everything."

Cecilia (Mia Farrow)

I guess nothing epitomizes the concept of movie escapism like the 1930s — when unemployment was high and nearly everyone was struggling. No wonder the people of that time wanted to escape.

Fantasy can be a blessing and a curse, I suppose. Perhaps it is nature's way of protecting us — mentally and emotionally — from things that could overwhelm us, and that makes it a force for good. But if fantasy is allowed too much freedom in our lives, it can be a destructive force. It's a fine line.

Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" premiered 30 years ago today, and I have concluded — after watching the movie several times since that day in 1985 — that it explored both of those concepts within the same character, Cecilia (Mia Farrow).

Apparently, film critic Roger Ebert and I agreed. "The movie is so cheerful and open that it took me a day or two, after I'd seen it, to realize how deeply Allen has reached this time," Ebert wrote. "If it is true, and I think it is, that most of the time we go to the movies in order to experience brief lives that are not our own, then Allen is demonstrating what a tricky self–deception we practice."

The audience learned early Cecilia's reasons for such self–deception. She was a waitress (which must have been a pretty grim existence in the Depression) and she was trapped in an apparently loveless and abusive marriage. She often went to the movies and sometimes saw the same movie several times. "She is a good candidate for the magic of the movies," Ebert wrote. "Up on the screen, sophisticated people have cocktails and plan trips down the Nile and are recognized by the doormen in nightclubs."

As our story began, she was watching a fictitious movie of the same name about an archaeologist in Egypt who meets a Manhattan playwright and his companions, and they all return to the U.S. for a "madcap Manhattan weekend."

She went to the theater to see the movie several times. Finally, the archaeologist (Jeff Daniels) turned to look at the movie audience (but his eyes were focused on Cecilia) and said, "You must really love this picture" — and stepped off the screen into Cecilia's life. It was a fantasy come true. Well ...

"He is a genial, open–faced smoothie with all the right moves," Ebert wrote, "but he has a problem: He only knows what his character knows in the movie, and his experience is literally limited to what happens to his character in the plot. This can cause problems. He's great at talking sweetly to a woman and holding hands and kissing — but just when the crucial moment arrives, the movie fades out, and therefore, alas, so does he."

That could be endearingly naive — and infuriating at the same time. I suppose that is evidence of how well Daniels played the role. "The Purple Rose of Cairo" wasn't his first film — he had been in three others prior to that, and his breakthrough role, I guess, was in "Terms of Endearment," which led to his starring role in "The Purple Rose of Cairo."

So it wasn't the first time I had seen him. But his modest appearance in "Ragtime" escaped me at the time, although I did notice it on additional viewings — and, when I saw "The Purple Rose of Cairo," I only remembered his supporting role in "Terms of Endearment," but I can't say I paid much attention to him in that one. His role in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" was the one that put him on my movie radar.

Anyway, Tom the archaeologist did have his problems, being a fictional character, but Tom was the problem for Gil, the actor who portrayed him in the movie. Emboldened by the first Tom's departure from his celluloid cell, the Toms in copies of the movie all across the country were trying to liberate themselves as well, causing chaos in movie theaters from sea to shining sea.

So Gil embarked on a mission — he was going to New Jersey to look for that first Tom, who by that time was off on a night on the town with Cecilia.

Gil wanted Tom to return to the movie — he was wrecking Gil's acting career — and he was willing to go to great lengths to achieve that objective, including convincing Cecilia that he was in love with her — and forcing her to choose between the fictional and seemingly perfect but limited Tom and the real and flawed but virtually unlimited Gil. And, as infatuated as Cecilia was with the make–believe world of the movies — and as abused as she had been by her husband (Danny Aiello) — she chose the real. She committed herself to it by breaking up with her husband.

But Gil hadn't committed himself to Cecilia — only to his career — and he had used her to get Tom to return to the movie. When that was accomplished, he hopped a plane for Hollywood, leaving Cecilia homeless, loveless and jobless. And, once more, she retreated to the fantasy world of the darkened movie theater.

That led to what may have been Ebert's most salient observation.

"[Allen] is interested in the conflicts involving who you want to be, and who other people want you to be," Ebert wrote. "'Stardust [Memories]' was about a celebrity whose fame prevented people from relating to anything but his image. 'Zelig,' the other side of the coin, was about a man whose anonymity was so profound that he could gain an identity only by absorbing one from the people around him. In 'Purple Rose,' the movie hero has the first problem, and the woman in the audience has the second, and when they get together, they still don't make one whole person, just two sad halves."

Many words leaped to mind when I saw that movie the first time — poignant, ironic, touching. They are still appropriate because "Purple Rose of Cairo," as creative as it was, was still an Everyman tale at its core, that tug–of–war within every human heart between what is and what we think should be. As such, the story is timeless. It remains relevant for succeeding generations.

Allen was nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay but lost to Earl Wallace for "Witness."