Woody Allen’s (Post) Modern Nostalgia Games: The Critical Rhetoric of Cinema as Time Machine

Dario Llinares

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapter


The films of Woody Allen often indulge in flights of the temporal imagination. This regularly takes the form of a central character’s self-reflexive, critical examination of past experiences laced with a tone of nostalgic reminiscence. In Annie Hall (1977) Alvy Singer’s “overactive imagination” presents an exaggerated childhood set under the Coney Island rollercoaster and populated by movie star lookalikes, demonic teachers and idiosyncratic family members. We get to accompany Alvy and Annie as they figuratively stroll through her encounters with her past boyfriends and turning points in their relationship. Such moments are also often tied aesthetically to an idealised vision of New York, a city that, for Allen, seems to represent an eternal anchoring point for both his emotional and cinematic identity. These romanticised incursions into the past cannot be defined as time-travelling in a technical sense, but are a rhetorical device that facilitates existential musings into memory which, in turn, psychologically contextualise actions or feelings taking place in the present. In not conforming to a realist logic of time and space this allows a playful and often contradictory exploration of the fundamental subjectivity of reminiscences - highlighting that in film, as in life, the past is a construction of unreliable fragments. In this chapter, however, I want to focus on two of Allen’s films in which the protagonists are represented as going through a physical journey of time travel. Sleeper employs a generic time-travel device: Allen is frozen in cryostasis and awoken in the future, facilitating a parody of the science-fiction through formal homage to the silent slapstick of Buster Keaton. In Midnight in Paris time-travelling is a rather more fantastically whimsical affair: while drunkenly flâneuring round the nocturnal streets of Paris, Allen’s screen surrogate, Owen Wilson, is magically transported back to the 1920s where he encounters the greats of modernist art and literature. Both films, one through form and the other through content, paradoxically offer, on the one hand, a critique of naïve romanticism and the artistic mindset that tends towards nostalgic idealisation. Yet, on the other, they deploy and even amplify his familiar tendency for the loving recreation of time, place and mood, which thus feed emotional needs of the characters. Using the postmodernist line of Jameson and Hutcheon, who explore the contradictory dynamics of parody in the installing and undermining of artistic originality, this chapter explores Allen’s time-travelling double-play of critical examination and nostalgic longing. I will analyse the dialectics created by the time-travel scenarios in Sleeper and Midnight in Paris, discussing how they operate through a dialogue with past art and cinematic forms, which is simultaneously questioning and reverential. Through this context I will interrogate the ideological confrontation between nostalgia and parody though Allen’s use of time-travel as a cinematic mechanism, and, in turn, argue that his representations of existential anxieties reflect the human condition in its fragile relationship to past, present and future.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTime travel in popular media: essays on film, television, literature and video games
EditorsM. Jones, J. Ormrod
Place of PublicationJefferson, US
PublisherMacFarland Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9780786478071
Publication statusPublished - 2 Mar 2015


Dive into the research topics of 'Woody Allen’s (Post) Modern Nostalgia Games: The Critical Rhetoric of Cinema as Time Machine'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this