“You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.”
Woody Allen has always been self-indulgent. It is hard to find fault with this since there is often something so sincere and vulnerable about his work. Whether it is a dark, Bergman-eque family drama, or a whimsical and goofy genre piece, his sensibility is, while somewhat irritating, oddly resonant and has seeped it’s way into the popular consciousness.
Stardust Memories was lambasted by many critics; they saw it as an attack on his fans. In the film, the fans of the Sandy (Woody Allen) character are depicted as over-the-top, but the Allen persona is more overwhelmed and confounded by them than he is contemptuous. There is truth in this warped depiction of celebrity and artistry; after all, both phenomena seem peculiar when you hold them up to scrutiny. This is what Allen does with Stardust Memories—picks and pokes at celebrity and artistry. It is not even a very thorough examination; it is a curious prodding, but there is a tragic and haunting quality that creeps into it. Though, I do wonder if I would be so fond of it were I not myself a filmmaker.
Celebrated filmmaker Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) is invited to a festival honouring his work. While there, he contemplates his work, and the three major relationships that inspired it. His experiences with these three enigmatic women—Daisy (Jessica Harper) the wistful musician, Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) the troubled actress, and Isabelle (Marie-Christine Barrault) the oh-so-French housewife—baffle him and shape his artistic sensibility. We never come to truly understand these women because Sandy never truly understands them—or himself for that matter. He’s full of existential angst, trying desperately to find meaning in art and life, to makes sense out of the absurd.
The opening scene of Stardust Memories is eerie and resonant, with Woody trapped in a train car with some very miserable looking fellow passengers. There is the relentless ticking of the clock—the dour realism of chugging along to his death. He looks out at another train where, inside, he can see a party in full swing. Those happy people, we all know, are headed toward the same fate, but they sure as hell are going to have a good time on their journey. With no dialogue, he perfectly captures our human need to find pleasant distractions from the reality of our impending demise, and the tragic knowledge that—regardless of what we do or how we do it—our existence will eventually end.
After seeing The Bicycle Thief, Sandy and Daisy discuss the social versus political implications of the film as they stumble upon an abandoned and cavernous hall just off from the beach. They are interrupted by a rapping at the window. Through the smudged glass, the ghostly form of a woman calls for Sandy. When he walks over to greet her she introduces herself as his mother, and during their chat we realize that it was actually a woman who had played his mother in one of his films. While their conversation continues, the film cuts back to a long shot of the vacant hall, with Daisy wandering alone in a far corner, seemingly forgotten. The scene is very simple, but surprisingly evocative. An intellectual discussion slowly leading into an awkward but warm reminiscence, and a vague blurring of the lines between his own life and his film life. And running through all of it, is the haunting sense that we are somehow alone in a vast space that is at once familiar and unknowable. Like many of Allen’s films through the late 70 to early 80s were—when he was collaborating with cinematographer Gordon Willis—Stardust Memories is rich with insightful imagery.
The film jumps from documentary realism to abstract flights of fancy—often within a single scene! The film is obviously auto-biographical and he consistently references his history of earlier “funnier films” in relation to more serious cinematic achievements. He isn’t making a statement so much as meditating. I can understand why people might find the film irritating, and I myself would have had it not been so well-crafted and genuine. Allen has invited us into his world. It is silly to resent an invitation; you can simply choose to decline. As Lars von Trier said so boldly to a reviewer at Cannes who demanded that he explain why he had made Antichrist: “You are all my guests. It’s not the other way around.”
I accepted Allen’s invitation and his meandering thoughts on human suffering, artistic compromise, and the search for meaning resonated with me. The ending scene, and the final shot—Sandy standing there in the vast and empty theatre after the final inches of celluloid have run past and the audience has wandered away—may seem depressing to some, but I found it strangely comforting. Why? Well, there is a sadness to the fact that all things must come to an end, but we can strive to accomplish something while we’re living. It isn’t a happy ending, but there is more to life than happiness. Much of our lives will not be happy, so it’s important to be doing something we value. Otherwise, our suffering is meaningless.
Stardust Memories (1980)
Written and Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Jessica Harper, Charlotte Rampling, Marie-Christine Barrault