| Dir: Woody Allen
“What d’ya want me to say? I don’t wanna make funny movies anymore. They can’t force me to. I don’t feel funny. I look around the world and all I see is human suffering.”
About half way through Woody Allen’s overt homage to Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical 8½, about a director in a dreamlike state struggling to make his next film while examining his life, a mustacio’d Tony Roberts states “An homage? No, not exactly. We just stole the idea outright”. He’s speaking about a film within Stardust Memories that Allen’s character Sandy Bates, an acclaimed director, has made. But he is also clearly speaking about Stardust Memories itself, whose working title was supposedly Woody Allen No. 4. Allen has made no attempt to hide his blatant loving theft from the likes of Bergman, Marx, Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton and Hope before. But the bravery of openly mocking himself about it is astounding and, quite frankly, impressively humble.
But the similarities don’t stop at Fellini, because this is as semi-autobiographical as 8½. Bates is looking to say something more through his artistic expression. Disillusioned in his career and his love life, he’s trying to find meaning in them both. He begrudgingly attends a weekend retrospective of his own films at a festival with obsessive fans and critics who love “his early funny ones”. While there he reflects on a troubled past relationship, struggles to decide on which kind of woman to commit to, and reassesses what kind of films he wants to make. If each film Allen releases is a meditation on his mindset at that point, then this speaks volumes to his fear of being pigeonholed artistically and vilified for following his artistic endeavors in the likes of Interiors. He’s nakedly confessional in his meta deconstruction.
Allen has never taken kindly to being told what kind of work to produce or how to express his explorations on film. His arrangement of making one film a year of his choosing for as many years as he has, with no studio oversight, is unparalleled. He literally couldn’t function as a filmmaker under any other kind of infrastructure. Producers can’t come in and rewrite the end of his films to be more commercial with jazz heaven – only masturbation can be controlled, of course. His films end in a bittersweet nature that resembles the imperfections of reality; Annie Hall, Manhattan and The Purple Rose of Cairo are lovely examples. Stardust Memories is no different, subverting you with the film-within-a-film (within a film?) sentimental ending before the actual films touching ending, highlighted above.
Very few were touched by the film upon its release though. Allen’s depiction of Bates’ fans, critics and studio executives was seen as pure hostility towards his own audience. Bates views this collective as undesirable sycophants; freakishly devoting, demanding, distorted and overwhelming. The early funny films that they love are presented as unintelligent slapstick parodies that he’s ashamed of. Yet Allen defends this apparent snobbish attitude by saying “there are some similar traits, but it’s not me”. It’s admittedly an exaggerations of similarities, inspired by the broad surface level circumstances his own career while not being a true reflection on his deeper stances. But to anyone it appears obvious that director Sandy Bates – with adored early funny films, difficulties directing himself, hostility towards awards and the requirements of fame, a muse who he met on the set of one of his films, characters based on the people he knows, who makes films about people with personality disorders – is merely someone for director Woody Allen to live vicariously through. If you take Allen’s comments following the film at face value, then Stardust Memories is deserving of a re-evaluation. His innocence in the matter can be rationalised; he may not have been directly saying that his fans were stupid – “If I did think that, which I don’t, I would be smart enough not to say it in a movie”. But he’s either scarily naive or purposely disingenuous to have not anticipated this reaction to some degree.
Whatever your placement on the intended or perceived content of the film, the craftsmanship and proficiency behind its construction is supreme. Allen felt complete command with the medium by this point and it shows. Gordon Willis keeps same black and white photography that served Manhattan so well. It’s full of gorgeously ad harshly composed shots of darkness and light fighting one another that makes even hot air balloons a thing of beauty to observe. Then there’s Susan E. Morse’s non-linear editing of Allen’s script that jumps between reality and fantasy on a whim. These blended flashbacks and hallucinations range from his childhood self getting a birthday gift from Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) then present day Sandy opening it, to imagining he was shot by one of his most devoted fans. Its free-form structure resembles the original intention for Anhedonia, and you wonder if the scene where Allen gets arrested near the end is directly taken from the deleted jail scene that was shot for Annie Hall. Surrealism and dreamlike qualities are a tough style to make communicably palatable, but she does a splendid job of transitioning them all fluently. It’s obvious why she would remain Allen’s editor until 1998.
Allen is clever to mirror the need to find meaning in his work with the need to find meaning in his love life. He has a love square on his hands with Dorrie, Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) and Daisey (Jessica Harper). The former two show a clear distinction in pathways for Bates, but latter character feels at best an object for Allen to have someone to say profound things to. Harper struggles against the talent of the other two actresses, Rampling herself having such a terrific quality and presence on screen. She was captivating in 45 Years and is the same here in her younger state – moving you in a very, very profound way as she does to Bates. Her jump cut nervous breakdown monologue towards the end, with emotions erratically flowing in split images, is remarkable acting in that you feel it all with her despite only receiving fleeting glimpses.
A quick comment must be made on one scene. Dorrie accuses Sandy of flirting with her 13 year old cousin to a mural backdrop of an incest news quote story on his lounge wall, which changes throughout the film to represent an expression of Sandy’s state of mind. This follows an admission that Dorie flirted with her father as a young girl and found him attractive. Manhattan has the benefit of being a great film of dizzying proportions involving a borderline acceptable love story of 24 years of age difference. But the multiple throwaway references to child molestation in his work, coupled with modern context, makes moments like this this worrying and unsettling to watch. It becomes less a coincidence, less eerily prophetic and more an intentional trope in his work as much as psychotherapy.
Despite Allen and Bates not wanting to make funny movies anymore, Stardust Memories is still very funny when it wants to be – “The last time you cooked the kitchen looked like Hiroshima”, “I’m doing a piece on the shallow indifference’s of wealthy celebrities and I’d like to include you”. But the humour can’t save Allen with this devoted fan, who watched this film twice to give it my own re-evaluation and it still conflicts, confounds and confuses me. He seems to ask a lot of questions of ourselves, of himself, of his characters. But it is all just a dream with no answers and no eventual meaning – as in life. How frustrating and inevitable to live with.
Part of Woody Wednesday. First (and second) viewing.