Monday, November 7, 2016

1980 Week: Stardust Memories

          Woody Allen’s myriad remarks over the years that Stardust Memories is not an autobiographical movie are at least slightly disingenuous, the understandable backpedaling of a popular artist who was perceived as slighting his fan base. After all, Allen plays Sandy Bates, a neurotic comedy-movie auteur enduring an existential crisis after audiences turn on him for experimenting with drama. Any resemblance to Allen, who followed the crowd-pleasing Annie Hall (1976) with the dour chamber piece Interiors (1977), is purely coincidental. Yeah, right. Allen’s disclaimers notwithstanding, Stardust Memories is an extraordinary exercise in public self-examination. Questioning the purpose of filmmaking and the value of humor in world seemingly zooming toward destruction, Stardust Memories skillfully integrates jokes, melodrama, romance, and what might be called spirituality. (One must tread lightly there, given Allen’s endless proclamations of atheism.)
          Even the rapturous black-and-white images of Stardust Memories have a metatextual kick, since audiences embraced the monochromatic cinematography of Allen’s previous film, Manhattan (1979), broadly seen as his return to comedic form following the failure of Interiors. Like so many other things in Stardust Memories, the repetition of a trope from a prior film defines Allen as an artist not only willing but eager to wrestle with the potentialities of tropes by applying them to varying forms of subject matter. If black-and-white images mean such-and-such in X context, what do they mean in Y context? It’s all about digging deeper and asking more problematic questions. Whereas Allen’s beloved “early, funny” movies mostly eschew cinematic style in favor of gags and narrative speed, Stardust Memories represents the apex of an evolution that began with Annie Hall. While life itself is ultimately Allen’s main subject, with Stardust Memories he fully integrates the complications of his own reputation into his repertoire, and he does so at the very same career moment when he assumes full command of cinema as a storytelling medium.
          While all this critical-studies significance is a lot of weight to drop onto Stardust Memories’ shoulders, the movie can bear the burden.
          Filled with insights and ruminations and witticisms, it’s a singularly alive piece of filmmaking. Once again, Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis create striking imagery, and once again, Allen pulls terrific work from an eclectic cast. (Watch for Sharon Stone, making her movie debut, in the opening scene.) Presented in a somewhat freeform style with more than a few touches of classic European arthouse cinema, Stardust Memories explores the fictional Sandy Bates’ life from myriad perspectives. Even as he juggles romances with challenging Daisy (Jessica Harper) and comforting Isobel (Marie-Christine Berrault), Sandy contemplates ghosts from his relationship with a troubled woman named Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling). More pointedly—since Allen spun a similar romantic web in Manhattan—the Sandy character allows Allen to ask what audiences expect from him, and why audiences resist change in his persona. In the picture’s most famous scene, aliens from outer space remind Sandy that his greatest gift is being able to make people laugh, and that humor may well contribute more to the human experience than Bergman-esque ennui.
          Left unresolved, of course, is the question of whether Sandy (or Allen, for that matter) can reconcile his clashing artistic impulses. Witness the incredible highs and lows of Allen’s subsequent output, wherein he has tried to merge what he does well with what he simply wants to do well. Like Bob Fosse’s extraordinary All That Jazz (1979), Stardust Memories is part performance review and part psychoanalysis. Not everything in Stardust Memories works, since Allen periodically succumbs to the very pretentiousness that disgruntled fans perceived in Interiors, but Stardust Memories is an essential chapter of the Woody Allen story. It’s also among the nerviest statements a popular American artist has ever made, a declaration of independence from expectations and preconceptions.

Stardust Memories: GROOVY


Peter L. Winkler said...

It bears pointing out that both All That Jazz and Stardust Memories are derivative of or, if you like, "inspired" by Fellini's masterpiece 8&1/2. And Allen may have chosen to shoot Stardust Memories in black-and-white because 8&1/2 was filmed in black-and-white.

Joe Martino said...

Also, a film about a comedy director wanting to change course and make serious movies was first explored by Preston Sturges in the classic "Sullivan's Travels" - a director Allen holds in high regard.