DVD Review Of Stardust Memories

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/11/08


  One of the interesting things about a great work of art is how, upon re-experience, it a) holds up and/or b) deepens and filigrees into something even better. From the first time I saw Woody Allenís 88 minute long black and white 1980 film Stardust Memories (made early on in Woodyís Golden Era of 1977-1992), on a VHS tape, I knew I was watching one of the greatest films ever made. In the years, and 12-15 rewatchings of the film (progressing to DVD), nothing has changed my mind in this regard. Not even the red herring of linking this film to Federico Felliniís 1964 opus . Having just rewatched the film, I can state not only is it one of the greatest films ever made, but arguably Allenís greatest film (although fans of Another Woman and Crimes And Misdemeanors may have a case), and definitively better a film than Felliniís (which is only arguably a great film)- for its humor, concision, lack of pretension, and screenplay, which, truth be told, is not nearly as big an influence on this film as Allenís most dogged critics claim.

  The reason for the greatness of Stardust Memories can be summed up in one phrase: fear of failure. That is what holds the outer film (and its reality into the world) together, although the fear of success is also an integral part of the filmís inner world. Let me explain. The fear of failure is one of the most important things any artist, especially the great, can have. Why? Because it kills the ego, and spurs the artist to innovate and try new techniques to keep their art ahead of the curve. Without such a fear, artists grow fat and sassy, and lose the demiurge to create, or at least to challenge themselves and their audiences. Need proof? Just think of the vast majority of aging artists, but most especially those who were once great. How many aging musicians and rock groups have never been able to equal their greatest early hits? How many writers have penned bloated egotistical tomes that are pallid reflections of an earlier work? How many visual artists have bled dry the one nugget or Ėism they made their name on? And one need only look at the dozen or more films that Allen, himself, has made since his Golden Era ended- mostly lesser reworks of themes his greater films tackled better. Like many before him, Allen has settled into the Old Artist Syndrome, just coasting on his laurels (considerable though they may be).

  But, it is the fear of failure that gets into the great artist and makes him experiment and risk failure. Stardust Memories is one of the most experimental films of all times- in its screenplay, its visuals, its humor, its use of time and reality, as well as its ability to question the very notion of the artist and the self. Most great works of art are lucky to tackle a single one of these aspects in a new manner. Yet, while the fear of failure dominates the essence of the film in the real world, it is also the very core of the film within. The lead characters are all obsessed with failing. Some try to grow and are slapped down by the powers that be. Some give in to their own fears. Some are so timid they do nothing at all, and some try to change, only to make asses of themselves. And it is this fact, this inner examination of the fear of failure that provoked such a hostile reaction from almost all critics upon the filmís release nearly three decades ago.

  Yes, there were the disingenuous comparisons (almost all negative) to the aforementioned Fellini classics, but more than that there was the hostility to the very idea of questioning the self. Let me give you a sample of what I mean by using some of the things Roger Ebert, the most well known television and newspaper film critic in the country (both then and now) said in his 1980 review:

  The movie begins by acknowledging its sources of visual inspiration. We see a claustrophobic Allen trapped in a railroad car (thatís from the opening of , with Marcello Mastroianni trapped in an auto), and the harsh black-and-white lighting and the ticking of a clock on the sound track give us a cross-reference to the nightmare that opens Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries. Are these the exact scenes Allen had in mind? Probably, but no matter; he clearly intends Stardust Memories to be his , and it develops as a portrait of the artistís complaints.

  This paragraph opens Ebertís review, and in it he already summarizes the gripes I mention, and negatively biases an astute film lover against the film. While the reference to the Fellini opening is apt, the Bergman comparison is not, as the scenes do not match up. Itís about as apt as comparing any sci fi space operaís shots of a spaceship cruising along as an homage to the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where we first see the ship Discovery One. Itís a generic comparison that aims to imply that there is nothing original in the scene, and doubly so. Then we get Ebertís further linkage of Allenís films with the overarching posit of Felliniís film, as Ďa portrait of the artistís complaints.í Yet, as the film progresses, we see that Allenís film is nothing like that. In fact, whereas Felliniís film ends resignedly, with life never able to equal art, Allenís film ends utterly positively, portraying the total triumph of art over life, in its ability to supplement and better it.

  Ebert then claims the film is yet another reworking of Allenís relationships with women, as earlier films like Annie Hall and Manhattan were, but he does not see that this is only superficially so. Stardust Memories uses the main characterís sexual relations merely as a device to propel a deeper introspection that his earlier films barely touch upon. Ebert writes:

  The subjects blend into the basic complaint of the Woody Allen persona we have come to know and love, and can be summarized briefly: If Iím so famous and brilliant and everybody loves me, then why doesnít anybody in particular love me?

