2017 Film Essays

‘Stardust Memories’: Woody Allen’s Comic Catharsis

Woody Allen was not making fun of his audience with the 1980 film Stardust Memories. Well, maybe those who chided him for abandoning his comedic roots to make lofty dramas like Interiors (1978). And maybe those who set their pompously finicky sights on any and every facet of his work in order to pin down some revelatory significance (“What were you trying to say with this picture?”). OK, and probably some of his more overzealous fans as well, and those wannabe actors who had accosted him in the street or at restaurants and jazz clubs.

Though Allen has repeatedly rebuffed the suggestion, it’s true, Stardust Memories does seem like a rather pointed — and hilarious — admonition directed at particular factions of Allen’s primary viewership. After the resounding triumph of Annie Hall (1977), and on the heels of a string of riotous comedy classics, Allen faced a strong and unwarranted backlash with the somber Interiors. That was slightly alleviated by his follow-up, Manhattan, in 1979, but the critical and commercial intimation was clear: there are certain things that people expect from Allen — the man and the filmmaker — and deviations from that are going to get thoroughly lambasted. So, with Stardust Memories, Allen sets forth his own simple proposition: you want those early funny films, fine. But it will be at your own expense.

Stardust Memories stars Allen as Sandy Bates, a disillusioned filmmaker who is lauded for his popular comedies but now faces an existential career crisis with his latest offering, which is greeted with protests that he is “not funny anymore,” that he is “pretentious … shallow … morbid.” In an obvious nod to Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), Sandy is on the eve of a weekend retrospective of his work. He’s reluctant to go and, once he arrives, it’s easy to see why. He is bombarded with a barrage of clamoring faces in grinding, gushing close-ups, all heaping swelled praise, spouting their problems and posing question after question, overwhelming the director with frequently inane commentary. The “film culture” weekend, based on the Tarrytown seminars organized by famed critic Judith Crist (who appears in the film in just one of its many real-life allusions), gets further complicated for Sandy when he falls for the cerebral Daisy, played by the immensely appealing Jessica Harper, though he is already involved with the less affected Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault). All the while, Sandy looks back longingly on a relationship he once had with the exotic Dorrie, played by the always captivating Charlotte Rampling.

But don’t expect much more of a story than that. As its title implies, the form of Stardust Memories is more esoteric than a straightforward drama, or a comedy for that matter. It essentially unfurls in a free-flowing series of fanciful musings, memories and realistic episodes that are themselves embellished by an unruly cacophony of jokes, annoyances and occasionally significant plot points. All of this is seamlessly stitched together in a crazed tapestry where, not unlike Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), the segmentation is provisional and conflated. As he would later do in his highly underrated 1997 film Deconstructing Harry (also heavily indebted to Bergman), Allen constructs a nearly surreal showcase where past loves and missed opportunities interact with childhood fantasies and middle-age daydreams, where inspirations for narrative digressions are cast on a whim with oftentimes no formal cue.

Stardust Memories begins with just such a sequence. In a claustrophobic send-up to Fellini’s aforementioned autobiographical exposé, Sandy is seated in a downtrodden train car. He looks around at those around him — it’s a miserable lot of forlorn blank faces. Across the tracks, a nearby train is the polar opposite. This one is bustling with beautiful people (Sharon Stone, in her screen debut, among them), all having a grand time: drinks, laughter, warm embraces. Sandy frets, for he too wants to join the merriment. But the trains pull off, leaving Sandy where he is, in his despair. This turns out to be a portion of his latest film, the one he is now so voraciously criticized for. While it is clear Allen/Sandy is drawing a contrast between two different classes of people, or at least two different degrees of satisfaction, the important thing about this film-within-a-film introduction is how it plays out. As is seen at a later point in Stardust Memories, this fictitious picture concludes as Sandy and his despondent carload are eventually joined by the high-society revelers at a large pile of garbage in some far-flung field. Sandy may absorb most of the disenchantment in Stardust Memories, but if there’s an overriding theme in the film (a similar one seen in much of Allen’s work), it’s that such unhappiness is universal. Happy or sad — those sensations are fleeting — everyone ultimately ends up in the same place. Humanity, as Sandy so vehemently contends, is beset by cruelty and emptiness, and, echoing similar sentiments from Annie Hall, it’s all over much too fast! Almost everyone in Stardust Memories suffers from some psychological condition; it’s just Sandy who readily voices his concern — concern about everything from death (of course) to decaying matter and the jaded nature of celebrity (see also Allen’s 1998 film of that very name).

