Woody Allen and Cinema as the Opium of the Masses: It has been more than a hundred years since Karl Marx famously claimed that religion is the opium of the people. In 1843, as for that time being, religion had an important, impactful role on people’s lives; Marx believed that organized religions had a certain consequence on societies similar to that of the opium on an ill patient, that is, diminishing one’s pain by giving them an illusion of pleasure and allowing them to carry on in spite of their suffering. Nowadays though, the effects of religion are less visible and the results of mass culture are more evident each day. One of the main forms of popular art and the one that has evidently been regarded as the new opium of the people is cinema.
Since the invention of the Kinetoscope and throughout its development at the beginning of the 20th century, motion pictures had progressively earned the public’s attention and had their initial impact on societies as a form of quick and light entertainment. It wasn’t until 1906 when the first feature-length film (The Story of the Kelly Gang (Tait, 1906)) came out, that cinema could be developed as a much more extensive form of leisure. And it did, following a formula imposed by the big American studios: films are to be transported to a better world where the audiences are to forget about their problems and relax.
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About this effective Hollywoodian way to perceive films as escapism, Michael Paul Gallagher (1979, p. 114) affirmed that “to tranquilize is the American translation of catharsis. Any drilling is accompanied by anesthesia of possible pain. Issues are played with rather than confronted. Audiences are offered glimpses of reality, as if through gauze. Pity and fear go off at half-cock, and no lasting searing of feelings is allowed.”
Throughout the whole horrors of human history, movie theatres were always there to offer escapism from the real world at a cheap price. One year into World War I, audiences around the world were being delighted by the universal appeal of the silent comedy The Tramp (Chaplin, 1915). In 1935, with their country at the height of the Great Depression, American people, many of which were starving, would go in and see the wealthy and flamboyant characters of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Top Hat (Sandrich, 1935) dance their high-society problems away.
When Hitler’s armies were marching over Europe and ruling the world, audiences still went to see Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman fall in love under the Nazi domination in Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942). At the peak of the Cold War with espionage and intelligence agencies, Dr. No (Young, 1962) romanticized the conflict and attracted a wide range of spectators to the cinemas, starting one of the most successful franchises to date. As noticed then, movies have the power to entice the public and offer them solace in those times of hopelessness.
The notion of movies being used as a form of escapism began with the setting of the film industry itself. The “Big Five” studios in the 1920s were formed by foreign businessmen; William Fox, the founder of Twentieth Century Fox, was born in Hungary. David Sarnoff, the founder of RKO Pictures, was Russian. Adolph Zukor, the chairman of Paramount Pictures, was born in Hungary as well. Louis B. Mayer, the co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was from Russia. The Warner Brothers (Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack) had their family origins in Poland.
All in all, “the people who established the business were outsiders, anxious to be regarded as Americans, as well as people who had suffered every kind of ethnic prejudice from disdain to pogrom. […] So movies were made into a business by people who had recently escaped their own huddled masses, from families that did not always speak English. Against that set of anxieties, these early moviemakers were accustomed to storytelling, sentimental narrative theatre, broad comedy, and the miracle of wondrous things never seen before: the dream that comes true.” (Thomson, 2012, p. 17)
Following this desire to adapt to the American values, the big production studios started to project the American dreams, fears and ways of life into their films. Once cinema started to be seen as an important tool in the process of reflecting and mobilizing social values, censorship boards were formed and a strict Production Code was stipulated in the mid-1930s. That meant that aspects such as nudity, sexuality, drugs, profanity, religion and even the length of kisses were heavily controlled until 1968 when the Code was replaced by a different film rating system.
During almost thirty years though, Hollywood studios had to undergo a firm control of film production that set stern ideological boundaries, thus limiting the studios’ creative control of their own pictures. To continue attracting major audiences without going against the rules of the censorship, movies were then made to mirror the fears and fantasies of the audience in that particular era, in a way that anyone could relate to what they were watching. In that way, movies were not only a mere form of entertainment but also the shared, common dream of a society living in a specific period under a specific restriction.
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As for portraying the hardness of the Great Depression and its effect on American people desperately needing pleasure, there’s no better example than Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen, 1985). Ironically released in the 1980s, more than forty years after the economic crisis, Allen managed to expose not only the difficulties of living in such a period but also the power that cinema had over the people who were living under such tough conditions. Mia Farrow’s Cecilia is a clumsy and consequently low-paid waitress in an abusive marriage who goes to her local cinema to escape from her miserable life. The average price of a movie ticket during those days was $2.7 in America.
About the profit of the film industry during the crisis, David Thomson explains that “as the Depression set in, it was clear that the studios were making their money from increasingly impoverished people by selling them a dream of infinite success and remote happiness” (2012, p. 111). Allen must have had incorporated that price into his film as Cecilia’s visits to the cinema became more frequent as her life got more complicated. At one point, after Cecilia sits through the same movie several times, a character from the picture named Tom (Jeff Daniels) inexplicably walks off the screen and professes his love to the girl. Though he had already hinted at the metaphysics of the movie through the film of the same name within the film of the same name, Allen takes the concept of fantasy and interposes it with reality itself.
