You Only Go Around Once: Death and Nostalgia in the Films of Woody Allen

Todd Kushigemachi

On the eve of the release of Woody Allen's newest film Midnight in Paris, opening May 20 in limited release, PopMatters examines the director's fondness for deftly employing nostalgia as a cinematic language throughout his career.

When announcing Woody Allen's newest European adventure, Midnight in Paris, as the festival’s opening film, the Cannes website posted a page of quotes from several of Woody Allen’s movies. In many ways, this act stoked the fire of the public's ever-smoldering nostalgia for the prolific, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately rewarding career of the beloved, iconic actor and screenwriter. Appropriately enough, many of Allen’s films demonstrate a deep sense of nostalgia onscreen.

Jazz scores, flashbacks, movie references and period costumes -- sometimes these details transport audiences to the past, but Allen often uses these cues whether his films are set in the past, the present or even the future. Time and time again, his films are characterized by society’s public nostalgia for past eras and the personal nostalgia of characters to work through fears of change, uncertainty and death.

In his fifth feature Sleeper (1973), Allen presents a vision of 22nd century America. Superficially about the future, the science fiction parody is actually concerned about our relationship with the past. Posters for the film read “Woody Allen Takes a Nostalgia Look at the Future". Indeed, the use of a ragtime jazz score and visual gags suggests Allen’s fondness for the classic silent comedy of Buster Keaton. But more significantly, when Allen’s character Miles Monroe comes to his senses after being frozen for 200 years, he is asked to identify and comment on figures in photographs: Joseph Stalin, Bela Lugosi, Billy Graham and Normal Mailer to name a few. Particularly with Graham, still alive today, audiences identify these figures at contemporary but are subtly prompted to consider their mortality.

Although a comedy, Sleeper is fundamentally obsessed with the idea of death. The film’s central premise rests on the fantastical idea of being able to defy death. When Miles asks about all of his friends, scientists explain that everyone he knew has been dead for 200 years. Throughout the film, Miles is on the run from a futuristic totalitarian government seeking to destroy him for rebelliously, albeit unwillingly, defying death. Sleeper’s relationship with time is complex, and playing upon the nostalgia of audiences with its aesthetic and historic cues, the comedy subtly comments on how we as a society perceive and negotiate with the past.

This odd sense of nostalgia also pervades Allen’s comedic dramas set in the present. This can be seen with Gordon Willis’ cinematography and the use of a George Gershwin score in Manhattan (1979). As Allen’s protagonist Isaac stumbles through the possible beginnings for his book in the film’s opening scene, he says New York is “a town that existed in black-and-white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin". Even though the entirety of the film is set in contemporary New York, it is depicted just as Isaac nostalgically imagines it. The film features orchestral arrangements of classic Gershwin including “Rhapsody in Blue". The nostalgia of both Isaac the character and Allen the filmmaker pervade the film in such a way that it colors (or de-colors) our perception of the city.

This idealized portrait of the city stands in tension with the questionable moral fiber of the film’s characters, highlighting what Isaac sees as the death of a city he loves. Although the music of Gershwin suggests stability, the relationships in the film are actually “self-indulgent, emotionally tenuous and largely temporary erotic liaisons", as Peter J. Bailey notes in The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen. That is, the music of the film is deeply romantic but the narrative of the film focuses on the uncertainty of relationships. In the 96 minutes of the movie, Diane Keaton’s Mary sleeps with Isaac’s married friend Yale, becomes Isaac’s lover when he is still with his 17-year-old girlfriend Tracy and ultimately ends up with Yale again. Although Isaac sees New York as a beautiful city rooted in the past, the reality of the present is disappointing, not at all fulfilling. This disconnect between form and content suggests the death of an older, more romantic New York. At one point, Isaac stops in front of a construction site with Mary and laments, “The city’s really changing.” With the city and its residents always fluctuating, Allen tries to cope with the inevitably of change by presenting the story with the aesthetics of a bygone era.

