Meta at the Movies: Experiencing the Movies that Experience the Movies


Jeff Daniels walks off the screen and into Mia Farrow's life.
The Purple Rose of Cairo via reelclub. Jeff Daniels walks off the screen and into Mia Farrow’s life.

The experience of watching a movie can be so powerful that we sometimes need another movie to help us process it. This month Fresno Filmworks screens just such a film about the desire to live a movie.  “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” tells the story of a Japanese woman who is so profoundly captivated by the Joel and Ethan Coen film “Fargo”, that she becomes convinced she is watching a documentary about a secret that could save her from her mundane life as a secretary. Kumiko takes it upon herself to set out on a dangerous quest to retrace the map she believes is in the film and find the lost treasure of Fargo.

“Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” speaks to the power of cinematic world building. The “Fargo” created by the Coen brothers is such a rich and complete environment that Kumiko is compelled to enter and create her own chapter, bending any distinction between fiction and non-fiction. While an epic search through the Minnesota wilderness may seem crazy, we all allow the slightly bent perspective of the moves a place in our realities. How often have you waited for a true love just like in the movies or imagined your own soundtrack as you walk down the street?  The stories we witness in a theater can become so real, so solid, that we feel them enter our lives. Where is the line between influence and obsession? How much can we control the influence of a tale artfully told.

“The Purple Rose of Cairo”

Woody Allen spent the better part of his career meditating on what movies mean and how they impact our lives. From the black and white landscapes of “Manhattan” to the historic dreamland of “Midnight in Paris”, Allen has always sought to merge life and cinema. It should come as no surprise that in 1985, he created a movie that did just that. “The Purple Rose of Cairo” takes a story about the movies and puts the movie in the story, just to see what would happen. Mia Farrow stars as Cecilia, a depression era waitress who escapes her dreary life by going to the movies.  Then one day her favorite romantic hero, Tom Baxter, walks off the screen and into her life. While Cecilia helps Tom explore the very real setting of New Jersey in the 1930s, the celluloid world on the other side of the screen scrambles to complete their stories in his absence.  Jeff Daniels actually performs double duty portraying not only Tom Baxter, but also Gil Shepard, the actor who plays him. Once Gil discovers that his most popular character has left the screen he goes on a frantic mission to find him and convince him to return before Tom ruins Gil’s career. The critically acclaimed “The Purple Rose of Cairo” explores what we love about the moves and how that is different from what we love about life. In the end even one of the biggest cinephiles in American history wasn’t sure he actually wanted to live in a movie.

“Shadow of the Vampire”

In 2000, director E. Elin Merhige took a dark view of method acting with one of the oldest legends in Hollywood.  It seems that rumors have always swirled around the 1922 silent film “Nosferatu” and Max Schreck’s legendary turn as Dracula. What was the secret of his terrifying performance? “Shadow of the Vampire” tells the story of these rumors and the disturbing circumstances surrounding the classic film.  William Dafoe was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as the iconic actor who sinks so deeply into his role that he begins to transform into a vampire feeding on the cast and crew. “Shadow of a Vampire” takes the adventurous spirit of a film set and projects it back through a wickedly distorted mirror. Entering the world of myth and legend inhabited by this movie eventually leads to madness and murder.


Fae Giffen studies at San Jose State in the School of Library and Information Science graduate program. She serves on the Filmworks board, working on marketing and development.