Review Of Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES (1980)

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Woody Allen in STARDUST MEMORIES standing with glasses

[The following critique of Stardust Memories is an excerpt from a much longer chapter in my book, Woody Allen: Reel to Real.]

Yet if Manhattan is often misunderstood, Stardust Memories feels as if it’s never even been watched, at least not without the blinders that so many critics have willingly put on. It’s been called everything from disjointed to mean-spirited, autobiographical, a “homage”, tribute, rip-off, or blunder that was a big step back, stylistically and qualitatively, from earlier works. But, I’d first watched the film years ago, without any knowledge of its supposed lacks, nor critical context, and so could judge nothing but what was simply on the screen. I’d not, incidentally, even watched Fellini’s , nor Bergman, and so could not be discolored by some irrelevant perception of theft — irrelevant because of how differently Allen treats some similar material, and how better executed it really is when compared to the source material. In fact,  I found the film, even then, rich and multi-layered, with sharp dialogue, wonderful experimentation, intellectual depth, and the kind of poetry and intuitive leaps that few works of art ever achieve. It is not only my personal favorite Woody film, but also probably his best (an important distinction to make), for reasons that become more and more obvious with every re-watch.

Unlike most Woody Allen films, Stardust Memories utterly defies capsule, much less a temporal breakdown, due to its use of flashback, dream, fiction, metafiction, and many other techniques. No, the film doesn’t really have a plot in terms of temporal sequence marked by ‘big events’, but it has something far more important: narrative, which is how all the important features of an art-work — emotion, ideas, music, scripting, visuals, characterization, and so on — fuse into a coherent whole, while both tuning in, as well as seemingly turning away from it, too. In Manhattan, for instance, the soap operatics are given heft by the strength of characterizations (tuning in — in fact, a laser-like focus, as on Isaac), while being undermined by the visuals (turning away). Yet, a statement emerges, nonetheless, as it does in Stardust. But while the earlier film did a great job of excoriating relationships and the personages that seemingly destroy them, Stardust Memories is focused on even higher things: art, the artist, dream, identity, and the ‘big’ questions of meaning and existence, as well as those questions’ utter pointlessness and futility. Too many have decried the film as “bleak”, in this regard — even Roger Ebert, who often gets it right with Woody — without taking the time to even examine the answers the film actually provides. They are not, at any rate, found in some serialization. If the film is too difficult to break down scene-by-scene, it is better, then, to highlight some important scenes, and what they say of such questions, of critics, as well as of the film and its characters, which respects narrative without dumbing it … Continue reading →

Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet” (2017) Is NOT Exploitation

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Hannah tries out for Casting JonBenetWatching Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet is a frustrating experience, but not for the reasons a film might typically elicit such a response. Yes, it has its merits and demerits, but so do many other works of art. No, one doesn’t glean many new facts about an already supersaturated bit of Americana, but that is a poor standard by which to judge a film, particularly an idea-driven documentary such as this. Rather, it is that Green’s strategy is so often brilliant that any future creative work on the JonBenet murder will in some way need to reference and transcend her own. Unfortunately, this also means that the film’s primary conceit can never be used again, even though it might be the most logical approach to what has now become a collective superstition: that there is an answer for everything, and that every question is valid, every concern justifiable. If anything, Casting JonBenet suggests that this is not so, even as it fails to obey its own rules and follow its best avenues to something greater.

Prior to analyzing the film, however, let us briefly discuss the event on which it’s based. On December 26th, 1996, child beauty pageant star JonBenet Ramsey was found strangled and sexually abused in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado home. A few hours earlier, a mysterious ransom note alerted the Ramseys to JonBenet’s disappearance, as they contacted friends, relatives, and the police despite the alleged kidnappers’ warnings. Although parents John and Patsy Ramsey were first suspected in the murder, a rather sloppy investigation turned up no evidence of their involvement, with DNA testing ultimately exonerating both. This didn’t stop speculation, however, fueled not only by their supposedly ‘odd’ behavior, but confounding variables like the false confession of John Mark Karr in 2006, as well as revelations of a troubled home life and Burke’s – JonBenet’s brother – ‘smiling’ interview late last year. Today, theories range from the police’s intruder explanation, to Patsy’s alleged envy and murder of her daughter, and even suggestions that Burke struck and killed his sister with the ransom note forged by the parents as a cover.

