Movies We Like
I’ve been on a Woody Allen kick of late and I’m not sure what prompted it. In the twilight of his career he remains a polarizing figure mostly reviled for personal indiscretions or ignored for his supposed cultural irrelevancy. He doesn’t always make it easy to defend his work. The things people used to find amusing about his movies now just elicit a kind of widespread yawning contempt—the gross age difference between him and his latest ingÃ©nue, the aloof quality of the writing, and the way his characters don’t seem to bear even the slightest relation to actual people in New York City or anywhere else. His last few international productions have been, by all accounts, hit-or-miss and the early fans who adopted Annie Hall and Manhattan as the films of their generation have deserted him. I don’t necessarily disagree that his films aren’t what they used to be, but I think his good films are still some of the best American films ever made. The period of his work I generally romanticize is the mid-1980s period and the film of his that I like best is, in some ways, the least representative of his work, Radio Days. It’s light, unabashedly sentimental, and probably the least cynical movie he ever made.
Radio Days is more-or-less a series of vignettes related to Allen’s childhood that revolve around the radio and the central role it played in everyone’s life. The scenes are breezy and comical with a wry knowing melancholy hovering over them because this is, after all, a lost world that Allen is eulogizing. The film shows Allen’s childhood in a nostalgic light. He lives in Brooklyn in a cramped house where various assorted aunts, uncles, and grandparents lived too. Their banter is typically neurotic for an Allen film but there’s a familial ease and a gentleness to it. It’s very funny but it’s not abrasive. Seth Green plays Allen as a kid who is obsessed with the Masked Avenger, a radio show about a super hero of sorts whom Green’s character imagines as a dashing crime fighter but in actuality is played by Wallace Shawn, the impish character actor. A lot of the fun to be had from the stories Allen tells about the golden age of radio is how the actuality of who the performers are bears little resemblance to the identities they assume on the radio for a rapt audience living vicariously through their glamorous exploits. None is funnier than Mia Farrow, a painfully ditzy supper club cigarette girl who is perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time but who eventually gets (mostly) rid of her Brooklyn squawk and becomes the host of a sophisticated Hollywood gossip radio program.
Allen comes clean about the rose-colored view of his childhood. In the opening scene, in voice over, he asks our forgiveness for his nostalgic take, saying that Brooklyn probably wasn’t always so gorgeous and rain swept as it is portrayed to be but that that is how he chooses to remember it. The final scene ends the film on a bittersweet note with a group of tuxedo-clad radio stars out on a Manhattan rooftop during New Year’s Eve wondering if future generations will even have heard of them. As Allen notes, their voices grow dimmer every year.
Radio Days was nominated for two Oscars: Best Set Direction and Best Original Screenplay.