One of the interesting things about a great work of art is how, upon re-experience a) it holds up and/or b) deepens into something even better. From the first time I saw Woody Allen’s 88-minute black-and-white 1980 effort Stardust Memories (made early on in Woody’s Golden Era of 1977-1992) on a VHS tape, I knew I was watching one of the greatest films ever made.
In the following years – after 12-15 rewatchings of the film (progressing to DVD) – nothing has changed my mind in that regard. Not even the red herring of linking Allen’s film to Federico Fellini’s 1963 opus 8½. Having just rewatched Stardust Memories, I can state not only that it is one of the greatest films ever made, but arguably Allen’s greatest film (though fans of Another Woman and Crimes and Misdemeanors may have a case). It is also definitely a better film than Fellini’s – which is only arguably a great film – for its humor, concision, and lack of pretension.
The reason for the greatness of Stardust Memories can be summed up in one phrase: fear of failure. That is what holds the outer film (and its reality into the world) together, whereas the fear of success is an integral part of the film’s inner world.
Let me explain. The fear of failure is one of the most important things any artist, especially the great ones, can have. Why? Because it kills the ego, thus spurring the artist to innovate and try new techniques to keep their art ahead of the curve. Without such a fear, artists grow fat and sassy, and lose the demiurge to create, or at least to challenge themselves and their audiences.
Need proof? Just think of the vast majority of aging artists, but most especially those who were once great. How many aging musicians and rock groups have never been able to equal their greatest early hits? How many writers have penned bloated egotistical tomes that are pallid reflections of an earlier work? How many visual artists have bled dry the one nugget they made their name on? And one need only look at the dozen or more films that Allen himself has made since his Golden Era ended – mostly lesser reworks of themes his greater films tackled better. Like many before him, Allen has settled into the Old Artist Syndrome, just coasting on his laurels – considerable though they may be.
It is the fear of failure that gets into the great artist and makes him experiment and risk failure. Stardust Memories is one of the most experimental films of all time – in its screenplay, its visuals, its humor, its use of time and reality, as well as its ability to question the very notion of the artist and the self. Most great works of art are lucky to tackle a single one of these aspects in a new manner.
Yet, while the fear of failure dominates the essence of the film in the real world, it is also the very core of the film within. The lead characters are all obsessed with failing. Some try to grow and are slapped down by the powers that be. Some give in to their own fears. Some are so timid they do nothing at all, and some try to change, only to make asses of themselves. And it is this fact, this inner examination of the fear of failure that provoked such a hostile reaction from almost every critic upon the film’s release nearly three decades ago.
There were the disingenuous comparisons (almost all negative) to the aforementioned Fellini classic, which were compounded by the hostility to the very idea of questioning the self. Let me give you a sample of what I mean by using some of the things Roger Ebert, the most well known television and newspaper film critic in the country (both then and now) said in his 1980 review:
“The movie begins by acknowledging its sources of visual inspiration. We see a claustrophobic Allen trapped in a railroad car (that’s from the opening of 8½, with Marcello Mastroianni trapped in an auto), and the harsh black-and-white lighting and the ticking of a clock on the sound track give us a cross-reference to the nightmare that opens Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Are these the exact scenes Allen had in mind? Probably, but no matter; he clearly intends Stardust Memories to be his 8½, and it develops as a portrait of the artist’s complaints.”
This paragraph opens Ebert’s review, and in it he already summarizes the gripes I mention, negatively biasing an astute film lover against the film. While the reference to the Fellini opening is apt, the Bergman comparison is not, as the scenes do not match up. It’s about as apt as comparing any sci-fi space opera’s shots of a spaceship cruising along as an homage to the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where we first see the ship Discovery One. In other words, it’s a generic comparison implying that there is nothing original in the scene, and doubly so.
Then we get Ebert’s further linkage of Allen’s films with the overarching posit of Fellini’s film as “a portrait of the artist’s complaints”. Yet, as Stardust Memories progresses, we see that Allen’s work is nothing like that. In fact, whereas Fellini’s film ends resignedly, with life never able to equal art, Allen’s film ends on an utterly positive note, portraying the total triumph of art over life by way of the former’s ability to supplement and better the latter.
Ebert then claims Stardust Memories is yet another reworking of Allen’s relationships with women, as earlier films like Annie Hall and Manhattan. However, he fails to see that this is only superficially so, for Stardust Memories uses the main character’s sexual relations merely as a device to propel a deeper introspection that Allen’s earlier films barely touch upon.
Ebert writes: “The subjects blend into the basic complaint of the Woody Allen persona we have come to know and love, and can be summarized briefly: If I’m so famous and brilliant and everybody loves me, then why doesn’t anybody in particular love me?”