  Yet, the main character has love and adulation aplenty, both in private and public, so Ebert is really missing out on the very antithesis of this filmís essence- which is the art- and what it can lead to, not the things it can bring: love, sex, fame, etc.

  Then Ebert goes on into an astonishing misreading of the film:

  At the film seminar, the Allen character is constantly besieged by groupies. They come in all styles: pathetic young girls who want to sleep with him, fans who want his autograph, weekend culture vultures, and people who spend all their time at one event promoting the next one they're attending. Allen makes his point early, by shooting these unfortunate creatures in close-up with a wide-angle lens that makes them all look like Martians with big noses. They add up to a nightmare, a nonstop invasion of privacy, a shrill chorus of people whose praise for the artist is really a call for attention.
  Fine, except what else does Allen have to say about them? Nothing. In the Fellini film, the director-hero was surrounded by sycophants, business associates, would-be collaborators, wives, mistresses, old friends, all of whom made calls on his humanity. In the Allen picture, thereís no depth, no personal context: Theyíre only making calls on his time.

  Well, this is true, only to an extent, and the reason for it is thus: the lead in the Fellini film (Marcello Mastroianni) was a damaged and unwhole individual, whereas the lead in the Allen film (Allen) is not. It is all the other people, about him, who are leeching off of him precisely because he Ďhas it togetherí and they do not. In other words, Ebert simply does not like the situation Allen presents because he sees a superficial resemblance to the Fellini film, and is unable to grasp that Allenís aim is not a repetition of Felliniís, but a subversion of it, while going well beyond it. Mastroianniís characterís friends do make calls on his humanity, but because the film clearly shows itís an area the character may be lacking in- for he his a definite narcissist and a borderline sociopath. The Allen character is neither of these things. He is a great artist within the world of Allenís film, evidenced by the snippets of that characterís films we see, whereas the bits of the Mastroianni characterís films we see are clearly something which makes one question is that character really still Ďhas it.í

  Ebertís Ďanalysisí then totally derails, likely because of his utter misreading of the film because he did not get, or, more likely, did not Ďlikeí its aims:

  Whatís more, the Fellini character was at least trying to create something, to harass his badgered brain into some feeble act of thought. But the Allen character expresses only impotence, despair, uncertainty, discouragement. All through the film, Allen keeps talking about diseases, catastrophes, bad luck that befalls even the most successful. Yes, but thatís what artists are for: to hurl their imagination, joy, and conviction into the silent maw. Sorry if I got a little carried away.

  First, the Allen character is trying to create a film- the one that opens Stardust Memories, and it seems a good one. His main interior angst, as a character, is that studio heads take the film away and butcher it. We see his creation goes well beyond the Mastroianni characterís, yet Ebertís total lack of mentioning this is odd. Well, not really, since, as we read earlier, he sees the whole arc and point of the film as a rehash of earlier Allen works: Ďthe basic complaint of the Woody Allen persona we have come to know and love, and can be summarized briefly: If Iím so famous and brilliant and everybody loves me, then why doesnít anybody in particular love me?í

  So, if Ebert cannot even get that correct, is it any wonder that he, and many even lesser critics, so totally botched their critiques of this great film? And, Ebert shows he has a basic and fundamental misunderstanding of what art is and what purpose it serves when he writes: Ďbut thatís what artists are for: to hurl their imagination, joy, and conviction into the silent maw.í Not even his apology can excuse Ebertís blunder. Art merely illumines the wisdom of life by condensing it from ponderous philosophy into forms that are simultaneously more accessible to the more intuitively intellectual aspects of the mind, while achieving this via satisfying the emotional aspects of the self that desire entertainment. Ebertís definition buys into the Joseph Campbellian Heroic Artist Hokum that has long been disproved.

  Ebert continues:

  Stardust Memories inspires that kind of frustration, though, because itís the first Woody Allen film in which impotence has become the situation rather than the problem. This is a movie about a guy who has given up.

  Apparently he did not watch the last two minutes of the film which totally and utterly subverts Ebertís claim, which, itself, is based on the fallacy that the film depicts impotence- yet another example of Ebert trying to link the film to earlier filmís in the Allen canon, but without any rationale for it, save his own misreading.

  He ends his review thus:

  Stardust Memories is a disappointment. 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.

  As stated, the larger idea is utterly missed by Ebert, because he commits the one fundamental flaw of criticism from which there is no recovery nor pardon: he has reviewed not the work of art that the artist has presented, but a work of art that the critic has hoped that the artist has presented, thus finding flaws not in the art itself, but in what the art is not. It is like criticizing an elephant for not having a long neck like a giraffe because the zoo guide went from the giraffe cage to the elephant cage, and told the zoogoers that the elephant was the larger animal, meaning in mass, whereas the critic took it Ďlargerí to mean simply Ďtaller.í As one can easily see, when such a thing occurs, the fault lies not with the zoo guide, nor his words, but with the inapt expectations of the zoogoer. See how difficult it is for great art to emerge when dealing with Lowest Common Denominator expectations and minds?

