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Play It Again, Sam and The Purple Rose of Cairo

Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival

David Rakoff
December 24, 2006

On the way down to Film Forum, I stop into StevDan Stationers on 6th Avenue and purchase a cunning ball point pen that has a tiny goose neck lamp in the top, no bigger than a tendril on a grape vine. I desperately need something like this for writing in the dark because I can barely read my notes from Annie Hall. But no matter how I angle the thing, the beam of light is blocked out almost completely by my own writing hand, clutched around the pen itself. And the light seems very strong. I worry about it distracting other people in the theater. It would thrill me if they thought even for an instant that I was A Writer engaged in some terribly important work of criticism, but I seem no different from the other vaguely eccentric folks here on Christmas Eve day, sitting here listening to the very good—albeit at this point quite familiar—pre-show tape of old standards, beginning with Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave” and moving on to Billie Holiday asking if she remembered to tell me she adored me. Up on the screen, the “Film Forum” slide suddenly starts to burn in the projector, a rapid bubbling consumption of the celluloid. It’s quite beautiful and the audience “oohs,” both thrilled and worried.

A Django Rinehart number plays followed by the through-the-front-teeth whistle of “Big Noise From Winnetka.” (“Quick! Who played the original?” one of the film geeks in front of me fires at his seatmate. A brief word about film geekdom, or for the purposes of this pointlet, fanaticism, and I only bring it up because this particular double-feature is predicated on the almost Lourdes-like curative powers of movies. Play It Again Sam’s opening shot is the same as Purple Rose’s final one: a close-up of a face, rapt in a movie house. I’ve certainly felt that in my life. I’ve been known to cry watching Gene Kelly. A too-persistent romanticism tempered by its disappointed evil twin, cynicism, caused me no small amount of trouble in my younger days. But let’s face it: professing a deep interest in movies, the absolutely dominant global art form of the last century, is at this point like professing an interest in air. Passion is nice. Erudition is admirable. But it’s like that moment when good manners cross over into meaningless etiquette. The former are designed to make people feel comfortable, respected, welcome. To prevent the embarrassment of others, one of the few Talmudic principles I actually know about and one I can heartily get behind. Whereas the coded gestures of the latter are used to exclude. When someone tells you how “deeply they care about movies” more often than not, what they are really saying is “…in ways you cannot possibly begin to appreciate.”)

Play It Again Sam has Humphrey Bogart advising Woody’s character, Alan Felix, in the proper comportment befitting a rough and tumble manliness. Ironic, given the real-life Bogey’s own relatively cosseted, borderline blue-blood Manhattan upbringing compared to Mr. Konigsberg’s own much more hardscrabble Brooklyn boyhood. The further irony is that, just as Jacqueline Onassis never needed a Jewish girl to show her how to get what she wanted from a man (my mother’s brilliant explanation as to why we were forbidden from using the racist term “J.A.P.” in my house), Woody Allen doesn’t need anyone to teach him how to get the girl. He is the walking proof of that old stand-by from the Playmate questionnaires: a sense of humor may well be the most attractive thing for women (let this in no way serve as an endorsement of Christopher Hitchens’ recent idiotic theory that women aren’t funny. Clearly he’s never met Amy Sedaris, Jackie Hoffman, or Kristin Schall, among countless others…). Being funny might just be the great aphrodisiac (take that, jowly, shambling war criminal, Henry Kissinger!). Being a pale, translucent, unphotosynthesized schmendrick didn’t matter as long as you were smart and funny. Beautiful, leggy shiksas were just waiting to laugh and subsequently throw themselves at you. This was the myth of Woody Allen when I was growing up, indeed the abiding myth for all of us Jewish men (except for those of us who were more interested in the broad-shouldered, corn-fed shaygetzes). There was even a commercial for Hai Karate after-shave predicated on this amusing if not improbable disconnect, except in Woody Allen’s case, it just happened to be true.