Still, the main character has love and adulation aplenty, both in private and public, so Ebert is really missing out on the very antithesis of the film’s essence – which is the art and what it can lead to, not the things it can bring (love, sex, fame, etc.).
Then Ebert goes on into an astonishing misreading of Stardust Memories:
“At the film seminar, the Allen character is constantly besieged by groupies. They come in all styles: pathetic young girls who want to sleep with him, fans who want his autograph, weekend culture vultures, and people who spend all their time at one event promoting the next one they’re attending. Allen makes his point early, by shooting these unfortunate creatures in close-up with a wide-angle lens that makes them all look like Martians with big noses. They add up to a nightmare, a nonstop invasion of privacy, a shrill chorus of people whose praise for the artist is really a call for attention.
“Fine, except what else does Allen have to say about them? Nothing. In the Fellini film, the director-hero was surrounded by sycophants, business associates, would-be collaborators, wives, mistresses, old friends, all of whom made calls on his humanity. In the Allen picture, there’s no depth, no personal context: They’re only making calls on his time.”
Well, this is true, but only to a certain extent. The reason for it is the following: the lead in the Fellini film (Marcello Mastroianni) was a damaged and unwhole individual, whereas the lead in the Allen film (Allen) is the opposite. The people about him are the ones who are leeching off of him precisely because he “has it together” and they do not. In other words, Ebert simply does not like the situation Allen presents because he sees a superficial resemblance to the Fellini film and is unable to grasp that Allen’s aim is not a repetition of Fellini’s, but both a subversion and an extension of it.
Mastroianni’s character’s friends do make calls on his humanity, but 8½ clearly shows that’s an area the character may be lacking in for he is a definite narcissist and a borderline sociopath. The Allen character is neither of these things. He is a great artist within the world of Allen’s film, evidenced by the snippets of that character’s films, whereas the bits of the Mastroianni character’s films are clearly something that makes one question if that character really still “has it.”
Ebert’s “analysis” then totally derails, likely because of his utter misreading of Stardust Memories:
“What’s more, the Fellini character was at least trying to create something, to harass his badgered brain into some feeble act of thought. But the Allen character expresses only impotence, despair, uncertainty, discouragement. All through the film, Allen keeps talking about diseases, catastrophes, bad luck that befalls even the most successful. Yes, but that’s what artists are for: to hurl their imagination, joy, and conviction into the silent maw. Sorry if I got a little carried away.”
First, Allen’s character, Sandy Bates, is trying to create a film – the one that opens Stardust Memories – and it seems a good one. His inner angst is that studio heads will take the film away and butcher it. We see his creation goes well beyond the Mastroianni character’s; even so, Ebert’s fails to mention it. He sees the whole arc and point of Allen’s film as a rehash of earlier Allen works: “the basic complaint of the Woody Allen persona we have come to know and love, and can be summarized briefly: If I’m so famous and brilliant and everybody loves me, then why doesn’t anybody in particular love me?”
So, if Ebert cannot get even that correctly, is it any wonder that he – and many even lesser critics – so totally botched their critiques of this great film? Additionally, Ebert shows he has a fundamental misunderstanding of what art is and what purpose it serves. Art merely illumines the wisdom of life by condensing it from ponderous philosophy into forms that are simultaneously more accessible to the more intuitively intellectual aspects of the mind, while satisfying the emotional aspects of the self that desire entertainment. Ebert’s definition buys into the Joseph Campbellian “Heroic Artist Hokum” that has long been disproved.
“Stardust Memories inspires that kind of frustration, though, because it’s the first Woody Allen film in which impotence has become the situation rather than the problem. This is a movie about a guy who has given up.”
Apparently he did not watch the last two minutes of the film that totally subvert Ebert’s claim, which itself is based on the fallacy that Stardust Memories depicts impotence - yet another example of Ebert trying to link the film to earlier works in the Allen canon – without any rationale for it, save his own misreading.
He ends his review thus:
“Stardust Memories is a disappointment. It needs some larger idea, some sort of organizing force, to pull together all these scenes of bitching and moaning, and make them lead somewhere.”
As stated, the larger idea is utterly missed by Ebert because he commits the one fundamental flaw of criticism from which there is neither recovery nor pardon: he has reviewed not the work of art that the artist has presented, but a work of art that the critic had hoped that the artist had presented, thus finding flaws not in the art itself but in what the art is not. It is like criticizing an elephant for not having a long neck like a giraffe because the zoo guide went from the giraffe cage to the elephant cage, and told the zoogoers that the elephant was the larger animal – meaning in mass – whereas the critic took it “larger” to mean simply “taller.” As one can easily see, when such a situation occurs, the fault lies not with the zoo guide or his words, but with the inapt expectations of the zoogoer. See how difficult it is for great art to emerge when dealing with Lowest Common Denominator expectations and minds?