  Let me now examine the narrative of the film. Allen plays Sandy Bates, a comedian-turned-film director, whose life is on parade for him when he is invited to a film festival in Atlantic City, at the Stardust Hotel. The early part of the film deals with Batesí dealing with annoying fans who seem as living grotesques from a Medieval woodcut, studio executives who want to bastardize his latest film, to dumb it down like his Ďearly, funnierí ones, as well as his constant memory of a former psychotic actress girlfriend named Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling). As the film goes on we learn that Dorrie is now married and living in Hawaii, but suffered from many ills, including sexual abuse, anorexia (Rampling is far thinner in this role than others) and mental ills of a sort- there is an especially brilliant and devastating see of Dorrie greeting (presumably) Bates, when he visits her at an asylum. Allen jump cuts her greetings (twitchy and laden with tics), seductions (ĎThereís a doctor here who thinks Iím beautiful.í), spurnings (ĎYou look thin.í), and speech in several second interviews, to show the fragmentation of her mind.

  In a similarly bravura way, the interior of Batesí mind is represented by the images that appear on his Manhattan apartmentís walls. It constantly changes to suit the tenor of his mood and the subject of the moment. Once at the resort, Bates deals with hangers-on and sycophantic fans, but finds himself attracted to a young cellist, Daisy (Jessica Harper), with a history of drugs and bisexuality, even though she is at the festival with her boyfriend. Soon after, his current girlfriend- an ex-Radical from France, Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault), arrives by train, and her two young children come not much later. Isobel has left her husband, and Sandy has mixed feelings about this- at first professing to want to marry her right away, but then not.

  After a sequence of scenes at and away from the festival- including watching the Neo-Realist Italian classic film The Bicycle Thief; meeting extraterrestrials who question his sexual choices and tell him if he wants to help the world to Ďtell funnier jokesí (one of the sagest bits of advice ever filmed), as he puts the moves on Daisy; visiting his sister and her health-challenged husband; watching his chauffer arrested for mail fraud; and sitting through a recut Hollywood ending of his film, where his characters go to Jazz Heaven; Bates himself winds up either in jail, dead, or simply shot, and uttering Dorrieís name when he wakes in Isobelís care. She takes her children and heads for the first train out of town, with Bates in pursuit. He chases her down, tells her of his new ending for his film, they kiss, and the film ends, with it being revealed that what we just saw was really Sandy Bates (or another filmmaker who is a ringer for Bates- or Allen) playing his latest film for an audience full of many of the people whom weíve just seen. As they exit the hall at the Stardust Hotel, they gossip of the filmmaking and the film, itself. With the room emptied, we see the filmmaker (played by Allen) walk in, look about, and exit as the screen goes dark, save for the lights at the upper periphery of the hall.

  Such touches, even until the final scene, are things which separate Stardust Memories from lesser films, even those well known film from other masters of cinema that Allen is always being accused of ripping off. The film holds up under rewatch because it is brimming with artistic and pop cultural touches that are easily missed upon first watch. Among them are some cameos by actors who later gained fame. The most well known being Sharon Stoneís film debut- first within the Sandy Bates film that opens the movie- as a young woman on the happy train on a different rail than the train Allen/Bates is on. She blows a kiss and leaves a lipstick print on the railroad car window. Later, she reappears, presumably as a different character, and blows another kiss to Bates at the UFO landing site, as she sits in an old car. The very use of the same actress in different scenes, in different ways, shows that Bates, within the film, is thinking of multiple levels of reality, even as Allen- the real filmmaker adds a final level when he has Bates or himself close the exterior film as revealing the whole prior film was just a Ďfilm within a film.í This motif is followed with the repetitive appearance of other minor characters and actors, most notable Brent Spiner (later the android Data in the Star Trek universe). Spiner first appears as a miserable passenger on the sad train that the Bates character opens the film on, and reappears as a fan in Atlantic City, who snaps a photo of Bates while on a payphone. Other appearances that make for neat cameos are Laraine Newman, from the original Saturday Night Live cast, as one of Batesí studio handlers, and Allenís ex-wife, Louise Lasser, who was then most well known for her starring role in the comic late night Norman Lear soap opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

  Another recurring touch, previously mentioned, is how the back wall of Batesí apartment reflects the mood he is in when recalling something from the past. One time, when in political angst, we see a reprint of the Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Eddie Adams that shows a South Vietnamese military officer blow out the brains of a captured Vietcong thug; when Bates is happy there is a photo of Groucho Marx on the wall; and when Dorrie angrily accuses Bates of flirting with her pretty 14 year old cousin there are newspaper headlines about incest that cover the wall. Also, with all the constant references to Fellini and Bergman, little noticed is a throwaway reference to Roman Polanskiís film black and white 1965 horror film, Repulsion, wherein Batesí personal cook ruins a rabbit dinner, and we see the dead animal on a plate- signaling the possible deterioration of his mind like that of the lead character in Repulsion.

