Tooth Decay and “Purple Rose of Cairo”


Inside the old theater, austere and immense, a haze of tobacco creates an aura of the surreal. Mia Farrow fidgets in her seat, along with the other patrons, waiting for the picture to begin as if it is the only thing that matters in the world. Already, they are completely engrossed by what they are about to see on the giant screen, larger than life. As the movie begins, her eyes reflect the light from the screen and sparkle as she takes in the wide-eyed adventurer, young Jeff Daniels in khaki and pith helmet and the glossy Manhattanites in tuxedos and gowns, sipping Martinis at the Copa Cabana. She is utterly entranced by the perfection of the enormous black and white world before her.

Outside the theater, the world is bleak, cold and grey. She lives in a manufacturing town in New Jersey and the Depression is on. Her husband is lazy, unfaithful and abusive. Unemployed, he relies on her job waiting tables at a shabby diner to support them while he shoots dice, drinks and womanizes. At the diner customers and her boss yell at her because lost in the reverie of daydreams she is always a step behind, careless and dropping plates. These daydreams, we see, are not merely a hindrance, or mark of irresponsibility, but the very thing that enables her to get through a miserable reality.

At one point, even people in the movies had imperfect teeth. Watch something as recent as the 80s or early 90s and you’ll see coffee and nicotine stained off-whites and beige tints behind even the most glamorous red lips.

Totally fixable.

Granted, there are fewer smokers in Hollywood these days, but there has been an utter scourge of unnaturally perfect teeth on and off the silver screen. As smokers are pushed further and further into the margins of society and coffee is replaced by energy drinks and adderall, the staining of teeth is at an all-time low. Combine this with the easy access to over-the-counter whitening treatments along with the full-court press of professional treatments at the dentist and voila: we find ourselves in period of perfect-looking teeth, an illusion of vitality and perfection we can reveal to the world with a generous grin.

At the dentist last week, I was dismayed to get the news (delivered through the blinding whiteness of my dentist’s smile) that I had two cavities, both related to the breaking of fillings. I try hard to take care of my teeth but I have many fillings and they will continue to break for the rest of my life, trapping bacteria and forever creating a tiny reminder of the human condition.

“This one down here is next in line,” he said, poking at a molar on my lower left side. “We’ll probably be looking at a crown, but that can wait another six months.” He examined my front teeth. “You should consider some orthodontic work,” he said. “Your lower arch is collapsing and causing the front teeth to wear down. Before long, you won’t have anything left.” I cringed. “Don’t worry, forget about those old-fashioned metal braces. Have you heard of Invisa-line?” He looked over at the hygienist. “Diane, see that he gets some literature to take home before he leaves.” He exhaled conclusively and returned his attention to me. “But other than that, everything looks good!”

I scheduled another appointment and readied myself for the fear, the discomfort and the unbelievable cost that awaited me.

Still got it.

This is the reality of my mouth. A reality that despite brushing three times day, flossing and rinsing with antiseptic will only get bleaker as I get older. Then, the rest of my body will follow, sore joints, torn muscles, strained ligament, high blood pressure and God knows what else before finally, I’m spending my days in an easy chair, surrounded by prescription pill bottles, waiting to die.

When Jeff Daniels, the handsome and esteemed archeologist, jumps off the screen and offers Mia Farrow an opportunity to join him in the world of Hollywood fantasy, she turns it down for the promise of a real-life fantasy fulfillment with the actor that plays him. The latter fantasy proves to be a mere charade, a ruse played by the masterful actor as a way to trick his character into going back where he came from.

In the movies, everyone has perfect teeth. Everyone stays young, strong, beautiful and happy forever, immortalized for all time in their idealized roles. We can have teeth like that: white, perfect and smiling, but despite the illusion, ours always decay.

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