SHERWYN J. SPENCER: When I saw that Stardust Memories (1980) was scheduled to play at the Rio Cinema in Dalston, I got very excited. It always seemed inevitable to me that I’d get to see Woody Allen’s classics on the big screen eventually, but Stardust Memories was never a given. It’s one of his lesser known and least appreciated films, but it is also one I have much affection for.
Its negative reception has always been puzzling to me, especially considering how accessible and enjoyable it is to watch. In coming to write this piece I searched my conscience for insincerity in my appreciation of the film (found none), and my recollection of the film for reasons why it’s so misunderstood.
Self-indulgence is the most common criticism; a sense of hostility that emanates from the screen and onto some critics, fans, or ordinary viewers is another. Maybe the existential questions bother/bothered people, the thought that anyone so preoccupied with their own mortality must have too healthy a view of their own self-importance? Or it could be, but this is really a compliment, that the ridiculously high standards Allen had set by releasing Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), and Manhattan (1979) back-to-back-to-back meant that anything that came after them would be judged only by its comparison to them?
The film, by design, or perhaps incidentally, is a kind of critic-proof piece: all the criticisms of the film are in the film. Whatever the criticisms are, none of them have ever held any weight with me. They’re simply rendered invalid by the fact that Allen’s most scathing attacks are saved for the character of Sandy or, if you prefer, Allen himself. The film’s levity, its romance (coming in many forms), its playfulness, its little asides, and, of course, Allen’s trademark one-liners never let the film be dragged down into super-seriousness.
Narratively, Stardust Memories is simple. Sandy Bates, played by Woody Allen, is in post-production of a new film he’s directing. Though known for his comedies, Sandy ‘no longer feels funny’ and has set out to make a film that better reflects the world in which he lives. “I look around the world and all I see is human suffering,” he says to his entourage of agents, accountants, maids, etc. fussing over him in his apartment. He’s under pressure from the studio, who wants his film to end up in ‘jazz heaven’ instead of a garbage dump, and from himself (something which, in an ongoing sight gag, the wallpaper in his apartment tells us by changing in accordance with his moods).
Reluctantly, Sandy heads off to attend a film festival weekend taking place out of town where they’re hosting a retrospective in honor of his work, and the ensuing swarm of activity around him hardly leaves a moment for introspection (something he wants and needs). Sandy is constantly hounded by aspiring actors, critics, self congratulating cineastes, over zealous fans, profiteering restaurant owners, people he used to know and charities. He’s asked for autographs, interviews, photos, answers to every type of question, and sex.
The women in Sandy’s life – there’s three in this picture – are the physical incarnations of his inner conflicts. There’s Dorrie, who gets all the best moments in the film. She haunts the present through flashbacks and Sandy’s subjective memories. She’s a magnetic, bright and sexy, but volatile girl (played wonderfully by Charlotte Rampling. What cheekbones!), an old flame of Sandy’s, and the kind of girl that’s absolute dynamite two days a month but a basket case the other twenty-eight.
Sandy’s current girlfriend, Isobel, is just as beautiful, not at all traumatizing, and less interesting as a result. When Sandy’s sister interrogates him about settling down and marrying her, he stands there and lists what she’s got going in her favor: namely, that she’s French.
Daisy, played by Jessica Harper, is the dark one. Indifferent, allusive, talented, she’s a violinist for the New York Philharmonic, and she’s got this enigmatic quality, an absolute knockout in a girl-next-door kind of way. Sandy takes to her immediately, and it’s no surprise to find that he sees a bit of Dorrie in her. The difference is, Daisy is present.
How Sandy’s relationships with these women evolve reflects how his inner conflicts evolve too. The whole ’What does it all mean?’ thing, we realise, isn’t quite as important as Sandy first thinks it is. In a sharp scene in the countryside, Sandy sees some super intelligent Martians returning to outer space, he chases them, then bombards them with questions: “Why is there so much suffering?” “Is there a God?” “How do I best help mankind?” In response they tell him, “These are the wrong questions. You wanna do mankind a service? Tell funnier jokes.”
And that’s the running joke throughout Stardust Memories, everyone prefers Sandy’s ‘early, funny’ pictures. Sounds awful at first, but it reminds me of the Preston Sturges’ film, Sullivan’s Travels (1941). ‘Sully,’ a film director known for his comedies, wants to make an ‘important’ film only to come to realise that the most important film he can make is one that brings joy to people’s lives.
Sandy Bates has a knack for that exact thing. We see snippets of his ‘early, funny’ pictures over the course of the film festival weekend, and what’s striking about them is their effect on their audience and their effect on us, as viewers of a film within a film. We all laugh and we all smile.
But where Stardust Memories really excels for me is in the spaces, the grey areas, between what’s on the page and what’s the on screen, what goes on in the viewers chest and what they carry with them after the credits roll. Stanley Kubrick once said, “A film is, or should be, more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings.”
Stardust Memories is just that, it’s a film between the words as much as it is in them. It mixes comedy, existential musings with melancholy and romance. As a whole, it’s not quite as good as Annie Hall or Manhattan – hardly anything is – but its best moments are as good as anything else in Woody’s brilliant and expansive body of work.
Which brings me to this point: God is in the details, in the poetry of a shot, and in all the things that studio executives label ‘too fancy’. The hot-air balloons and sparklers at magic hour, a jump-cutting Dorrie in tears, crisp, wide-angle, Gordon Willis-composed frames, a Louis Armstrong record accompanied by a light breeze on a Spring day, and Dorrie’s face as she reads Sunday papers. These are the moments, oh boy, these are the ones that kill me every time.
So let’s not talk about what Woody’s trying to say about his critics or his audience, because in the end it doesn’t matter. Especially if, through it all, he had us laughing.
“What do you think was the significance of the Rolls-Royce?” one fan asks another at the end of one of Sandy Bates’ screenings.
“I think it represents his car,” comes the reply.
Stardust Memories (1980) is screening in the ‘FOLLOWING FELLINI DOUBLE BILL’ with Nine (2009) at Rio Cinemas, Dalston, 7 March, 2010 at 2pm.
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