Let me now examine the narrative of Stardust Memories. In the film, Allen plays comedian-turned-film director Sandy Bates, whose life is on parade for him when he is invited to a film festival at the Stardust Hotel in Atlantic City. The early part of the film deals with Bates’ dealing with annoying fans (who seem as living grotesques from a Medieval woodcut), studio executives who want to bastardize his latest film (to dumb it down like his “early, funnier” ones), as well as his constant memory of a former psychotic actress girlfriend named Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling, above).
As the film progresses we learn that Dorrie is now married and living in Hawaii, but suffered from many ills, including sexual abuse, anorexia (Rampling is far thinner in this role than elsewhere), and mental problems. There is an especially brilliant and devastating scene of Dorrie greeting (presumably) Bates, when he visits her at an asylum. Allen jump-cuts her greetings (twitchy and laden with tics), seductions (“There’s a doctor here who thinks I’m beautiful”), spurnings (“You look thin”), and speeches in several-second interviews, thus showing the fragmentation of her mind.
In a similarly bravura way, the interior of Bates’ mind is represented by the images that appear on his Manhattan apartment’s walls. It constantly changes to suit the tenor of his mood and the subject of the moment. Once at the resort, Bates deals with hangers-on and sycophantic fans, but finds himself attracted to Daisy (Jessica Harper, right), a young bisexual cellist with a history of drugs. Soon after, his current girlfriend – an ex-Radical from France, Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) – arrives by train. Her two young children come not much later. Isobel has left her husband, and Sandy has mixed feelings about this, at first professing to want to marry her right away, and then changing his mind.
What follows are several scenes at and away from the festival, among them Sandy watching the neo-realist Italian classic Bicycle Thieves; meeting extraterrestrials who question his sexual choices and tell him if he wants to help the world to “tell funnier jokes” (one of the sagest bits of advice ever filmed); visiting his sister and her health-challenged husband; watching his chauffeur arrested for mail fraud; and sitting through a recut Hollywood ending of his film, where his characters go to Jazz Heaven.
Bates winds up either in jail, dead, or simply shot, and uttering Dorrie’s name when he wakes in Isobel’s care. She takes her children and heads for the first train out of town, with Bates in pursuit. He chases her down, tells her of his new ending for his film, they kiss, and the film ends, with it being revealed that what we just saw was really Sandy Bates (or another filmmaker who is a ringer for Bates – or Allen) playing his latest film for an audience full of many of the people whom we’ve just seen. As they exit the hall at the Stardust Hotel, they gossip of the filmmaking and the film itself. With the room emptied, we see the filmmaker (played by Allen) walk in, look about, and exit as the screen goes dark, save for the lights at the upper periphery of the hall.
Such touches, until the final scene, separate Stardust Memories from lesser films, even those by masters of cinema that Allen is always being accused of ripping off. Allen’s work holds up under rewatch because it is brimming with artistic and pop cultural touches that are easily missed upon first watch. Among them are some cameos by actors who later gained fame, the most well known being Sharon Stone’s film debut – first within the Sandy Bates film that opens the movie, as a young woman on the happy train on a different rail than the train Allen/Bates is on. She blows a kiss and leaves a lipstick print on the railroad car window. Later, she reappears, presumably as a different character, and blows another kiss to Bates at the UFO landing site, as she sits in an old car.
The very use of the same actress in different scenes, in different ways, shows that Bates, within the film, is thinking of multiple levels of reality, even as Allen – the real filmmaker – adds a final level when he has Bates or himself close the exterior film as revealing the whole prior film was just a “film within a film.” This motif is followed with the repetitive appearance of other minor characters and actors, most notable Brent Spiner (later the android Data in the Star Trek universe). Spiner first appears as a miserable passenger on the sad train that the Bates character opens the film on, and reappears as a fan in Atlantic City, who snaps a photo of Bates while on a payphone.
Other appearances that make for neat cameos are Laraine Newman, from the original Saturday Night Live cast, as one of Bates’ studio handlers, and Allen’s ex-wife, Louise Lasser, who was then best known for he starring role in the late-night Norman Lear soap opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
Another recurring touch is how the back wall of Bates’ apartment reflects the mood he is in when recalling something from the past. One time, when in political angst, we see a reprint of the Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Eddie Adams that shows a South Vietnamese military officer blow out the brains of a captured Vietcong thug. When Bates is happy, there is a photo of Groucho Marx on the wall, and when Dorrie angrily accuses Bates of flirting with her pretty 14-year-old cousin there are newspaper headlines about incest that cover the wall.
Also, with all the constant references to Fellini and Bergman, little noticed is a throwaway reference to Roman Polanski’s 1965 horror film Repulsion, wherein Bates’ personal cook ruins a rabbit dinner and we see the dead animal on a plate – signaling the possible deterioration of his mind like that of the lead character Polanski’s film.