A shot of chairs in Casting JonBenet.

The true story, of course, is irrelevant to the myth: the very thing Casting JonBenet tackles by way of its conceits. Thus, I will not give my own views on the case, but simply allow the work speak for itself, and let others’ biases reveal themselves. The film opens with a wonderful shot of some empty chairs soon filled by dolled-up girls. All are auditioning for the role of the murdered girl, as one of them (in a rather nice touch) awkwardly asks whether the viewer knows who killed JonBenet. In fact, the very lack of gravitas helps zero-in on something that’s already been long pontificated over, with a half-dozen or so kids implying they could have been victims, too, without Green quite fleshing out the ‘what’ nor exploiting the viewer’s empathy. It is all a touch too abaxial for such … Continue reading →

Critique Of Katsuhiro Otomo’s MEMORIES (1995)

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In reading the reviews of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories (1995), one might be particularly struck by what is not said: that, for all the ways that titles might recapitulate, refract, or even turn away from a film’s content, there is almost no discussion of what the title means to the work at hand. Yes, the word is uttered early on, and has an obvious, ham-fisted, 1:1 relationship to the first of the collection’s three anime shorts, but what about the rest? There is very little to say, really, since the others tackle different tropes, and have only a slipshod connection to one another in the fact that they’re the film versions of three of Otomo’s previously written stories. In brief, whereas the title could be said to cohere too neatly with the work’s first forty minutes, the last eighty, well, cohere not at all, despite containing some of its best material. Is this an issue? Perhaps, but since it’s the least of the film’s faults, I do have an idea of what it all means, and why Otomo made these artistic decisions. Yet instead of positing an unpopular claim, first, and bracing for the fallout, I will present the evidence, bit by bit, precisely as the film presents it, so that the sum is unassailable, and that the work’s poetic status might get the treatment of a more mechanical eye.

Memories begins with Koji Morimoto’s Magnetic Rose, a highly stylized tale of an opera singer, Eva, and her chief fixation: her prior life with Carlo, a famous tenor with whom she went on to win world acclaim. They are happy, briefly, until Eva loses her voice, then Carlo, and ultimately murders her former love in order to trap him in a cycle of unchanging memories. The details are slowly discovered by a crew of scrap collectors, of whom Heintz, a father seemingly on leave from family life, is the mysterious protagonist. They witness an SOS signal in deep space as Heintz and another crew member, Miguel, go on to investigate. Once landed, the two enter a Victorian-style mansion propped up by holograms and ‘genuine fakes’ that, once discerned, crumble and disappear. At first, they do not realize who the owner of this place is, as Eva zips in and out of the landscape, inducing hallucinations that tangle up her own life with theirs. In time, however, another crew member radios from their spaceship, and informs them of what he’s found. The hallucinations grow violent, culminating in the ‘death’ of Heintz as if he were Carlo, Miguel’s imagined fling with Eva, and Heintz’s own probe into his family, leaving the viewer unsure on the question of his daughter’s death. Magnetic Rose ends with Heintz floating in space amidst rose-petals, possibly dying, and possibly even accumulating, in Eva’s manner, his own memories, and waiting for the cycle to be broken by future explorers.

It is, to be sure, an anachronistic setting: the ‘past’ is presented in Victorian, almost steampunk terms, replete … Continue reading →

Film Review Of Woody Allen’s CAFÉ SOCIETY (2016)

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Woody Allen’s Café Society opened in New York City at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas 6, a tiny movie house off of 62nd and Broadway which dedicated just one screen and two show-times to the film on its first night. A week later, it’s getting three screens at once in order to accommodate ticket sales that, while snowballing, yes, seem to still be coming from the pockets of an older crowd. There are married couples, mostly, old friends, and five or six young people in a room at capacity. The laughs, from what I could tell, come strictly from the first two. Oh, the last smiles, sure, if so goaded by the others, but does not quite share the first group’s humor. One knows what to expect. The other, likely having heard of Woody’s brilliance, once, sees a disconnect between this information and what is now on screen. One group’s smiling, holding hands, as if on the same date they were on forty years ago…and perhaps in fact are. The other, however, has no past here; has, to be sure, only Now, and thus cannot personalize Woody; cannot judge this film on the strength of masterpieces gone. One shakes its head – rightly! – at the ignorance of the first. But the other- ah, but the other can’t quite believe how much the past discolors the future, even as they, themselves, will eventually do the same, and denounce those too distant, too late to share their own peculiar bias.

