Lost in Place
Stardust Memories Directed by Woody Allen At the Paris
WITH Annie Hall, Woody Allen created a film for anyone who calls the New York metropolitan area "home." With Manhattan, he recreated a hilariously familiar world for those who call that stubborn borough's East Side "home." But with Stardust Memories, he has made a film for that lone neurotic New Yorker who calls Woody Allen's apartment "home." It is cold, uninviting and spiteful, a brooding flipside to Fellini's 8 1/2, a masturbating-cousin to Fosse's All That Jazz. It is autobiographical, as all his films have been autobiographical, but Stardust Memories is repulsively self-conscious, full of loathing and self-loathing. Worst of all, it's not even funny.
If this sounds like the hyperbole of extreme disappointment, of bitter frustration at the fall of a modern comic idol, it is. Stardust Memories may be funnier than one cares to admit but Allen's eighth film is certainly no comedy. It's not a tragedy either, or even a strangled drama like Interiors. It smells most like a farce, a self-pitying self-satire. It is so contemptuously intellectual that the jokes about intellectuals are not funny but ironic. "Intellectuals are like the Mafia: they only kill their own," Allen snaps, acknowledging his brand of artistic suicide. Allen was once a comic hero. But he is no longer heroic because he is no longer comic.
He makes no apologies for this plotless venture to the Stardust Hotel (the name comes from a great Louis Armstrong tune), a seaside resort where a nebbishy but successful movie director renowned for his "early comedies" is lecturing at a film symposium. The film's transparent structure is almost non-existent; Stardust Memories begins aboard a commuter train to hell (a Staten Island grabage dump?) and ends under the twinkly lights of the hotel's screening room. Along the way Allen abandons coherence, chronology, and even comic timing. He jumps between love affairs, fantasies, and his distorted sense of reality--his memories--with frightening alacrity. Like a night when the nightmares refuse to end, Allen can't shield his eyes from the suffering around him but refuses to fix his gaze on any one element of pain long enough somehow to understand it.
FROM THE ABSURD MURAL-SIZED photos on his plush apartment's walls (a blow-up of the famous 1968 Saigon street execution turns the victim's head into a grimacing window) to the tiny pain-pricks of romance (buying lunch for screaming kids), Allen's split-version of suffering remains the same: On the one hand, he inarticulately asserts the need to end human suffering; on the other, he has a fierce desire to sprint blindly into the open arms of a beautiful woman. With no resolution of this dilemma at hand, and unable to make a choice and stick to it, Allen muddles through his inner torment. He turns his attention from suffering to death and from death to all his old themes: sex, religion, beauty, driving, California and cooking. It's predictable comedy the worst kind. Allen seems to be questioning both the limits to his own talent (which once seemed limitless) and the scope of a single man's life (which once seemed immeasurable). But Peggy Lee didn't need 72 minutes of celluloid to sing "Is That All There Is?"
Even as he rehashes old jokes and scenes that worked better in his "early comedies," however, Allen introduces another chapter in his saga of the suffering human. He is baffled by public condemnation of his attempts to be serious. He understands the emptiness of unfulfilled expectations better than anyone, yet he refuses to sympathize with members of his audience who clamor for more comedy. With the same twisted reasoning, he thrives on the perks that accompany his celebrity but wants adulation only from a distance. His fame chokes him; he depicts his claustrophobia with several wide-angled tracking shots that subtly distort the faces of his fans until all seem ugly and deformed. "Just write," says an autograph seeker, "'To Phyllis Bernstein, you unfaithful lying bitch.'"
Somewhere in Stardust Memories' first 20 minutes, Allen abandons any pretense of romantic comedy, venting his despair over the state of the world with no more than a hint of warmth or humor. He is angry that he feels compelled to wear dark glasses; in one fantastic episode, Allen chases his Hostility, which has escaped to ravage the countryside. The jokes are here, but Allen ignores them. He is too intent on baring his soul. Eager to make his audience uncomfortable, his distracted view of reality instead makes us feel unwanted.
IN MANY WAYS, STARDUST MEMORIES is just another bad showbiz memoir: Behind the scenes with Woody; On the set with Woody; In bed with Woody; Despair with a Woody; Death with Woody, chapter after chapter of intimate details, full of frustration with the medium, anger at the critics and fans, tempestuous words spilled over mundane problems. He does act--his life changes--but we never see the changes occur. He marks the passing of time by the various women who warm to his gentle nudging.
Allen treats these women poorly, a surprising twist after his affairs with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Manhattan. Three women sub for Keaton in Stardust Memories, and while each is superb, their roles are strangely limiting. Charlotte Rampling, a beautiful cross between Lauren Hutton and Lauren Bacall, plays Keaton opposite Allen's Allen. In one tortuous montage of second long takes, her teary face flashes over and over, unable to finish a sentence, to complete a thought, to cry. She is the troubled object of Allen's obsessions, and though we learn her past, and even her future, she remains enigmatic. Marie-Christine Barrault creates a sensual French Bovary and Jessica Harper plays a weird, attractive bisexual, but both serve merely as foils for Allen's musings on love, sex and the beauty of women.
Much about Stardust Memories, even the ugliness, is beautiful. Having passed through his Brown period (Interiors), Allen emerges in his Black & White period as a spectacular director who masterfully designs long takes and exciting compositions. He enjoys the metaphorical blank screeen, toys with soundtrack blasts and whispers with the control of a superb cinematic technician. One shot, a wide landscape that turns Allen's dancing silhouette into a contemporary fiddler on the roof, is absolutely gorgeous. Allen's expert eye and ear are matched by the steady hand of Gordon Willis (who shot Manhattan) behind the camera.
BACK AND FORTH ALLEN wanders between life and art, between comedy and drama. He is making a transition, but he himself seems unsure precisely where he wants to go. He experiments with tastelessness (jokes about Guyana, rape and human lampshades). He steals from his own short stories, and even from Interiors. But he can't seem to find what he's looking for. "Doesn't he know he has the greatest gift anyone could have, the gift of laughter?" says a critic. "I don't feel funny," responds Woody. "I look around the world and all I see is human suffering." "Tell funnier jokes," demand the critics, "too much reality is not what the people want." "Yeah, but I've got to find meaning," insists Woody, as if his jokes have no "meaning." It's a shame, but the fantasy-worlds of his "early comedies" held more meaning than all the self-important intellectualizing of Stardust Memories.