28 November 2011



1980/Director: Woody Allen/Writer: Woody Allen 

Cast: Woody Allen, Charlotte Rampling, Jessica Harper, Marie-Christine Barrault, Daniel Stern, Tony Roberts, John Rothman

I have long adored the film work of Woody Allen and also debated on what film I would want to offer up as a review here at the Café. I recently watched his two new films Midnight in Paris and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and enjoyed them both, though preferring the moodier Tall Dark Stanger to the more fanciful Midnight. But I watch and enjoy Woody’s brooding stuff and his fanciful stuff equally. I saw that the movie blog Matte Havoc was featuring Woody Allen as the theme for the a recurring  feature and was accepting guest bloggers to a post ona Woody film and I decided it was the impetus I had long needed to do a post on Woody and one of his films. The film that came to mind the immediately was 1980’s Stardust Memories, though I would not consider it my favorite Woody Allen film. It certainly ranks in the top five but rather I felt it might fit into the feel of what I am usually trying to do here at The Uranium Cafe. It is black and white. It has a quirky feel to it though it a masterfully crafted film. It is inspired somewhat by the film 8 ½ by Fredrico Fellini and I like a few Fellini films –though not all by any stretch – and plan on doing reviews eventually of a few Fellini films like Nights of Cabrina, La Strada or La Dolce Vita, all black and white films. And while Stardust Memories is not an unknown film to Woody Allen fans and completists -like myself- it is virtually unknown outside the Woody cognoscenti, and when viewed by the uninitiated it is usually not well received. For the review I rewatched the film for maybe the 6th or 7th time and like any true masterpiece it was as engaging as the 1st time I saw it, and even more so since something is gleaned from each rewatch of a film of this caliber. But I go into this review with humility as I typically do not review such well crafted films and usually do not review works by true film geniuses like Woody Allen. But at the end of the day it is just a movie and this is just my opinion of it. So lets get on with it.

Allen has denied that the film is autobiographical but it seems like more than a coincidence that the film’s protagonist, filmmaker Sandy Bates, is the target of criticism from critics, fans and studio executives after his last film departed from the comedy formula of his earlier works. His new dramatic movie is lambasted as bleak and pretentious and this mirrors the real life reception of Woody’s dreary –but exceptional- follow up to Annie Hall, 1978’s Interiors. Even 1979’s masterpiece Manhattan –shot in black and white like Stardust- gravitated towards a darker sort of comedy than his earlier films and Annie Hall, often considered the film that marked where the comedy style of films like Sleeper ended and the type of humor that would evolve into the films of his golden area –between Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters- began. Interiors was a stark break for Allen and the negative reception it received, even amongst die hard Woody loyalist- no doubt left a bitter taste in the filmmakers mouth who wanted to do something other than Everything you Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask for the rest of his career. So Allen dismissing the claims that film was a personal statement is a little hard to swallow, but at the same time the film does not have to be watched as only a bitter rant by Allen against fans and the studios though it is hard not to do that anymore than it is not to think of Marcello Mastroianni’s film director character in 8 ½ not being a reflection of Fellini himself. But what about the movie itself then? Stardust Memories has been over analyzed  as to what Woody’s true motives were and were not and how much is taken from Fellini’s film or the films of other master filmmakers like Igmar Bergman and even Roman Polanski (possible references, it seems, to his film Repulsion).

Film writer and director Sandy Bates spends the weekend at Atlantic City where there is a gathering of fans, critics and peers to honor his work and his latest film. Bates has little free time as he is constantly being beset upon by sycophantic fans wanting an autograph or photo. As well there are wanna-be actors wanting to drop off resumes at the least appropriate times and pushy people wanting donations of time and/or money to support their various causes. Bates brushes much of these off with promises and cordiality for most of the film, though by the end he is obviously becoming annoyed and anxious by the constant unwanted attention. Also at the event are studio heads who are unhappy with what they see as a commercially unviable product in the form of Bate’s latest film. We see some scenes from the picture as Stardust opens up with Allen Sandy Bates playing a character in his own film who is trapped in a train packed with depressed and frightening passengers, while on the opposite tracks a train filled with festivities –and a kiss-blowing  young Sharon Stone in her first film appearance- moves off to what has to be a better journey. After the film’s showing Bates answers question after question about his films and philosophies with classic Woody one one-liners and retorts. As the event progresses it is apparent his confidence as an artist is countered by his lack of confidence as a human being and social animal, and in particular his lack of confidence in finding a stable relationship with a woman. He may be confident with women in general –his “groupies” and obsessed hangers-ons- but not with a woman in particular.

So like any great Woody Allen film, or even not so great Woody Allen film, there is a conflict between the male lead –in many cases played by Allen himself- and two women, each possessing certain qualities he desires, but never all desired qualities being possessed by one single woman. Actually in Stardust Memories Sandy Bates is torn between three women. The first is the mercurial and high-strung “dark woman” Dorrie (played by a super-thin Charolette Rampling). Memories of their good times and more prevalent bad times intrude on his relationship with Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrualt), a French lady with a secret past of being a political reactionary and who just, with her two children, her marriage to pursue something more serious with Bates. Bates felt like this was the thing he really wanted but is suddenly ambivalent when Isobel shows up at the film event with her kids in tow. To complicate matters he runs into the troubled and dark sunglasses wearing violinist Daisy (Jessica Harper). Bates is attracted to the same troubled qualities in Daisy that drew him to Dorrie and yet he always runs back to the sturdy and reliable Isobel with whom he struggles to find a meaningful and realistic relationship. But the allure of the dark women (as Isobel calls them) in his life is always there. This is as recurring theme in a Woody Allen film as is the struggling writer character who is always trying to start or finish a novel. Some of the best scenes in the film are between Bates and Dorrie as she slowly disintegrates into an emotional collapse and winds up in a psychiatric ward.

The acting is great and Allen begins to come into his own a little more as a non-comedic actor.  And yet there are other elements that make this a magic Woody Allen film. Some of these elements appear first in Manhattan and continued through most of Allen’s films into the present day. While Manhattan featured the lush and romantic music of George Gershwin, Stardust Memories was the first to feature the old style jazz music Allen is so fond of as the soundtrack music, and many times the music is lifted right from Allen’s personal collection. I might be wrong about this, but as far as I know all film music after Stardust Memories was taken from old recordings and no new music was ever written for one of his films as far as score goes. The music in Stardust Memories  is just great and adds the appropriate magic to any scene it is laid over. Also there appears the now trademark opening titles that have remained the same for most all of his movies; white Windsor typeface on a black background that changes without scrolling or fading while some tasty old jazz music plays. Like Manhattan the cinematography is outstanding. And while cinematographer Gordon Willis (Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan) did not have the grand skyline of Manhattan to hypnotize the viewer he manages to make the deserted beaches and boardwalks of Atlantic City look mysterious and as faraway as a small fishing village in the south of France.

The movie, without giving anything away really, ends on a positive note as far as I am concerned and at the end of the weekend film event Bates seems to come to terms with himself and his relationship with Isobel as well as his film and who he is as a filmmaker, and that maybe giving the audience what they want (a few good laughs, advice given by extraterrestrials) is not the worst thing in the world. He is not evil, simply floundering. The movie fades with Bates staring at the screen of his own film as the audience, made of up of the film's cast, leaves commenting on Bates and the movie they all worked together on, making it a bit of a confusing movie within a movie type ending but I did not over analyze it myself. Stardust Memories is a rare piece of movie magic that basically bombed at the box office but has a high place not only amongst Allen fans, but with Allen himself who counts it, alongside The Purple Rose of Cairo, as one of his favorite films of his long and productive career.