To be fair, Café Society is a solid work, with some good moments and overarching artistic decisions. Yet it suffers, overwhelmingly, from what most of Woody’s films have suffered in the last two decades: massive self-borrowings that, instead of offering some new angle, tone, or shading of an old idea, merely repeat the thing with slight cosmetic differences. There are many – too many – examples of this, but perhaps a mere sampling is enough. The film opens with Woody narrating in trite terms, a la Manhattan, what the city – in this case, Hollywood – is ‘really’ like. But while Manhattan used these clichés subversively, developing Isaac’s character in a way that exposed his superficiality, Café Society’s narration is to be taken at face value, even when (as with the lesser portions of Vicky Cristina Barcelona) it is needlessly recapitulative. Other borrowings include the archetype of Bobby’s (Jesse Eisenberg) thug brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), a dilution of Crimes And Misdemeanors and the lighter portions of Bullets Over Broadway. Another is with one of the film’s primary arcs, wherein Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) transforms into a person she’s always hated, a twist that’s right out of Celebrity, despite lacking Celebrity’s deeper comments re: happiness and wisdom, and how different the two really are. Yes, viewers might fill in the blanks, as they’re used to these concepts, but isn’t that a flaw: that an artist’s moves, techniques, and the like are so predictable, that he doesn’t … Continue reading →

Pulp Fiction Is The 1990s, Two Decades On

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Pulp Fiction Logo TarantinoLooking at some of the more popular books, films, and songs over the last few decades, it is obvious that there are works of art that come to define every half-generation as being ‘of’ the time: works that tally up the culture, and still leave room for that culture’s response. This is a cliche, I know, but what is less understood is how a work of art comes to play that role in the first place, and, even more importantly, WHY these roles are so often conflated with immanent worth. For the 90s, in cinema, I’d put
Fight Club, The Matrix, Clerks, American Beauty, and Office Space in that category, not necessarily for their execution — most of those films are atrocities — but in what they say about the viewers that have accepted them. Yes, American Beauty eventually came to derision, and Office Space was relegated to a cult classic, but, at some point, fans had responded to them and still wanted ‘more’. After all, the comic-book stuff in Matrix wasn’t serious enough; Fight Club lacked realism, even if it was catchy. So, fans — ‘serious’ fans, I mean — needed something else to rally behind, and prop up as a true artist’s masterpiece. Yet they also needed to be able to understand it, too, to have it refract their interests, their personal view of the world, a stipulation that eliminated a number of great films and narrowed things down to what was termed the ‘masterpiece’ of 1994.

Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was that film, and makes up the sixth work I’d argue as representative — for better or worse! — of the 1990s. It is, to be fair, a solid film, with a number of good moments, but just as many flaws clinched by one overriding defect that keeps even the good in a kind of stasis. In short, Pulp Fiction has neither purpose nor depth, which is further marred by its indecisiveness over being a comedy, drama, or something in between. Yes, there have always been successful fusions, but they come not at the expense of a genre’s individual strengths, and work in synergy to enhance the innovations within. By contrast, Pulp Fiction attempts drama without well-defined characters, comedy without a ‘deeper’ sort of humor (a la Fellini’s Amarcord), and stylizations without a final, totalizing point. It is an almost wholly reflexive film, referring back only to itself, as if it were an island crumbed and set adrift from its archipelago. At best, it is a good snapshot of what passed for innovation in the 1990s, replete not only with that era’s fun and interminable flaws, but also a handful of ‘what-if?’ moments that point to something higher, had there only been an artist Artist enough to capitalize upon them.

The film starts at its chronological middle with two criminals, Ringo (Tim Roth), and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer), publicly discussing their next heist before settling on robbing the very diner that they’re Continue reading →