From my early childhood, I was an avid moviegoer. My mother took me regularly; and when I grew older, I continued to go frequently. Movies captivated me because they transported me to faraway places and to exciting adventures. I lived in a small town and movies were my ticket to Neverland. Although I enjoyed movies, I generally did not think of them as accurate descriptions of the real world. They were fantasies, pleasing entertainments, and that was it.
As an adult, I occasionally met people who were addicted to movies. For example, one of my former high school students had trouble separating fantasy from reality. He always assumed there would be the proverbial Hollywood ending to his scholastic endeavors no matter how little he prepared for class. Unfortunately for him, he never achieved his academic potential and remained a mediocre student throughout his high school and college careers. Movies distracted him, preventing him from doing the real work that is required for success in life.
In The Purple Rose of Cairo, there is a different take on moviegoing. Cecelia, a struggling waitress during the depression years of the 1930s, goes to the movies weekly to escape her abusive and unappreciative husband and finds cathartic release by watching what transpires on the screen. She is totally mesmerized by the world of celluloid, which enables her to survive her drab everyday life. But she still understands that what is on the screen is fiction, not real life.
Things take a confusing turn when Tom Baxter, a character in The Purple Rose of Cairo, a movie within a movie, steps out of the screen and convinces Cecelia to run off with him. He openly tells her: “I don’t get hurt or bleed, hair doesn’t muss; it’s one of the advantages of being imaginary.”
The two fall in love, but Cecelia is still skeptical. After all, Tom, by stepping out of the film, has left the other characters stranded. The movie cannot continue when all the players are not there. The action comes to an abrupt halt while the producer tries to find a solution before other characters walk out of the film as well and cause financial losses to the studio.
The producer enlists the real-life actor, Gil Shepherd, to help him convince the fictional Tom Baxter to return to the film. In the process, he meets Cecilia who enchants him. He also wants to marry her and Celia has to choose between the real Tom Baxter (Gil Shepherd), and his fictionalized counterpart. For a while, she is confused as she tells her friend: “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.”
The ability to separate fact from fiction is the mark of a mature sensibility. Children often confuse the two; but adults, generally speaking, can distinguish between them. Rachel Gordon in an insightful article on the power of the imagination in the world of Hollywood observes that here “ the fine edge between imagination and reality becomes hazy and indistinct. Indeed, this very fuzziness between real life and their fantasy worlds is the reason why, behind the scenes, many of Hollywood’s greatest stars suffer from the world’s most appalling psychological plagues.“ It is not good when one has difficulty separating fact from fiction, reality from fantasy, dreams from what happens in real life.
The classic example in Jewish tradition of sensibly combining imagination with reality is the image of Jacob’s ladder. It points heavenward suggesting infinite possibilities, but the ladder is firmly planted on the ground. It is good to dream. It can motivate one to accomplish great things. Dreaming can also help a person get through a dismal present reality.
In the final analysis, one lives in the real world and that is where we must endure the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Cecelia in The Purple Rose of Cairo ultimately understands the lesson of Jacob’s ladder and is able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Moreover, she intuits that fantasy can help us cope with a painful present.