Purple prose

In the audio commentary of a Sci-Fi film called The One, there is a discussion about how purple is a rarity in modern cinema. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the colour is used sparingly, because it makes the few films which use it stand out all the more strikingly. When The One came out in 2001, it hadn’t been long since purple was featured in The Sixth Sense – a 1999 film. In the latter, purple was used to foreshadow death like in Robert Wise’s Cabaret (1972) and Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990). In general, the use of purple in cinema doesn’t always foreshadow a literal death. Sometimes, it can mean something is about to die. For example, a 1998 film titled Rushmore features a scene where a teenager climbs a ladder to the purple bedroom of his teacher, only to lose his determination that he will have his way with her. In Tootsie (1982), Dustin Hoffman’s female alter ego wears purple when she reveals her true identity as a man, thereby putting Dorothy to rest.

Part of why purple is rare nowadays is that it’s often seen as the colour of Yoga like red for horror, green for Sci-Fi and pink for prepubescent female entertainment such as dolls or movies. When writer/director James Wong, production designer David Snyder, editor Jim Coblentz, and director of photography Robert McLachlan did that commentary for The One, you would be forgiven for thinking that purple was commonplace. It was deftly used in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2001). In those instances, it’s understandable since purple is a colour that’s used for royalty outside of cinema. Given the prestige of Kubrick, and the historical setting of the latter, purple could not have been ignored. However, it was used sparingly in the former since scarcity enhances a diamond in the rough; especially in a modern world where colours are more prominent. In Eyes Wide Shut, a purple-clothed prostitute is HIV-positive. In Gladiator, the Praetorian guards all wear purple uniforms.

Purple has the opportunity to be a haunting colour. In The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), cinematographer Jack Asher framed a guillotine silhouetted against a dark purple sky for the final menacing scenes. Three years later, there was a film metaphorically titled Purple Noon. It is a thriller that is loosely based on a 1955 novel called The Talented Mr. Ripley. Sadly, the film never lives up to its title. The same thing could be said about a 1999 film called Purple Storm. The one film that benefited the most from purple was a black-themed film called Eve’s Bayou (1997). This is ironic since it is a Southern Gothic film where the use of black would have made for a blacker than black film about African-Americans. The use of purple is not as prevalent but it leaves its mark since it foreshadows mourning in a few instances. There is a purple-dressed gossip whose daughter eventually carries a basket of purple irises to lay flowers on graves. This brings to mind Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) when Snow White’s seemingly dead body is encased in a glass coffin decorated with purple flowers.

In 2018, Eve’s Bayou was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Two months ago, the film was inducted into The Criterion Collection. I’m sure that some may find a connection to other black-driven projects such as Purple Rain (1984) and The Color Purple (1985). I’m also sure that Steven Spielberg wanted to subliminally remind people of the former when he made the latter. As a musical, Purple Rain evokes the memory of an earlier musical – West Side Story (1961). Bernando wears a purple shirt as he dances with Anita. It may as well be a dance of death given what happens to him on the following day. However, Purple Rain owes to the iconic image of Jimi Hendrix. Purple Haze is more my jam. Coincidentally, the Philippines sell purple jam (i.e. Ube).

In between Purple Rain and The Color Purple came the release of The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), but that was a coincidence. Like Eve’s Bayou, the sporadic incorporation of purple in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) means that it is the colour least noticed but the most controlling. The middle-aged woman wears purple in one of the signature scenes. Later on in the film, the younger woman inherits the colour as a sign of how far that she has matured. Purple is the most mystical of colours, and one associated with wizards. Much has been made of the wire-enhanced magic of Ang Lee’s film, especially the ending. One interpretation is that the younger woman is flying, but it could also signify that she is committing suicide (furthering the tradition of purple as a fatally ominous colour). The 2016 sequel, Sword of Destiny, was originally going to see the character return.

Elsewhere, purple has a palpable presence in Savour of the Soul (1991). The ending sees the love interest of the hero dressed in purple like him. In the 1992 sequel, the hero meets the literal girl of his dreams. She dresses in purple, and is referred to as the Ice Woman of the Snowy Mountain. She is the new Snow White. In one scene of the film, another dream girl has a bath in a room surrounded by purple lights. There are even purple grapes. Alas, the fatalistic nature of the ending seems like a self-fulling prophecy for the colour purple. Purple in Chicago (2002) symbolizes that the film is about the death of innocence. This is made all the more shocking for what is meant to be a popcorn musical, albeit whose commercial trappings are obscured by being a period black comedy.

It’s fitting, then, that indie director Todd Haynes made use of it in his historical romance titled Far from Heaven (2002). There is a subtle reference to The Color Purple when wind blows a pale purple scarf belonging to a female character as her friends read an article which mentions that she is kind to black people. Later on, purple light faintly illustrates her sobbing over the farewell of a friend. When Apocalypse Now (1979) began filming, the Vietnam war had only been over for a year yet it was technically a period movie in that it was telling a story that took place years before it ended. The fleeting nature of purple in cinema is best reflected in the fact that it can only be seen in the extended version of Francis Ford Coppola’s disaster-piece.

There is much to be made of the fact that purple is a slightly feminine colour for clothing despite being a combination of two traditionally masculine colours: red and blue. Red, white and blue would be best represented by a Yin-Yang that’s half purple and half white. In The Matrix Resurrections (2021), there should have been a purple pill. After all, the original Morpheus did wear purple clothing in what was originally a trilogy. Maybe there should be a boxing film called Purple Pulp. Purple is a luxurious colour which lends itself to the name of an avant-garde French magazine for the indie crowd. Brace yourself for Purple. Wes Anderson was interviewed for the mag in 2008 but he has never really embraced the colour to much the same degree as the aforementioned filmmakers.

As for literally purple literature, there is an example in a 1979 film called Legend of the Mountain. Director King Hu was an accomplished calligrapher. Most of the calligraphy in his films was from his own hand. His actress Sylvia Chang relates the story of Hu unsuccessfully searching for the perfect prop during the production of Legend of the Mountain. The story focuses on a monk copying a mysterious sutra that various ghosts and humans covet. Hu coveted purple paper, but simply couldn’t find the hue he needed. Soon the cast was searching paper stores all over Asia, and Sylvia finally found the perfect purple paper in Korea. In Scream and Scream Again (1970), a man in a purple shirt is so indomitable that he can only be killed by himself. Perhaps the film should have been titled Purple Perpetrator.

Returning to The One, the star of that film wears a purple jacket during his final scene with Michelle Yeoh in Yuen Woo-Ping’s The Tai Chi Master (1993). With purple being a symbol of royalty, the significance is that Jet Li’s character killed the lieutenant of the governor’s army. After his death, the army throw down their spears since they have no one to serve under anymore. In the final ever scene of the film, Jet is primarily dressed in black when he decides to teach Tai Chi at his own monastery. The person who he killed was completely dressed in black, and his ashes were returned to the Shaolin Temple. The black signifies that Jet has become his own leader, but the white clothing that we get to see shows that he is not exactly like the deceased. Ironically, Chin Siu-Ho returned to wear a purple suit in the finale of Jet’s Fist of Legend (1994).


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