The surreal world of Woody Allen, where fantasy meets reality and nostalgia becomes a currency

On Woody Allen's 82nd birthday, here's looking at the films of the director that indulged his audience in the fantasy of nostalgia.

Written by Sampada Sharma | New Delhi | Published: December 1, 2017 6:00 am
Woody Allen celebrates his 82nd birthday. Woody Allen’s films delve deep into the realm of fantasy that surpasses the physical reality of the world.

“Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” – Midnight in Paris

Putting on the rose coloured glasses of nostalgia makes everything better, usually. It makes us long for days when life was ‘simpler’ and it reminds us of the time when the same mundane existence felt better. And it is this nostalgia that Woody Allen loves to romanticise in his films. He deals with nostalgia like a prized possession of his fantasy. His love for things that could have been a reality are explored in many of his films and every time he does it, he entices his audience into a world where everyone has the currency of nostalgia in their pockets.

Woody Allen has made more than 45 films in a career spanning over five decades. His films are largely known for his peculiar sense of humour but what makes his audience come back every year for a ‘Woody Allen film’ is his fine balance of reality and fantasy. It is Allen’s love with/for nostalgia that makes us long for his perspective. His films feel like an ode to an old world when things seemed better but such is the magic of nostalgia.

Allen’s films delve deep into the realm of fantasy that surpasses the physical reality of the world. His fantastical world deals with the ultimate question of ‘What if?’ and presents a scenario that could not possibly not happen practically but in our imaginative heads, it’s a thought that could occupy us for hours.

How else can one explain Gil (Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris)?

owen wilson in midnight in paris Still from Midnight in Paris (2011).

He dreams of being in Paris but in the 20s, his book is about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. Gil is man who would rather live in denial than face the demons that surround him in his present life. Even after he attains the dream he has longed for, Paris and Adriana, his bubble ends up bursting. Adriana, a woman from the 20s longs for the past and Gil who has already been living in the past realises that this search for the perfect time is endless. His search for utopia is whimsical because it is only a figment of his imagination.

Jasmine (played by Cate Blanchett) in Blue Jasmine (2013) is another victim of this nostalgia fever.

cate blanchett in blue jasmine Still from Blue Jasmine (2013).

Seemingly normal, Jasmine is stuck in a delusional world and though she knows the reality of her cheating husband and his ponzi schemes, the comfort of believing in something that makes her feel better is her escapist route. She chooses to live in denial because facing the brutal reality of life, even when it hits you in the face, is daunting.

Allen’s love for escapism is dominantly reflected in his 1985 film, The Purple Rose of Cairo.

purple rose of cairo Still from The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

Here, a young woman lives through the Great Depression of 1935. The world around her is falling apart but she finds comfort at the movies. Her only solace is to visit the theater every evening and watch the same film over and over again. But when a character from the same film comes alive in her life, her reality and fantasy meet and it is a marriage that is destined to fail. Cecilia (played by Mia Farrow) is desperate to believe in anything that is not as painful as her own life and through this character Allen conveys to the audience that this marriage of fantasy with reality is nothing but wishful thinking.

This point of view of the director also comes alive in his 1990 film Alice.

mia farrow in alice Still from Alice (1990).

Here, Allen has a character who attains different magical abilities by ingesting ancient herbs. And while in our imagination, this should make her life easier, such is not the case. The power to go invisible allows her to find out about her partner’s infidelity and the power to make someone fall in love with her backfires badly. While these magical elements elevate her story and turn her into a person who is different than the rest, her core problems are just as everyday as any of ours. The spark of fantasy feels like a boon but the novelty of this magic wears off soon enough.

Allen’s love for fantasy and nostalgia presents a combination which feels utopian but the inclusion of mundane problems slaps the viewer back into reality.

One of Woody Allen’s less popular works, Scoop (2006), has him playing a magician who knows his tricks are tomfoolery. But when the magic of the universe makes a dead man appear out of nowhere, him and Sandra (Scarlett Johansson), investigate a murder because a dead man told them to do so. Once out of the realm of physical reality, the story tries hard to balance a real-life murder with a reporter’s ghost. Even with this inclusion of fantasy, Allen remains grounded to the fact that the circle of life and death exists even in the most perfect world.

scarlett johansson in scoop Still from Scoop (2006).

The film where Woody Allen combines his love for fantasy and nostalgia is 1983’s Zelig.

Zelig is a character who can physically transform into anything because of his strong need for validation. He yearns to be accepted and becomes known as the human chameleon. Zelig’s lack of personality gives Woody a chance to form a man out of a clean slate. A man with no baggage but someone who is constantly stuck in a world where nobody knows who he is or what he could be. Zelig’s lack of characteristics, physical or otherwise, make him the perfect model who could have whatever life he wants but the ‘real society’ finds it extremely abnormal.

Still from Zelig (1983).

It is with this film that Allen makes a commentary on the desires of a human being. One that wants the approval of the society but also one who wishes to stand out and be celebrated. The line between his fantasy and reality overlap and turn him into a guinea pig for the rest of the society. The line between fantasy and reality might be a perception for some but for the society at large, they’re as different as chalk and cheese.

Woody Allen, in his numerous works, has questioned the rational decision making of human beings, their desire to find loopholes in the system and the fantasies they constantly love to indulge in. His love for comedy is evident from the way he deals with everyday situations in his films but is his love for nostalgia and fantasy that attracts us to his work.

Movies are where we land up when we want to escape from the real world and what better than to escape to a movie that encourages this route to fantasy.

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