Saturday, June 29, 2013

FORGOTTEN GEM: STARDUST MEMORIES (1980)

A Film by Woody Allen
Review by Don L. Stradley


A scene from Stardust Memories
 
You knew something was up when you saw Sandy Bates' apartment. One entire wall was taken up with Eddie Adams' famous A.P. photograph of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head, an early tip that Woody Allen was upping the ante here.

Throughout the early scenes of Allen's Stardust Memories, the photo of police chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Nguyen Van Lem  on a Saigon street hovers over everything like a thought balloon in a comic strip. As an expression of mental anguish the photograph was brilliant, but why would a man decorate his apartment with such a thing? As one of the annoying critics portrayed in the film might say, the photograph seems to parallel the stress and anxiety felt by Bates,  a film director who,  like Allen at the time, was struggling to switch from comedy to a more serious style.

Bates is also haunted by the death of a close friend; inept studio executives have butchered the ending of his latest film;  and he's trying to get over a recent relationship with Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), a pill-popping neurotic. Worse, Bates has been invited to the Stardust Hotel in New Jersey for a retrospective of his films. He dreads meeting his fans, for he knows they will grill him about why he no longer makes funny movies.

 
Stardust Memories was so different from Allen's usual work. It had plots within plots, movies within movies.   Richard Freeman of the Newhouse News Service complained of the constant flashbacks as "so cryptic that much of the film's plot is unduly fragmented and confusing." But I liked it. It was as if Allen was setting the pace and daring us to follow.

In the months before Stardust Memories was released, I'd become familiar with Allen's older movies. They'd become staples of late night television, and I liked the way he weaved the sophisticated with the silly. I'd heard rumours that his recent films weren't funny, but I was simply excited to see a new Woody Allen film on a big screen.

The conventional history is that Stardust Memories was Allen's revenge against the audience for not buying tickets for Interiors (1978).  The film's most memorable set piece, and the subject of controversy when the film was released, is when Bates arrives at the hotel in Ocean Grove and is greeted by a small mob of fans. He walks past them, his face hidden by sunglasses, their faces coming toward him like characters in a nightmare.

The fans come off as pushy, and cloying, mentally sick, bordering on sociopathic. They're Day of the Locust crazy. One woman breaks into Bates' room and offers to have sex with him while her husband waits downstairs. Then, in an eerie scene foreshadowing the murder of John Lennon by only a few months, one of Bates' fans draws a gun and shoots him. Before the shooter fires, he tells Bates, "I'm your biggest fan." As Bates straddles the line between life and death, his spirit has an encounter with  aliens who tell him he should make more comedies. The gift of laughter, after all, is a big one. "We love your movies,"  an alien tells him, "especially your early funny ones." 
  
Allen has said that Stardust Memories is one of his favorites because the finished product was close to what he had envisioned when he began writing. Still, few have ever rushed to the defense of Stardust Memories. Allen's admirers don't embrace it, and his critics point to it as a cheap imitation of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. It was one thing for Fellini to go through artistic angst, but Woody?
 
“Stardust Memories is a disappointment," wrote Roger Ebert in his Chicago Tribune review. "It needs some larger idea, some sort of organizing force, to pull together all these scenes of bitching and moaning, and make them lead somewhere."  Many critics and fans concurred. Fans, in particular, weren't sure what to make of what seemed like a full-on assault on them. Allen's fans had always felt a peculiar kinship with him. Like me, they felt smart for liking him. He spoke for every articulate schmuck who wanted and lost the beautiful WASP girl. When Annie Hall won the Oscar for Best Picture, it felt like a personal victory for his fans. So why was he calling them a bunch of ugly psychopaths?

Meanwhile, The New York Times' Vincent Canby gushed over Stardust Memories, calling it "a marvelous movie, sometimes breathtaking in its effects." As for Allen's borrowing from Fellini, Canby wasn't concerned. "He hasn't stolen from Fellini," Canby wrote, "without knowing what to do with the purloined material."

