STARDUST MEMORIES A
USA (91 mi) 1980 d: Woody Allen
I don’t want to make funny movies any more, they can’t force me to. I don’t feel funny. I look around the world and all I see is human suffering.
In my family nobody ever considered suicide, this was just not a middle class alternative, my mother was too busy running the boiled chicken through the de-flavorizing machine to think about shooting herself.
To you, I’m an athiest. To God, I’m the loyal opposition.
The Way of Zen. What are you trying to tell me, that I’m not at peace, right? I think I need more than a Zen book, I need either a good rabbi analyst or an interplanetary genius.
—Sandy Bates (Woody Allen)
I’m doing this piece on the shallow indifference of wealthy celebrities and I’d like to include you in my piece. —Film festival fan
My mother shops in the same butcher shop your mother does. Can I have your autograph? Could you just write: To Phyllis Weinstein, you unfaithful, lying bitch?
—An adoring fan
A dark and unflinchingly honest film, an autobiographical equivalent to Fellini’s 8½ (1963), where a confused and neurotic, yet highly successful fictionalized American film director, Sandy Bates (Woody Allen), has doubts about the meaning of his existence and suddenly, through the use of a cleverly experimental film style, finds himself thrust into the middle of a Black and White Fellini movie. Clearly inspired by the great directors of European art cinema, like Bergman, Fellini, and Godard, to name a few, Allen pays tribute to them all with this modernist, existential homage to cinema itself, filled with an unconventional, plotless style that mixes flashbacks and brief vignettes of real life with dreams and fantasies, creating an impressionistic, stream-of-conscious effect . Baron is constantly surrounded by an enveloping throng of wellwishers, where he can’t help but think perhaps he’s wasting his time telling jokes and making lighthearted comedies that the public loves instead of doing something more meaningful with his life. But while he’s constantly besieged by adoring fans, all calling him a genius and comparing him to God, though they are unanimous in their preference for his funnier, early works, he spends most of his time pursuing frivolous encounters, fluttering from woman to woman, like a butterfly in heat, always wanting to be at the center of attention. While he realizes the superficiality of his own narcissim, he constantly vacillates over what he really wants, which is usually whatever woman he can get his hands on, where Allen’s libido rules. While this inventive style was not altogether new, as the public got an earlier glimpse of it in Bob Fosse’s legendary All That Jazz (1979), this was a complete shock to Allen’s moviegoing audience, many finding it “too angry,” breaking the mold of conventional comedy, so the speak, and branching out anew with an altogether radical vision, something like PERSONA (1966) was in Bergman’s career. Despite the intent to expand the boundaries of Allen’s cinema, the film flopped with the public and most of the critics, where Ebert and Variety didn’t like it, eventually just breaking even financially. This is Allen’s final film for United Artists before moving to Orion Pictures, but looking back today, one has to acknowledge this was a major risk that turned into one of the director’s most creative efforts in his career.
While the film is an expression of New Wave cinema vocabulary, where startling images and jump cuts are meant to keep the audience on edge, but what’s most revelatory is the insight it offers into the artistic journey, where the director is literally assaulted by a collective of well meaning, but often intrusive business associates, many threatening the artist’s control, where they want to recut the ending of his movie and send his characters to Jazz Heaven, thinking they know what’s best, but what they really want is not new ideas or artistic development, but what sells tickets, keeping the artist confined to making the same kinds of films over and over again, as this is the successful business formula. Art, however, wants to break free of this suffocating stranglehold, like Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Picasso breaking from Surrealism into his Blue period, and later Cubism, or Dylan bolting from folk music, never knowing exactly what lies ahead, but knowing the journey is all that matters. After an opening scene that is amusingly European influenced, an existential fantasia of fear and paranoia, with the claustrophobic Allen trapped in a train car much like Marcello Mastroianni in the opening moments of 8½ was trapped in a car in the middle of a giant traffic jam and can’t escape, both leading to strange surrealistic dream sequences, the lights come on and the movie moguls describe what they’ve seen, which can be summed up by an uncredited Laraine Newman, a film producer, “He’s pretentious, his filming style is too fancy, his insights are shallow and morbid. I’ve seen it all before. They try to document their private suffering and fob it off as art.” While Bates is wrestling with the making of a film, he’s also struggling with his life, where one of the more interesting effects is the changing mood of a giant wall-sized photo backdrop in his apartment of The Execution of A Vietcong Guerilla | Iconic Photos that later turns into Groucho Marx when he’s happy, a continually changing device he uses on a half dozen occasions, including Sandy Bates standing in front of a giant photo of Allen at one point. Early on we see him with his gorgeous but mentally unbalanced former girlfriend Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), resembling his own Lauren Bacall, who initially captures his eye by speedreading through Schopenhauer, where we hear him whisper tenderly into her ear, “I think they’ve been putting something wonderful in your lithium.”
While attending a retrospective of his work at the Stardust Hotel in Atlantic City (organized by none other than Judith Christ), Bates reflects upon his life and loves, the inspirations for his film, but is on the verge of a mental breakdown, seeing the world from a distorted view, where memories and fantasies are seamlessly woven into his reality, as he continually goes through a whirlwind wave of adulation and praise, while thoughts keep creeping in, like a childhood Superman image, seen taking off in his backyard, or various old-school renditions of vaudeville style cabaret songs, where he sees himself as a young onstage child magician, The Amazing Sandy, levitating a ball to thunderous applause. The film loses all sense of time, jumping back and forth between incidents, where he’s also introduced to Daisy, Jessica Harper from the opening scene of Suspiria (1977), where they have a transforming moment together after viewing THE BICYCLE THIEF (1948), while at the same time reflecting upon his life with Isobel, Marie-Christine Barrault from early Éric Rohmer films of the late 60’s and 70’s, supposedly an ex-radical from France. At some point Bates is in love with all three women, or so it seems, but always more obsessed with the idea of love, something that’s always been missing in his life. Even during life-changing moments of great impact, adoring fans continue to approach him, where he instinctively deals with both simultaneously, not even realizing what he’s doing. In much the same way, his mind incessantly wanders through an interior, imaginary world, where in some of the finer moments we’re able to catch glimpses of the director’s “hostility” as it goes on a rampage through Central Park leaving behind plenty of dead bodies, pursued by the police and tracker dogs, or Bates actually proposes to Isobel while she’s doing grotesque facial exercises. Even an extraterrestial named Og appears, again confirming the intergalactic consensus, “We enjoy your films — particularly the early, funny ones,” while UFO’s descend to earth in hot air balloons, gloriously filmed by Gordon Willis, but there’s also a paranoid fantasy about getting assassinated by a rabid autograph hound, where the release date of the film predates the assassination of former Beatle John Lennon by psychotic fan Mark Chapman by just over two months. During a posthumous speech where he believes he’s already dead, Bates describes that singular moment in his life that epitomizes his life’s meaning, a moment with Dorrie in his apartment where she’s lying on the floor flipping through a magazine, where their eyes and thoughts meet, with Louis Armstrong playing “Stardust” in the background, The Movie Roman Coppola Has 'Seen A Million Times' : NPR YouTube (2:11). Rampling has two of the film’s best moments, as she’s also seen doing an extraordinary dramatic riff on Bergman’s PERSONA Charlotte Rampling in Woody Allen's "Stardust memories" YouTube (1:30). While there are plenty of bickering and disjointed moments in the film, where Allen’s character is not entirely likeable, there are also ravishing sequences that are among Allen’s most brilliant, which includes the affecting quality of the ambiguous ending, where STARDUST MEMORIES may be the most autobiographically transparent film he ever made.