By taking a character off the movie world and putting him in the real world within the film, he makes Cecilia choose between the fictional world and the real world, her real-life or the escapist life she created to herself at the movie theatre. Clearly inspired by classic breaking-the-fourth-wall films such as Hellzapoppin’ (Potter, 1941) and Sherlock Jr. (Keaton, 1924), Allen also plays with the notions of fantasy and reality by making Cecilia chose between a perfect fictional man and a flawed real one.
Once Tom steps down from the movie screen, the actor who portrayed the character (Gil, also played by Jeff Daniels) is brought in to solve the problem but ends up falling in love with Cecilia as well. Stuck in a romantic triangle that is actually a clever metaphor to a dilemma between reality and fiction, Cecilia is initially inclined to pick the fantasy man and everything that comes with him, including compromising to live inside the picture that he walked off from.
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At first, the film hints as if she’s finally having a chance to have everything she ever wanted, but could the fictional world offer her real things? She wonders if the fantasy is strong enough to save her from the difficulties of her real life. Much like we wonder how it would be if the evasion provoked by the movies was to be permanent, a thought that American studios encourage us to have. Martha Nochimson argues that “Hollywood trains us to expect escapism, to enter into a fantasy world where the colors are brighter, all desires are fulfilled, and there are no obstacles that the hero can’t overcome” (2010, p. 10).
The answer to Cecilia’s dilemma is a bitter one, though. She knows, in spite of all the films she has seen, that there’s no Hollywood endings in real life. So she chooses Gil over Tom, reality over fantasy. Allen knows that there are no Hollywood endings in real life too, so after having entered into a fantasy world, after having seen brighter colors and after having her desires fulfilled, he takes the film to a twist and Cecilia is left behind by Gil. Having no house, no job and no lover left, Cecilia goes back to the only place that will make her feel better: the cinema.
As the film is in its final moments, she sits through a screening of Top Hat and Cecilia ends up in the same place where she started, finding comfort in the world of the motion pictures once again. Her life is the same, if not worse, and even after everything that she went through, she can only find true solace in the fictional world of films.
Films are works of fiction intersecting with reality, and for years now Woody Allen has been playing with those concepts. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, he toyed with movies as the source of escapism. In Midnight in Paris (Allen, 2011), Allen toys with nostalgia as the ticket to evasion. By taking a man (Owen Wilson) who’s successful in his current situation but frustrated with it and putting him in the middle of his utopian fantasy (1920s Paris), Allen questions the difference between escapism and utopia. As Richard Dyer (1992, p. 20) states, entertainment has two taken-for-granted meanings: escape and wish-fulfillment.
“Entertainment offers the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide. Alternatives, hopes, wishes – these are the stuff of utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined and maybe realized. Entertainment does not, however, present models of utopian worlds […]. Rather the utopianism is contained in the feelings it embodies. It presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized.”
Dyer’s vision of utopia can clearly be seen in Midnight in Paris when Gil discovers nostalgia within nostalgia, a need for escapism within a need for escapism. Once inside his own dream period, he sees that not everyone is satisfied with that era, wishing to evade to past time. Going back even further in time, those people are also dissatisfied and want to evade to a past period. It’s this longing within a longing that teaches Gil that the past is just a representation of unrealized wishes and nostalgia is another escapist fantasy. Therefore, there’s no utopian escapism that exists.
As Tennessee Williams affirmed in his famous play The Glass Menagerie (1944) through the character of Tom, “people go to the movies instead of moving” (1.6.114). The movies that Williams talks about, applied to The Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris, have different meanings. The movies in the first film literally are the movies, as cinema is Cecilia’s way of escapism. In the latter though, ‘the movies’ is the Jazz Age culture in which Gil evades to.
The outcomes are very similar, even though the characters escape into different common dreams from different circumstances in different eras. André Bazin (1947, p. 40) affirmed that “to the extent that it [cinema] has come to satisfy the dream desires of the masses, it becomes its own dream”. Cecilia did go to the movies, she did move into that dream but, instead of moving on with her “real” life afterward, she went back to immerse herself in the fantasy of the motion pictures as a mere spectator, accepting the movies for what they are. As for Gil, he did go to “the movies”, in this case, the culture of the Roaring Twenties, he did move into that same world, but unlike Cecilia who just accepts the dream for what it is, he moved on with his real-life merging it with his fantasy.
They both had an escapist dream and once they entered that fantasy world, they suffered disappointments and were showed that fantasies are not utopias. And in the ending, they both end up going back to their fantasies, as if surer now than in the beginning, that it’s the best aspects of their lives.