The aesthetics of the film and Allen’s apparent attempt to prevent change are mirrored by the narrative, specifically Isaac’s relationship with the 17-year-old Tracy. Just as the cinematography and music resist change, the 42-year-old Isaac attempts to relive his youth by dating a girl who has homework, as he puts it himself. After two failed marriages, Isaac wants to return to the simpler times of youthful dating. Isaac’s view of Tracy as a nostalgic ideal is illustrated when he recounts the things that make life worth living. After naming songs of the past including Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” and classic Hollywood actor Marlon Brando, Isaac says Tracy’s face makes life worth living. The beauty of a girl and the art of the past are nostalgically intertwined in Isaac’s mind as examples of purity. But when he goes to win her back, Tracy says she turned 18 and is now legal. Even her character, a symbol for the innocence of youth, is susceptible to the very change Isaac and Allen are attempting to stop.

Allen takes this fear of change a step further in a conversation between Isaac and Yale, and here Manhattan is not only concerned about the death of a city but also human mortality. When Isaac confronts his friend Yale about taking Mary back, the argument devolves into a discussion about death. Presented in a humorous two shot beside skeletal remains, Isaac points to the remains of the long-deceased primate and suggests, “I’ll be hanging in a classroom one day. And I want to make sure when I thin out that I’m well thought of.” Allen is aware that everyone is going to die and have some sort of legacy. This further adds meaning to the aesthetic choices for the film. With black-and-white cinematography and Gershwin music, Allen hints that the present will inevitably become the past. Just as Isaac is conscious that what he does affects how future generations see him, Allen uses nostalgic artistic cues to indicate the inevitably of death.

Manhattan trailer

Allen demonstrates this same fascination with art as a way of negotiating art and time in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), a film presented in color but actually set in the 1930s. With the fictitious character Tom Baxter stepping out of a black-and-white comedy, Allen once again explores the tension between the permanence of art and the fragility of reality. On the dance floor of Dine and Dance, Mia Farrow’s Cecilia tells the idealized character that in her world people “get old and sick and never find true love” while Tom says people are consistent and reliable in the world of his movies. The fantasy world of art and the reality of life are inherently incompatible because only the latter experiences change and death. Cecilia does not appear to be in love with a man as much as she is with a world where someone like Tom has never heard of the Great War or the Great Depression.

Because movies are a world of stability, audiences are inherently nostalgic about cinematic experiences. One customer who saw the movie-within-a-movie a week before Tom’s escape expresses her dissatisfaction. She complains she wants “what happened in the movie last week to happen this week. Otherwise what’s life all about anyway?” For the woman complaining to management, going to the movies is not a matter of simply sitting back and watching. It is about the stability the film brings to the uncertainty of her very existence. She is holding on to her nostalgic attachment to a movie she saw just the week before so strongly that a lack of consistency in the fictional world itself calls the meaning of life into question. Tom’s escape from the movie-within-a-movie complicates this system and taps into people’s fundamental fear of change.

Throughout the film, Allen suggests his own audience is guilty of this same nostalgic attachment. The film presents the black-and-white images of the movie-within-a-movie in a way that appeals to our own nostalgia for comedies of the 1930s. But in the end, Allen’s movie uses this representational nostalgia for much more cynical purposes. Finding herself alone, Cecilia sits in the theater watching the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical Top Hat (1935). She smiles through her tears as she watches the movie, and many film fans watching Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo likely experience fond memories of the Astaire-Rogers picture themselves. But the film’s nostalgia for this actual 1930s movie is ambivalent. Cecilia has lost Tom and will soon return to the realities of the Great Depression. Ultimately, Allen suggests that nostalgia and art are only temporary solutions to the problems of everyday life.

To ease the guilty conscience of Judah Rosenthal in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), brother Jack assures him, “You only go around once.” These exact words are used by Mickey in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) as he finds the will to live watching the film Duck Soup (1933). Justifying murder in one case and rationalizing life in the other, this clause is indicative of Allen’s obsession with death as seen in nearly all of his films. To provide a sense of stability for his tenuous questions about life and death, Allen nostalgically turns to the past, even when films are set in the present or the future. At the end of Sleeper, Miles says the only two things he believes in are sex and death. From Allen’s “early, funny ones” to his most recent films, Woody Allen has clearly demonstrated his belief that the only certainty of life is its inevitable end. To help us cope with this reality, we as film-goers continue to take comfort in Allen’s characteristic title credits and nostalgic narratives.

Midnight in Paris looks to be yet another nod to Allen's particular brand of aching, acerbic, and sometimes deathly nostalgia. The film opens in limited release May 20 and will expand throughout the summer.

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