Friday, January 13, 2017

STARDUST MEMORIES

     Whether by character or by sensibility, there are those for whom filmmaker Woody Allen holds little or no interest. I recommend that those people--whom I'm sure are very nice--may want to skip what follows. 
    You're going to read it anyway, huh? Suit yourself. But you probably will not be able to get beyond the predisposition that there is something a little creepy, a little unsettling, unpleasant and maybe not even funny about the man, in spite of all the fine things you are possibly about to read.
   Woody Allen is the perfect link between not only classic movie-making from the 1930s and 1940s (Marx Brothers, Orson Welles, Michael Curtiz) and today; he is also the same kind of link between art film directors (Fellini, Bergman, Godard,) and contemporary romantic comedies. His use of absurdities to amplify genuine human feelings runs consistent through the bulk of his work. Because many of his early movies had Allen playing characters who might be described as a passive-aggressive nebbish, as someone who is himself intelligent yet wary of intellectuals, as indefatigable in his willingness to let his indecisiveness screw up his plans--there has, over the years, been a tendency to assume that those fictional characters were to a great extent reflections of the man's overall perception of himself, and that, given such consistency, he was therefore a narcissist.  
   For all the people who did indeed take him to be a nebbish, a man suspicious of cant, a narcissist, Woody Allen made a movie to debunk all of that rubbish. He called it Stardust Memories (1980). Coming as it did after four successful directorial knock-outs (Love and Death, Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan), Stardust Memories left more than a few people dampened in their reactions. The protagonist, Sandy Bates, played by Allen, was clearly mocking his fans and their adoration of him, or so many people editorialized. His use of a wide-angle lens in close-ups of the exuberant crowds that gaggled around him at a retrospective of his films made the people look paralyzed with their own ill-fitted self-importance. 
    This kind of reaction--and it was widespread upon the movie's initial release--was simply wrong. It was wrong to the extent that it was (a) irrelevant, and (b) ignorant of movie history. 
   The point of whatever hostility Woody Allen may have felt against his fans and supporters, especially in light of the disappointment many felt with his attempts at seriousness with Interiors, did get some support from the director himself, what with the most often-repeated line in the movie being to the effect that people wanted him to go back to making funny pictures again, like he used to do. A lot of people did say that at the time. So I will concede that he was drawing from his own personal experiences there. But none of that makes a bit of difference because in this movie the audience is viewing those fans from the camera point of view of the protagonist, the character with whom, to some extent, we are expected to identify. 
   Anyone still not as yet convinced should take a gander at the film upon which Stardust Memories pays homage: 8 1/2 by Frederico Fellini. When I say that Woody pays homage to Fellini, I do not mean in the same sense that Brian De Palma often paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock. In other words, Allen did not steal from Fellini. He created a conscious and deliberate parallel of the Marcello Mastroianni character in Fellini's film, a parallel which utilized elements of the nebbish character Allen had been using for years. And the stylistic similarities with not only 8 1/2 but also with Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt are as deliberate as they are honest. 
   But all this explication ignores something I believe is far more important: this is a genuinely enjoyable movie, one crammed with some of the best screenwriting Allen has ever done, with lines that bite like sabers, one of the best of which takes place in a large field where UFO believers are apparently awaiting the landing of aliens and one of the men looks right into the camera, declaring that the Soviets are beaming satellite transmissions from the Empire State Building to cloud our minds, and finishes by saying, "And I'm the only one who knows."
  Stardust Memories also introduces a specifically American audience to visuals for which that audience was, to put it mildly, unprepared. The presentation of the troubled ex-girlfriend Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) implied rather than showed the depth of her struggles. There are otherwise empty shots of her enigmatic beauty, yet, near the end, we see her in rapid still shots as she babbles helplessly in a mental institution. 
   In Sandy's apartment, as he is being berated by studio people who want him to go back to making funny movies again, we cannot help but see that behind him, on the large wall, is an enormous photograph of the famous image from the Tet Offensive where a Viet Cong prisoner is about to be shot in the head by a South Vietnamese General. A few minutes later the picture has been replaced by a radiant Groucho Marx. 
   I realize that I have not said anything about the plot of this movie and that is because plot in this movie is nothing more than a device through which the writer-director is able to express the idea that personal and social responsibility can be tough in a world where most people only like you because it makes them feel important to do so. A small but vocal number of those wounded people may even try to kill you.
   At the end of the scene in the field with the expectant UFO-seekers, Sandy Bates is confronted by a fan who points a gun at him and fires. A little more than three months following this movie's release, Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon. 
   So for those of you--nice people, one and all--who resist enjoying Woody Allen because you find him a bit creepy or because you don't find his ideal characterization of himself to be something with which you can relate, I nevertheless urge you to reconsider your position by seeing this movie. Listen, even if all this art work and cinematic stylism eludes you, even if the struggle for morality in this film leaves you unsettled, even if you just don't want to watch it no matter what I say, you can tell yourself that it's a great way to people watch. You'll see a very young Sharon Stone, plus all sorts of other cool New York people, such as Judith Crist, Laraine Newman, Louise Lasser, Tony Roberts, and Anne DeSalvo, among others. If you look even closer, who knows? You might even see yourself.

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