I don’t believe that for a second. Saying Woody Allen likes to be perceived as nihilistic is as obvious a statement as saying he’s a nebbish. So much of his work as a writer and director is fueled by the futility of life; from something as wistful as The Purple Rose of Cairo to something more sinister like Crimes and Misdemeanors.
But I don’t believe it. Because in nearly every film Allen has ever made, there’s something to be cherished absolutely and almost without question. As an auteur, Allen is as fixated upon the power of nostalgia as he he is with nihilism– and these ideals clash. For me, though, this romantic Woody Allen seems to win out, whether or not Allen intends to be ironic about it. The film that seems to best capture his preoccupation with the past is undoubtedly Radio Days, a film that, perhaps on a first viewing, seems light and insignificant, but in actuality may reveal the most about the director’s outlook on life.
Radio Days might be one of his most autobiographical films, but perhaps not in the most traditional sense in that “it’s about his life”. It’s not the same as Annie Hall or Manhattan or even Stardust Memories, but Radio Days is able to articulate the feelings involved about revisiting the past perhaps better than any other Woody Allen film. It’s set in a very specific time associated with specific and general and overwhelming emotions. Its panoramic view of a family hunkers the viewer down in the midst of a bygone era, unapologetically nostalgic for it, and while it makes brief introductions to all of its characters, it’s never so forceful or overt as even as a film without those brief “meet and greets”.
Although it borrows the “dysfunctional family dramedy” set up, its vignette-like structure avoids the often problematic tropes that films of that ilk often encounter: we get to know the characters and familiarize ourselves with them without it being saccharine. We would never want to be a part of that family, but, like watching home movies and having Allen narrate them, we are engaged nevertheless with these strangers from another time.
Woody Allen essentially utilizes a clever conceit to zoom out to a larger idea: an old radio. The analog nature, especially watching the film in a retrospective sense, makes it inherently a link to the past and a symbol of memory. It is not merely an object, but a lifestyle, Allen engaging us with stories not only concerning his standing (tiny Seth Green) listening to radio shows, but also of stories regarding the people behind the shows. An amusing subplot involves Mia Farrow as a ditsy aspiring radio star, Sally White, and follows her around as she tries to make it big.
Every single detail of the film is an act of romanticization: Orson Welles’ infamous production of War of the Worlds derails a date between his Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) and a suitor; old Pepsi-Cola signs shimmer behind a young girl as she sings about a tweeting bird; Mia Farrow sings a jingle about a laxative; the clock in a radio studio glows in neon pink; and grand parties feature Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter. These are things Allen clearly adores, but such ephemera is not some sort of one and done thing for the director. These kinds of details, and larger ideas about the nature of nostalgia (referred to as “Golden Age Thinking” by Michael Sheen’s “pseudo-intellectual” in Midnight in Paris) are a primary element to his work.
Nearly all of Allen’s films are concerned in some manner with the past, either directly in context with the film itself or in an extra textual manner: even his most recent film Blue Jasmine was concerned with Jasmine’s (Cate Blanchett) memory of the past, while it was simultaneously an update of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. (His newest film, Magic in the Moonlight, takes place in the 1920s.) He seemed to have stopped watching contemporary films years ago, as everything he makes is somehow related to grasping onto the ephemeral memories of time gone by. Radio Days itself is a riff off of Federico Fellini’s warmly nostalgic film Amarcord.
From Russian novels (Love and Death) to “[romanticizing New York] all out of proportion” (Manhattan) to romanticizing relationships, to remembering the power of the movies, to his own childhood, Woody Allen may be intrinsically intertwined with the nostalgia. Even the music in his films is always, shall we say, “vintage” (with the possible exception of the use of the punk band 39 Steps in Hannah and Her Sisters). Joe (Woody Allen/Seth Green) tells the audience, “To this day, there are certain songs and when I hear them I get instant memory flashes.” In a way, aren’t all of his films, then, memory flashes? Pieces of personal history?
And the reason I don’t believe Allen thinks life is meaningless is precisely because of those recurring ideas in his filmography. He might deny it, but if he didn’t find meaning in those memories, why would he bother occupying so much time examining them? That’s part of the beauty of his work. He is able to find small, intimate moments in life– in relationships, and families–that mean something.
He says of these moments, “Now [they’re] all gone. Except for the memories.”