  There are two other truly standout moments. The first is when Isobel is in her and Batesí hotel room, and they are preparing to sleep. He proposes to her while she is making bizarre faces during an exercise regimen. It is both real and hilarious. Then there is a moment, after it is believed Bates has been shot by a stalking fan. He seemingly dies, and gives a posthumous speech at the hotel, wherein he describes the one moment that almost made his life worth living. The song Stardust, by Louis Armstrong, plays in the background, as Bates and Dorrie lounge in his apartment. Sheís flipping through a magazine, lying on the floor, and a spring breeze blows into the apartment as Bates longs for her. She looks up and sees him eyeing her, and smiles, all the while displaying a wide plenum of emotions without a word spoken, which perfectly matches Batesí description of what he sensed.

  The DVD, by MGM, has few extras, as is de rigueur with Allen films. It comes in two versions- a standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio and a letterboxed 1.85:1 ratio. No commentary is included, although the original theatrical trailer is presented. There is also a small four page booklet of trivia on the film. However, the filmís transfer is gorgeous. Over the years, Allen has done several black and white films, with Manhattan getting the lionís share of praise, but, given the Manhattan architecture, thatís sort of faint praise. The cinematography, by the great Gordon Willis, in Stardust Memories is more daring and memorable, as is the risky editing job done by Susan Morse. There is one great long single shot, when Isobel first arrives, of her walking down a long street toward Bates, that follows her till they meet, then backs up to reveal their conversation and eternal interruption by fans, that is worthy of being placed in the pantheon of all-time great single takes, not merely for its technical skill, but because it so reflects and embodies the filmís tying together of the personal and impersonal, trivial and deep, together in a way that recapitulates the dialogue, yet also osmotically expands upon it. It forces the viewer to think about what has just gone on, as does another brief vignette, where Bates sees a younger version of himself on the beach, with his mother, dressed in a superhero outfit made of pajamas, when, out of nowhere, he takes off into flight like Superman. This is a perfect example of a moment that embodies the Negative Capability that great artists exhibit. On the surface, the moment seems a throwaway, but in the context of the moment it occurs, when Bates is stressed out, it makes perfect sense. That it is only one of a couple dozen such moments I could mention shows how great this film is. And all of this is marshaled together by Allenís own great screenplay, which ebbs into and out of the past like the greatest films of Fellini or, Theo Angelopoulos, which mirrors the way characters walk in and out of shots.

  Add to that the fact that the film skewers not only itself and its creator, but celebrity culture, with such deadly and correct accuracy (Batesí near murder scene, by an obsessed fan, eerily presaged the killing of John Lennon a short while later), and human relationships on all levels, has one of the best soundtracks ever- not just in song choice, but in the placement of each song.

  As Iíve shown, many critics utterly missed the boat on this masterpiece, and some to an even more embarrassing degree than did Roger Ebert. Like him, they too often focused on the things extraneous to the film that they brought, their own ephemeral cultural and personal biases, rather than looking at the film through a more objective filter that valued art for (yes, you know it) artís sake. Great art perdures whereas culture is a whimsical thing. Something lauded one year becomes dťclassť the next, and vice versa. But the elements that constitute a great work of art remain- excellence of craft; a deeper revelation of reality- especially if of something the audience presumes to already know (in this case, Allenís own personae and politics); and a broad appeal to the intellectual as well as the emotional sides of a viewer. Too often, poor art strives to hit just one of those aspects. If it goes too intellectual it often becomes pompous, pretentious, and didactic. If it shoots merely for the emotional it becomes sappy, maudlin, and predictable. Stardust Memories succeeds on both counts, as one of the most intellectually challenging films ever made, yet also one of the most humorously entertaining, as it deals with the nonsense that all humans deal with, and slough off, and also as it asks deep questions, such as when Sandy Bates is approached by an old pal he played stickball with, and who is envious of him. Bates replies that their fortunes were largely determined by luck, which is a fearful thing, for it means the utter lack of control in life. Yet, Bates delivers this shiv of knowledge so thoughtfully and empathetically, that his old pal seems relieved, even happy, even though Bates and we, the audience, know that that character is doomed to an utterly meaningless existence.

  And it is just such moments, delivered so matter of factly, that are often missing in lesser films, even if only missed in great films. Watch Stardust Memories a few times, and it is like watching a different film each time, but in the best sense of the notion. There really is nothing more to say, is there?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]


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