 If the film has a flaw, it's not that Allen is too bitchy about the pitfalls of fame, it's that he paid more attention to style than creating fully born characters. Still, Stardust Memories offered up a few touchstones:
 
  1. It was Allen's first movie to show his interest in magic. Bates, like Allen, loved magic as a child, and there are several scenes recalling this. Allen's future movies would frequently have magical themes in them, as would his 1980 play, The Floating Light Bulb.
  2. This was Allen's first overt Fellini homage. He'd ape Fellini again in the coming years, but he did it best here. In fact, he does it in two ways, first in the film Bates made that the studio execs are butchering, and from what we see of it, Sandy Bates was going for all of the heavy-handed Fellini images. Meanwhile, the film Allen is making of Bates at the film retrospective, uses the lighter side of Fellini. One half-expects the goonish fans and onlookers to form a parade line.  
  3. This was Allen's first time playing a filmmaker. He'd played comedians and writers before, but never a filmmaker.
  4. Cinematographer Gordon Willis shot it in the same gorgeous black and white as  Manhattan.  Like Manhattan, Stardust Memories feels modern and nostalgic at once.
  5. Stardust Memories has one of the most beautiful jazz sound tracks ever heard in an Allen movie, bursting with good cuts from Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller.
  6. The film marked the beginning of a lengthy break with Diane Keaton, who had been in several of Allen's most successful movies. Keaton's absence was felt. Allen would become one of the premiere "directors of women," up to and including his newest, Blue Jasmine. Many actresses who've worked with him have nailed down Oscars (or nominations), partly because he creates such interesting female characters. But none of this was apparent in Stardust Memories. Charlotte Rampling as Dorrie,  Marie Christine Barrault as Isobel, and Jessica Harper as Daisy, seem dull because Allen doesn't let them be funny. Unlike Keaton, they don't seem like equal partners in the movie. In fact, they seem dumb, easily swayed by compliments, but always seconds away from turning into bulging-eyed harpies. Rampling is very good as Dorrie, but she's such a raw nerve that it's difficult to like her.
  7. The scene where Bates remembers a quiet breakfast with Dorrie that reminded him how good life could be was a riff Allen would use many times, most famously in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), when he goes to a Marx Brothers movie and realizes life is worth living.                                          
 Ultimately, the film was not about Allen turning on his fans. It wasn't about a comic who wanted to be serious. It wasn't about women, either. 
 
"It was about a character," Allen told one of his biographers, "who is obviously having a sort of nervous breakdown and, in spite of success, has come to a point in his life where he is having a bad time." 


But what does Bates learn? The film ends with him alone in a theater. The audience files out, some complaining, some praising, some bewildered by what they've seen. The film within a film ends with Bates choosing the good-hearted Isobel over the neurotic Daisy. But the actresses who play Isobel and Daisy are then seen mocking Bates as they leave the theater, calling him a letch who wouldn't let them go during the love scenes. It's a puzzling moment; those who don't know Bates spend too much time analyzing him; those who were in close contact find him weird. Bates leaves, but he returns, having forgotten his sunglasses. He puts them on, a symbolic shield against the outside world, and exits. The empty theater is nearly as bittersweet as the empty street at the end of Annie Hall, but not quite, because we never loved the characters in Stardust Memories the way we loved Alvy Singer and Annie.
 
For me, the mystery of Stardust Memories is solved in a scene near the film's end, when Bates and Daisy take a walk to escape the crowd at the hotel. They come upon some people in a field waiting to see a UFO.  At the big moment, though, instead of a UFO, they see weather balloons. As  Moonlight Serenade plays dreamily in the background, the giant balloons swim through the air.  The UFO seem to have arranged it all in advance as  if to show Bates that we may not get what we desire in life, but if we pay attention, there are exquisite things right in front of us.  The scene is as beautiful as anything Woody Allen, or for that matter Federico Fellini, has ever put in a movie.

What Stardust Memories also did was mark the end of the 1970's for Woody Allen. It was a grand finale for a decade that saw him go from being a stand up comic who wanted to direct films, to an Oscar winner, to an artist trying on different styles. No, it wasn't Annie Hall, but I went home knowing I'd just seen something new and unusual. I also knew I would have to see it again. It may not have been perfect, but much of it was exquisite.

1 comment:

  1. I too loved the movie. It's just another wonderful work from him and just loved the structure of it. I am surprised with the criticism from late Roger Ebert and many others. He is such a great filmmaker. Even in his bad movies there is something to laugh and ponder about. Be immortal Woody.

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