Susan Anspach plays the first wife who leaves Woody’s character, claiming she wants more out of life. She wants to ski and laugh and ride a motorcycle. She cannot have known it, but it’s not far from the litany of missed regrets in the song about Lucy Jordan, sung by Marianne Faithfull that plays over the opening credits of the film in which Anspach later starred, Dusan Makavejev’s very good Montenegro. “At the age of 37, she realized she would never ride through Paris in a sportscar with the warm wind in her hair…” (I care really deeply about movies…) Similarly, when Woody’s character is trying to impress a date by playing the Oscar Peterson record, but also leaving the Bartok LP out for show, I was put in mind of the list of things that make life worth living in Manhattan, about which more later, when that film shows, I suppose.

29-year-old Woody looks like every Williamsburg hipster. Viva playing a self-professed nymphomaniac who then screams “What do you take me for?” when he pounces remains a delight (and I will always, always love Viva for her on-screen commentary in the documentary Nico/Icon. A deeply annoying film, it was an adoring portrait of the former model/sometime Velvet Underground singer. It went on and on about how “interesting” Nico was, how everyone for some inexplicable reason wanted to be with her and hear her views. Gee, it must have been because of her searing intellect and have nothing to do with the fact that she was a startling Teutonic beauty. Finally, Viva, the voice of reason, has had it. “She. Had. No. Interests!” she says to the camera. And like that, the fever is broken. Viva, Viva!).

When Woody eventually confesses his love for Diane Keaton and they kiss, extendedly and comically, it is played for laughs and intercut with images of Bogey and Bergman’s more legitimate on-screen lip-lock. What makes it touching is that these two clowns went on to be a cinematic coupling easily as romantic and immortal: the very ideal of modern movie love for many. “You’ve really developed yourself a certain style,” says Bogie, at the end. “What the hell. I’m short enough and ugly enough to succeed on my own,” says Woody.
Near the end of the film, Woody manages to echo the immortal “Maybe not now, maybe not next week. But soon, and for the rest of your life,” speech. “That’s beautiful,” says Diane Keaton. It’s from Casablanca, he admits. “I’ve waited my whole life to say it.” I feel like I know a little something about that. At least three times a week, I am overwhelmed with a wave of gratitude to New York City for providing me with a life. Not that my life is so great, although I think it’s pretty nifty: I don’t mine coal, I get paid to write. But just sitting in my seat reading Frank Rich and waiting for the next movie to start approaches a kind of ideal I only dreamed about when I was a young homo in the provinces. The wish fulfillment of it all can be almost uncoupling. But like I’ve said, I can’t be trusted when it comes to notions of the city. I’m a hopeless romantic.

An appropriate emotion when watching The Purple Rose of Cairo. “You kiss perfectly,” says Mia Farrow to the fictional character Tom, and it’s all you can do not to cry. I wonder why this movie’s not thought of as being as seminal as it actually is. There wouldn’t be any of that Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry stuff without this movie. Clearly it’s not the first to play with the notion of the screen and the unseen audience, to say nothing of the unseen hand of the creator. Max Fleischer was constantly doing it in Betty Boop cartoons. And the Daffy Duck Loony Tune where he draws the undermining ire of Chuck Jones’ vengeful pen is a classic. But Purple Rose is just magnificent.

There’s that old apocryphal chestnut about masters of Noh Drama who have such control over their instruments that they can turn their heads from left to right a full 180 degrees in such a slow, subtle, and sustained manner that you will not be able to clock them moving. Mia Farrow’s face in the final shot—watching Fred and Ginger dance to “Cheek to Cheek” on a set of such blinding white Deco cleanliness—goes from hopeless despond to luminous rapture and you don’t see it happening. It is a wonder.

Christmas tomorrow. God bless us everyone.

David Rakoff is an essayist, a contributor to public radio’s This American Life, and the author Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty.

David Rakoff is an essayist, a contributor to public radio’s This American Life, and the author Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty.