[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 8½, 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 down.
The opening shot of filmmaker Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) shows him stuck in a train full of unhappy people — or, perhaps more accurately, ‘losers’ — with another train full of upbeat, successful types blowing kisses at him. Realizing this, Sandy shows his ticket to the attendant, but while he speaks, as if explaining why he belongs on the other train, the whistle obscures even his voice, thus ‘blotting’ him out, not merely trapping him. As he tries to escape, there is a suitcase full of sand that slowly drips its contents to the floor, a wonderful little symbol of time and futility, which all ends with the train’s passengers on a beach, walking, as if making a pilgrimage, to a trash heap — perhaps of the bodies and belongings on the other train? This, too, might say something of ‘success’ and its perception, as Sandy is forced to confront his desires, and where they end. Woody has been accused of ‘stealing’ Fellini’s opening in 8½ of a filmmaker trapped in a car, but while without a doubt that is the clear antecedent, Woody not only changes the scene’s terms, but absolutely betters them. Fellini’s scene works on one or two symbolic levels, while Woody’s has multiple, with lots of touches — the whistling, sand, pilgrimage, gulls, confrontation — that comment on completely different things altogether (i.e., ‘turning away,’ instead of Fellini’s merely ‘tuning in’). In fact, if one closely analyzes other scenes, similar discrepancies turn up, and not only of the scenes, themselves, but of character, even down to the very different reasons why Sandy and Guido have so many flatterers. In the sequence that directly follows this, a bunch of critics are blabbering about the film that was shown (for it’s Sandy Bates’s ‘film within a film’), complaining of its pretentiousness and grimness, similar to the dense comments others make about Guido’s artistic choices. They are inane, but even Woody (or Sandy?) allows one critic to slip in a great, pertinent comment about “the gift of laughter”, and Sandy’s alleged inability to appreciate it, thus allowing even a clear ‘type’ — i.e., a bad critic — to rise above his self-made station. This is the set-up, then, for much of Stardust Memories: Sandy tries something new, only to get shot down by producers and studio execs who relentlessly tamper, while Sandy (and Woody) zip in and out of film, dream, fantasy, and reality, which allows both men to delve more deeply into the issues that exist outside of the more basic conflicts that have routinely been taken for the film’s core, rather than its excuse to probe even further.
If the opening puts forth an argument re: art, identity, and communication, the rest of the film refines it, and gives it a ‘human’ touch, via great, realistic characterizations, that allows these ideas to take shape in a recognizable, emotionally satisfying way. Sandy is at his apartment, surrounded by producers, flatterers, and friends, while the famous photograph of a Vietcong about to be executed serves as a huge mural. Sandy feels overwhelmed, and the mural is a de facto representation of what he feels (now in comic proportions) and changes several times throughout the film, as it follows his moods and circumstances. This is not ‘realistic’, in the sense that it’s not Sandy’s own chosen decor, but fantasy, projection, or dream, part of the many little touches that appear and re-appear throughout the film and give it such a condensed quality at a mere 88 minutes. In another scene, we get Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) — Sandy’s then-girlfriend, and perhaps the love of his life — who, in another deft stroke, is smiling to the side, with a nigh-blank look in her eyes, seemingly happy, but off (we learn) of her bipolar meds. She cuts in and re-appears even when Sandy goes to a convention honoring his work, in a brief three or four-second snatch, against a wall, perhaps in a hospital, with another mural — this time, of a woman with a ‘wandering’ expression, as we get a close-up of Dorrie’s face. It is realistic, for there is something, there, that forced Sandy into recall and reverie. Her last actual appearance, as prompted by Sandy’s friend in yet another dream-scape, is Sandy’s visit to a mental hospital, wherein Dorrie is at turns crying, then laughing, flirting, and manipulating him, with all of her comments cut up by time lapses, her words distorted and re-arranged, so one not only gets their ‘essence’, without having to really hear them, but also the snapshot of an ill and fractured mind. Daisy (Jessica Harper), who is another love-interest, is a kind of lite double, for while she lacks Dorrie’s more extreme mental ills, she is both a drug-user as well as the product of a shady past. Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault), Sandy’s final girlfriend (and possible future wife), is the best and most stable of the bunch, although even with her, one wonders, at times, whether Sandy is using her personage as a means of salvation, to break his bad habits, rather than for genuine love. This can’t be answered fully, nor should it be, for the real strength is in the ambiguities these women create, as well as what they do, film-wise, when they engender both reverie and flashbacks, often into parts of Sandy’s psyche that were likely long forgotten — such as when he imagines an elephant at the beach, as Dorrie ‘nudges’ away the boy-aged Sandy (quick and easily missed) while the adult comes into the scene, and gets a few gifts from Dorrie, one of which prompts him to share a memory of the elephant, and its childhood importance. It’s a fact that makes little logical or temporal sense, but absolutely works into one’s intuition, and flowers there. So, who is the real Sandy? And where is Woody, if he is the ‘mere’ overseer of the film? Again, it is less important to be able to get to the bottom of such, than it is to be able to simply ask these questions, themselves, for they can only be legitimately asked of a complex work. If it was all as obvious as the critics make it out to be, there would simply be no need.
And, despite the film’s great characterizations, even the ‘lesser’ characters and scenes have an important role to play, given how they all propel one primary vision. For example, despite Sandy Bates being critical of his friend Tony Roberts, his constant partying and dating of Playboy-level women with not a scintilla of intellect, the fact is, it is Tony, and not Sandy, that is able to give good relationship advice, despite not being much of a model, himself. He (or perhaps his imago, as imagined by Sandy in the midst of self-doubt) prompts Sandy to think back to his last meeting with Dorrie, at the hospital, and consider how futile the relationship really was. In another scene, a woman that once played Sandy’s mother in a film appears out of nowhere, and announces herself as “his mother”. There is a look of both confusion and recognition on his face, as if he were facing a reconstructed apparition, and further comments on the strained parent/child relationship Sandy and his real mother seem to have. Then, his ‘actual’ mother makes a few appearances — once to argue, in typical Jewish fashion, with his father, and another to hold up a picture of a dirty magazine that Sandy supposedly looked at as a child, while everybody ooh’s and aah’s at the young boy’s talent as a magician, which is both the projection of a child’s fears well into adulthood, as well as a comment on how much ‘unearthing’ fans and critics will do, simply for the smallest nugget of an artist’s prior existence, no matter how inconsequential or silly. In another scene, Sandy meets his loser sister, who seems to enjoy his attention, then morphs — in another fantasy — to a needy, whiny human being after Sandy’s own personhood, in an almost vampiric desire to be him, and far more so than in the sense of material success, for that success is like an outer garment, at times, merely beautifying the already strong core underneath. Sandy, himself, often has some interesting things to say about art, such as in one minor scene where he meets up with an old friend, who does not have his success, and Sandy placates him by stating — correctly — that so much of talent is luck, and that if he were born an Apache Indian, whose society does not place such a value on jokes, he’d not be having as good of a time. This is wise, and it is pertinent, yet rarely seen for the wisdom that it is. Then, there are other memorable scenes, many of them seemingly minor, such as Isobel’s “face exercises”, in the midst of Sandy’s proposal; Dorrie’s and Sandy’s wordless exchanges over Louis Armstrong’s “Stardust”; Sandy’s Frankenstein-like projection of building a “perfect woman”, by switching an ugly body’s great brain, with a great body’s ugly personality, only to fall back in love with the now-ugly and altogether unpleasant woman, a seemingly throwaway scene that nonetheless illustrates the man’s fixation with troubled women; the possible shooting by an obsessive fan, which may or may not be real; the ‘inner’ film’s sentimental ending, which is both made fun of and undermined by what we, the viewers, actually know; and the majestic scene of hot-air balloons, which float in and out, like the reveries the film not only induces, but also comments upon. So much of this is utterly magisterial cinema, and the fact that most critics do not even reference these elements supports my original claim that the film hasn’t even really been watched, much less properly talked about.
Given the film’s look at celebrity, it is easy, then, to see why the Sandy persona has been so conflated with the real-life Woody Allen, but it’s just not so, for the two are clearly different. In the film, Sandy Bates is not only flawed, but responds to an irony and authority that Woody (not Sandy) creates, even if Sandy’s meta-film includes much of this wisdom already. Yes, Woody is critical ‘in real life’, and Sandy is, as well, but Sandy’s conflict is really the nature of all artistic misrepresentation, where critics read into or even openly destroy perfectly good works, a reality that is unique to neither Woody nor Sandy. To go a step further, nowhere in his biography, interviews, or real-life anecdotes can we deduce that Woody is bitter about anything, or angry at producers and studio execs, for one of Sandy’s main issues (an artistic one) is others’ tampering, which Woody barely experienced, as well as others’ demands on his person (and not merely his fame), which most critics — Allen, included — simply ascribe to existential angst. Yet Sandy is neither destructive, as is claimed, weak, nor even the all-loathing “whiner” Roger Ebert says he is, but is, on the whole, a well put-together human being who ultimately sees farther and deeper than everyone else around him, continuing to make valuable work despite others’ great hostility and manipulation — the very antithesis of the word “whiner”. If he really is, for example, making a film within a film, then Sandy Bates, the film-maker, is at the very least a great talent, which makes ‘Sandy Bates’, the character playing a filmmaker, the creation of — well, two minds, really, even if there is only one brain behind it. This comes out in one stunning scene, in particular, where Sandy meets some extraterrestrials, and conducts an exchange which deserves to be quoted in full:
Sandy: Don’t go! I’ve got some questions!
Alien: We can’t breathe your air!
Sandy: Yeah, at the rate we’re going, we’re not going to be able to either. You guys have to tell me, why is there so much human suffering?
Alien: This is unanswerable!
Sandy: Is there a God?
Alien: These are the wrong questions!
Sandy: Look, here’s my point. If nothing lasts, why am I bothering to make films, or do anything for that matter?
Alien: We enjoy your films, particularly the early, funny ones.
Sandy: But the human condition is so discouraging…
Alien: There’s some nice moments too.
Sandy: Yeah, with Dorrie…
Alien: That’s right. And Isobel. Be honest!
Sandy: You prefer Isobel?
Alien: There’s no comparison. She’s a mature woman!
Sandy: Mature woman?! What are you, my rabbi?
Alien: Hey look, I’m a super-intelligent being. By Earth’s standards, I have an IQ of 1600, and I can’t even understand what you expected from that relationship with Dorrie!
Sandy: I loved her…
Alien: Yeah, I know, and two days a month she was the most exciting woman in the world. But the rest of the time, she was a basket-case! On the other hand, Isobel is someone that you can count on.
Sandy: But shouldn’t I stop making movies and do something that counts, like, helping blind people or becoming a missionary or something?
Alien: Let me tell you. You’re not the missionary type. You’d never last. And, and incidentally, you’re also not Superman. You’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes!
Sandy: Yeah, but I gotta find meaning!
This is Woody Allen — not the ‘masochist’, or the hypercritical being who sees his sycophants as nigh-monstrosities, nor the obsessiveness personified through Sandy Bates, but the artist who wrote the exchange, above, which not only makes fun of the things that engender the character’s way of thinking, but also offer some truly great wisdom. Although the scene lasts only a couple of minutes, a lot is tackled: the nature of meaning, existence, God — or rather, the irrelevant feelings God engenders — and what to do with one’s life. Yes, relationships are touched upon, as well, but they are treated as extensions of Sandy’s basic problem, and thus enlarge to bigger, deeper things. Consider, for example, the alien’s response to the question of “meaning”. It is “unanswerable” precisely because it is a loaded question, with the assumption prioritized above the answer, itself. People might not see this, but an extraterrestrial who has long transcended such petty, all-too-human concerns will. Or consider the advice that Sandy Bates (and by extension, everybody) should stick to what he is best at, rather than fixate on things beyond his nature, and beyond his purpose. As Dan Schneider writers in his review of the film, this is something that more people ought to do, for it’ll bar angst and put human ‘wandering’ in its place — as a phase of self-consolidation, rather than one’s perpetual identity. That so much can be deduced from an exchange that seems superficially comic says much of the film’s leanness, and its ability to communicate so much with so little waste.
Yet, even more important than trying to figure out ‘where’ Woody Allen, himself, fits in the film, is the alien’s probable retort that it, too, is simply “the wrong question”. The fact is, Sandy Bates — whether real or fiction, wholly or in part — nonetheless exists as a character within a specific film, with certain views, interactions, and relationships, and it is far more important to evaluate those, within the film’s universe, than trying to extrapolate biography from its sum. At bottom, the film is an examination of art and its pitfalls (beautifully reproduced, I might add, in the real-life critics’ misrepresentations, as if part of some meta meta-film, whose architect is still a mystery), what it can do, and cannot do, and where human identity fits within this nexus. Art, for instance, is not Sandy’s ‘savior’ (as it isn’t for Renata in Interiors), although, as the critic at the beginning of the film points out, it is very much a “gift” — and larger, in fact, than any of the possible alternatives. Thus, it is not at all a ‘bleak’ film, but a wholly optimistic one, for even if art cannot save the flatterers, critics, the needy, nor even Bates, himself, it is simply because they do not see its magnetism, hung up, as they are, on themselves, and are treating the thing in a purely selfish manner: the critics, producers, etc., as wanting to get ‘a piece’ of the action by manipulating the finished product, or Sandy, as a means to get ‘some answer’ for himself, rather than for the whole of humanity, which is really at the level that the best art functions. The ‘real’ Bates (not to mention Woody, himself) seems to know better, however, as the creator of the ‘inner’ film. At the ‘inner’ film’s end, the characters that appeared within are seen to be talking about it, and, in fact, even seem to have been bettered by the experience, as thinking, sentient beings in the face of something stimulating and rich. Are they mere characters, then, in Sandy’s film, or memories from Sandy’s life, bubbling up, now, as if in a dream? Again, the answer, itself, does not seem to matter too much, for they have existed and transpired — context be damned! At the ‘outer’ film’s end, Sandy, in a wonderful shot, is shown staring down the aisle, as his eyes wander to the movie theater’s screen, as he looks to have finally ‘gotten’ all of this. Or, more realistically — since he is the director, after all — he is simply chewing through the film’s import, and wonders of the personages within, their hopes and their failures, their questions, and everything else, really, that seems so obvious, now, if they’d only look. Sandy leaves, and the lights dim with only an arc of light-bulbs remaining, like stars, implying some kind of permanence, and perhaps even cosmic import. It would, at any rate, be consistent with the film’s meditations, and is likely the most ‘Woody’ element of the film in regards to his philosophy and ultimate outlook on things. In fact, if Sandy Bates is Woody Allen, as if often argued, he is Allen only in those last couple of minutes, as the progenitor of all that was seen, but somehow apart from it, too. Yet Allen is even one more level above the fray, for it is he who makes Sandy direct the film, and come out into the aisle, at the end, knowing precisely why he’s there, and what it means, and what it doesn’t. If only the critics — in real life, I mean — could rise above the fray, as well, and out of Woody’s little puppet theater, perhaps the last thirty-five years of conversation on the film could have been more productive. Instead, I am left to wonder, again, of that architect who wires our brains so, and makes it so hard to see the stage, much less break the hell out of it.
In Carson Lund’s reading of the film, he praises, correctly, Allen’s desire to step outside of his “comfort zone”, for the film is clearly a departure from his earlier (and even later) work. He also makes some good points about its “sharpness and brevity” vis-a-vis Fellini’s 8½, and the figures of Sandy’s three women coming in “at random times to illustrate the immediate nature of Bates’ attraction”, driven, as he is, to the ‘wrong type’, and seeing women almost as an extension of other, deeper concerns. Yet he nonetheless errs in calling the film a series of “warm-hearted tributes” to Allen’s favorite cinema, given how huge the departure, and how much more complex the examinations. It is really a film that takes some source material, and runs with it — precisely what happens with almost any work of art, and especially one that makes ‘leaps’, as Stardust Memories does, into wholly new territory, both stylistically and qualitatively. Yet the best writing that I’ve seen on the film is Dan Schneider’s review (from which I borrow the language of ‘inner/outer’ re: Sandy’s film) which not only discusses the critical reception to the film, at length, but also argues what the film is, and what it isn’t, with much analysis of key scenes, including one I was forced to re-watch upon my reading of it:
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 film’s tying together of the personal and impersonal, trivial and deep, together in a way that recapitulates the dialogue, yet also osmotically expands upon it.
I’d seen the shot, of course, but had not noticed it in this way before reading of it here. And this is exactly how criticism ought to be: it should expand the reader’s boundaries, go over the artistic work in some detail, and construct an argument on evidence, and not mere fancy, or the tropes of other reviewers. I fear, perhaps, it is the latter that has happened with Stardust Memories, down to the near-identical terminology used across reviews (an issue with Manhattan, as well), with recapitulations of the same opinions, preventing others from seeing the film, much less seeing the film with unbiased eyes. This is not, alas, true engagement with an art-form, which is all the more troubling given what the film really means to cinema as a whole.