There are two other truly stand-out moments. The first is when Isobel is in her and Bates’ hotel room, as they are preparing to sleep. He proposes to her while she is making bizarre faces during an exercise regimen. It is both real and hilarious. Then there is a moment when it is believed Bates has been shot by a stalking fan. He seemingly dies, giving a posthumous speech at the hotel, wherein he describes the one moment that almost made his life worth living. The song “Stardust,” by Louis Armstrong, plays in the background, as Bates and Dorrie lounge in his apartment. She’s flipping through a magazine, lying on the floor, and a spring breeze blows into the apartment as Bates longs for her. She looks up and sees him eyeing her; she smiles, all the while displaying a wide plenum of emotions without a word spoken, which perfectly matches Bates’ description of what he sensed.
The DVD, by MGM, has few extras, as is de rigueur with Allen’s films. It comes in two versions – a standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio and a letterbox 1.85:1 ratio. No commentary is included, although the original theatrical trailer is presented. There is also a small four- page booklet of trivia on the film.
On the positive side, the film’s transfer is gorgeous. Over the years, Allen has done several black-and-white films, with Manhattan getting the lion’s share of praise, but given the Manhattan architecture that’s sort of faint praise. In Stardust Memories, the cinematography by the great Gordon Willis is more daring and memorable, as is the risky editing job done by Susan Morse. One great long single shot when Isobel first arrives, shows her walking down a long street toward Bates, following her till they meet. Then the camera backs up to reveal their conversation and eternal interruption by fans. That sequence is worthy of being placed in the pantheon of all-time great single takes, not merely for its technical skill but because it fully embodies the film’s tying together of the personal and impersonal, trivial and deep, in a way that recapitulates the dialogue while also expanding upon it.
That sequence forces the viewer to think about what has just gone on, as does another brief vignette, where Bates sees a younger version of himself with his mother on the beach. He’s dressed in a superhero outfit made of pajamas when, out of nowhere, he takes off into flight like Superman. This is a perfect example of a moment that embodies the Negative Capability that great artists exhibit. On the surface, the scene seems a throwaway, but in the context of the moment it occurs – Bates is stressed out – it makes perfect sense. That it is only one of a couple dozen such moments I could mention shows how great Stardust Memories is. And all of this is marshaled together by Allen’s own great screenplay, which ebbs into and out of the past like the greatest films of Fellini or Theo Angelopoulos, mirroring the way characters walk in and out of shots.
Add to that the fact that Stardust Memories skewers with deadly accuracy not only itself and its creator, but also human relationships on all levels and celebrity culture. (Bates’ near murder by an obsessed fan eerily presaged the killing of John Lennon a short while later.) The film also has one of the best soundtracks ever – not just in terms of song choices, but in the actual placement of each song.
As I’ve explained, many critics utterly missed the boat on this masterpiece, and some to an even more embarrassing degree than Roger Ebert. Like him, they often focused on elements extraneous to Stardust Memories: their own cultural and personal biases, rather than looking at the film through a more objective filter that valued art for (yes, you know it) art’s sake.
Great art perdures whereas culture is a whimsical thing. Something lauded one year becomes déclassé the next, and vice versa. But the elements that constitute a great work of art remain – excellence of craft, a deeper revelation of reality (especially if it refers to something the audience presumes to already know, in this case, Allen’s own personae and politics), and a broad appeal to the intellectual as well as the emotional sides of a viewer.
Too often, poor art strives to hit just one of those aspects. If it gets too intellectual it often becomes pretentious and didactic. If it shoots merely for the emotional it becomes maudlin and predictable. Stardust Memories succeeds on maintaining a balance: it is one of the most intellectually challenging films ever made and it’s also one of the most humorously entertaining. It deals with the nonsense that other human beings can recognize, while asking deep questions. For instance, when Sandy Bates is approached by an old (and envious) pal with whom he used to play stickball, Bates says that their fortunes were largely determined by luck – a fearful thing for it means an utter lack of control in life. Yet, bates delivers this bit of knowledge so thoughtfully and empathetically that his old pal seems relieved, even happy, despite the fact that Bates and we, the audience, know that that character is doomed to a meaningless existence.
It is just such moments, delivered so matter of factly, that are often missing in lesser films. Watch Stardust Memories a few times, and it is like watching a different film each time – in the best sense of the notion. There really is nothing more to say, is there?
© Dan Schneider
Stardust Memories (1980). Dir. / Scr.: Woody Allen. Cast: Woody Allen, Charlotte Rampling, Marie-Christine Barrault, Jessica Harper, Tony Roberts, Daniel Stern, Amy Wright.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.