Now, this surely seems somewhat pessimistic for a comedy, and Allen’s treatment of certain characters — or, more precisely, caricatures — can get a little cruel. Many of those who hound Sandy are shown to be grotesque personages stricken by wide-angle physical distortion (even Barrault looks ridiculous doing her facial exercises). But Stardust Memories is not all about attacking those approaching Sandy (or Allen). The loathing and antipathy is spread around, and it most profoundly disturbs the director himself (either one). To be sure, a lot of this is self-induced — he literally surrounds himself in anguish, evinced in a wall-covering tableau of Eddie Adams’ famous photo depicting South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting Vietcong officer Nguyen Van Lem in the head (there’s also a similarly sized spread featuring Groucho Marx, indicating the duality of his character). Allen takes no mercy on Sandy. He may get the jokes, but he is also bitter, narcissistic and not very pleasant (though, as per the Allen norm, he still manages to get his choice of attractive women). Sandy’s evident aggression is even given a self-consciously comical personification when his bestial hostility escapes and slaughters those in its path. But Sandy is also a box of contradictions, which Allen again does little to hide. One festival attendee approaches him about a study on the “shallow indifference of wealthy celebrities,” which Sandy haughtily ignores, and he later play the celebrity card to avoid jailtime. Though he is quick to rebuke the torrential adoration of his films, a fantasy sequence shows Sandy soaking up the approval he receives as a budding young magician. Stardust Memories may seem a little nasty when it comes to Allen’s handling of others, and certainly those connected to the film community are especially subject to ridicule. But in the end, the guilt-ridden, perpetually tormented Sandy is the picture’s most fallible character, and in that sense, it may assign Allen as his own most aggressively assailed recipient.

Though plagued by this incessant dissatisfaction, Sandy does manage to find fleeting flashes of joy, emerging from a tantalizing female glance or a satisfying Louis Armstrong tune. As director, Allen likewise finds images to relish in, and he holds on to them for dear life; it wouldn’t be until he started working with Scarlett Johansson that Allen would again include such striking and rapturously attentive close-ups of lovely women. In the case of Stardust Memories, it may be Sandy’s gaze, it may be Allen’s, but it’s revealing either way. And amidst the cynicism of the picture, Allen’s humor runs rampant. His comedic targets range from mocking the maddening calls for symbolism that must surely irritate any artist — “What do you think was the significance of the Rolls-Royce?,” begs one questioner. “I think it represented his car,” comes the reply — to jabs at the pope (a “showbiz figure”), a takedown of Kansas City and, perhaps uncomfortably for some, there is even a rape joke thrown in. (Sandy is also accused of ogling Dorrie’s 13-year-old cousin. Awkward.)

They are subtle, but there are two poignant moments in Stardust Memories than stand out as rather refreshing from Allen’s typically intellectual, affluent lot. One is when Dorrie admits she doesn’t understand the Schopenhauer she reads on set (few films have more high-brow name-dropping than Allen’s, so it’s nice to see at least one of his characters acknowledge the posturing), and the second is when Sandy (and Allen?) openly concedes the role blind luck has played in his success. While established film critics, producers and other industry types may have taken offense by some of the suggestions brought forth in Stardust Memories, to the film’s average audience, this in particular is something easily relatable: the harsh reality of happenstance and the arbitrary fortune that determines individual achievement.

On the technical front, Stardust Memories gleams with exquisite black and white photography by Gordon Willis, who largely defined Allen’s cinema of the period (Annie Hall, Manhattan, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy [1982], Zelig [1983], Broadway Danny Rose [1984] and The Purple Rose of Cairo [1985]). Set in and around an opulent seaside resort (actually the Ocean Grove Great Auditorium and the Methodist Episcopal Conference Center and Concert Hall in New Jersey), the picture loses some of the romantically nostalgic sheen of Manhattan, but instead feels softer and more delicate, suffused with a befitting dreaminess. Allen’s trademark jazz soundtrack keeps the picture humming to the sounds of Sidney Bechet, Django Reinhardt, Count Basie, Chick Webb and Glenn Miller, while he maintains a frenetic editorial pacing with abrupt fluctuations in tone and the rapid-fire patter of often-quoted one-liners (“To you, I’m an atheist; to God, I’m the loyal opposition”), all of which is struck in an inimitable balance.

“When we did Stardust Memories, all of us knew there would be a lot of flack,” says Allen. “But it wouldn’t for a second stop me. I never thought, ‘I better not do this because people will be upset.’ It’d be sheer death not to go through with a project you feel like going through with at the time.” Stardust Memories is an acquired taste, maybe even more than most Woody Allen films. And part of this is because it is so self-referential. Cinematic nods aside, the movie is chock-full of personal connections. Two examples: the character of Dorrie was supposedly modeled after Allen’s ex-wife Louise Lasser, who appears in the film, and Allen’s real-life manager, Jack Rollins, pops up for a cameo. So, just as one wouldn’t recommend 8 ½ to someone who doesn’t like Fellini, this film isn’t going to produce any Allen converts.

It is classic Woody Allen, though — a routine confessional enhanced by his amusingly confessional routine. He may be suggesting that emotional and social anxiety is widespread and prevalent, but the key distinction is that not everyone can translate these uncertainties into comedy gold. Does this make Allen better than mere mortals? No, it just makes him funnier. Some will (and did) have their complaints about Stardust Memories, but one thing the film cannot be charged with is that one thing that afflicts many who decry the picture, that most egregious of shortcomings: not being able to take a joke.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.