8.17.2016

Woody goes to the movies


Woody Allen watching Duck Soup in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

Toward the end of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) Woody Allen’s character has an epiphany about the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life at a screening of Duck Soup: having thus far spent the entire film stressing out over his mortality and seeking meaning in organized religion, he eventually finds salvation in the screwball mayhem of the Marx Brothers.  The movies—and comedy in particular—are accorded a profound, almost sacred power in Allen’s work.  An avowed atheist, he hails cinephilia as a form of religious practice and the movie theater as a church-like space of imagination and wonder.

Allen’s faith in the magic properties of cinema in Hannah owes something to the climactic scene of Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Preston Sturges’ Depression Era comedy about escapism and entertainment.  At the end of that film—in a move that, given today’s social-justice-warrior climate, feels more audacious than ever—Sturges dares to suggest that the ultimate purpose of culture may be to “just” inspire audiences to forget their troubles and get happy.  It’s an idea that has never sat well with those who believe that the movies ought to be used for politically progressive ends.  But it’s an honest account of how nearly all of us—even political progressives—use movies: not only to meditate on and confront fears and desires of the real world but also to escape them, however temporarily.

Prison inmates watch a Walt Disney cartoon in Sullivan's Travels (1941).

In The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) Allen speaks to this idea even more directly than he does in Hannah.  Cairo is a Depression-Era comedy in its own right, set in 1935 or thereabouts, in which Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a waifish Giulietta Masina type, routinely escapes the drudgery of her life via the exotic fantasy worlds on exhibition at her local New Jersey movie house.  Things get complicated when Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), one of the characters from a fish-out-of-water comedy called The Purple Rose of Cairo, steps off the screen in an attempt to become “real”; as he attempts to woo the flabbergasted Cecilia, wreaking all manner of havoc in the process, she begins to wonder whether some fantasies are best left unrealized.  But even as Cecilia’s dream of Hollywood romance turns out to be something of a disaster, the end of the film finds her back in the space of cinematic fantasy, staring up reverently (through her tears) at Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Top Hat.  Cairo considers the limits of cinephilia and escapism to an extent that Sullivan’s Travels and Hannah do not, and its ending is considerably sadder.  But it similarly testifies to the affective pull of the movie theater—magical, sacred, and impossible to resist. 


Mia Farrow watches Top Hat in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

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