A gently whimsical romance from Woody Allen

Nostalgia is the refuge of many a hack filmmaker. But one director who's just the opposite -- Woody Allen -- seems convinced there is profundity to be plumbed in this field. All his recent pictures have recalled the past in style or content or both. And none have done it more gently or warmly than his latest, ``The Purple Rose of Cairo,'' a whimsical romance set in New Jersey during the Great Depression. It's an odd fact that movies of the '30s rarely mentioned the depression, since that's what people went to movies to forget. The heroine of ``The Purple Rose'' spends her evenings at a picture palace called the Jewel, where love stories and musicals give her a few hours' vacation from her boorish husband, empty purse, and miserable job at the local greasy spoon.

On a particularly bad night, she might sit through the feature several times -- even when it's a corny epic about New York socialites who meet a dashing adventurer in an Egyptian tomb. Of course, there's no future in escapism like this, staring at the same dopey scenes over and over.

Or is there? What if the handsome hero noticed this faithful viewer gazing at him in the dark? What if he jumped off the screen and whisked her to a more exciting life?

That's almost what happens. ``Gee, you must like this movie a lot,'' says the dashing explorer to the startled spectator. And in the wink of an eye he walks out of his own movie, grabs his admirer's hand, and squires her into the night.

It looks like the start of a grand affair. But life is never simple in an Allen film, even when it's a comic fantasy. Although the adventurer is handsome, he's not real -- he can only do what is written into his character, and since he comes from Hollywood mediocrity, that isn't very much. His knowledge is slim, his experience is nil, his emotions are limited. And he wears a pith helmet all the time.

That's the premise of ``The Purple Rose,'' and Allen works wonders with it. The core of the action is the impossible romance between the real-life waitress and her fictional friend, a grown-up Pinocchio with wistful dreams of becoming a person.

In a number of subplots, meanwhile, Allen develops offshoots of this bizarre story. We see other characters in the movie our hero walked out of, who now stand around the screen with nothing to do. We meet the actor who played the explorer when the film was made -- who comes to New Jersey to persuade his character back onto the screen and becomes his rival for the waitress's affections. We also follow her relations with her husband, whose loutish personality threatens to become dangerous.

Although some of this is poignant and much is hilarious, many scenes are likable and engaging without stirring up major excitement. Like other Allen movies, ``The Purple Rose of Cairo'' is a deliberately modest production, taking pride in a less-is-more approach that verges on self-consciousness.

This has the virtue of focusing all energy on the human values of the story. Even the antic effects of the film-within-a-film are reined in when they bid to rob attention from the characters. And the actors have a field day with the long, uninterrupted shots that capture large chunks of talk and action with no distracting frills or fancies.

But the earnest intimacy of the production lessens the scope and variety of the picture, preventing it from stretching its wings and taking off into the heights. Another limitation is the circular quality of the story, which -- typically for Woody Allen -- leaves the characters pretty much as it found them. While the movie is a gem, it's smaller and less glittering than it might have been.

This said, there is no faulting the superb collaborators Allen has gathered around him. Mia Farrow positively breathes the sad charm of her character. Jeff Daniels brings equal conviction to a matched set of roles, the fictional explorer and the Hollywood ham. Danny Aiello is almost too real for comfort as the heroine's uncomprehending husband. All the supporting players are just right, including the denizens of the black-and-white '30s parody that sparks the story. Gordon Willis, a regular Allen partner, provided the expressive cinematography.

The movie's rating is PG, reflecting a few vulgar words and a brothel scene in which the explorer -- true to the '30s movie he stepped out of -- simply can't participate. Expressive documentaries

Most documentaries fall into two camps.

The old-fashioned kind, still a staple of classrooms and PBS programs, are guided tours with narrators and carefully mapped-out images. The newfangled ones -- dubbed cin'ema v'erit'e, or ``direct cinema'' -- make do with images alone, offering the illusion (if not the fact) of raw reality cascading across the screen.

A few mavericks have found other approaches to documentary film, however: Raul Ruiz with his pairing of dry pictures and quirky meditations, for instance, and George Nierenberg with his staged reinventions of reality.

Johan van der Keuken might be the boldest of them all. His documentaries are expressive as well as instructive, reflecting his personality and sensibility as well as his ideas and opinions. Although his films are not familiar to American audiences, the Collective for Living Cinema is presenting five programs of them in New York this month -- an event that should enhance his reputation beyond the Netherlands, his home base.

Since he deals with a wide variety of subjects, it's hard to generalize about Mr. van der Keuken's work except to note a current of social and political concern that often runs just below the surface. Thus his portrait of a superb jazzman, ``Big Ben/Ben Webster in Europe,'' is not just a tribute to a legendary saxophonist but an essay on what it's like to be an outsider in terms of race and nationality.

Similar concerns crop up in ``Iconoclasm/Storm of Images,'' which examines remnants of the '60s counterculture in a Dutch theater of the '80s; and in ``The Reading-lesson,'' which visits a Dutch school where reading is taught through a combination of words, simple pictures, and more complex images drawn from current world affairs.

Not all of van der Keuken's filmmaking reaches heights of inspiration. The ambitious ``Iconoclasm'' is weakened by a flabby structure and lazy assumptions about the unconventional stage and music performances it incorporates. And the fine ``Big Ben'' dodges some of the more fascinating questions about its subject -- although it use a nonstop series of unexpected visual tropes.

``I [seldom] want to make a documentary,'' van der Keuken has written, indicating his view of film as a mixture of fact and fiction that mirrors all human experience. In a promising development, he may now be moving beyond documentary forms altogether, heading into new and unexplored territory. The latest work on the Collective program, ``Time,'' is a 1984 visual essay that floats free of all outside strictures and structures. To the slow rhythm of Louis Andriessen's music -- a series of long, suspended chords with percussion punctuation -- the camera tracks past a series of faces, places, and objects that are linked only by the director's intuition and the camera's steady-flowing gaze. It's a transfixing and wholly original film that shows a burst of new vigor in van der Keuken's career.

The Collective retrospective consists of five shows to be screened March 8, 10, 16, and 17.

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