Stardust Memories (1980)

Woody Allen | 1hr 29min

He was ten movies deep into his career built on neurotic comedy, riding a wave of popularity defined by his resounding successes Annie Hall and Manhattan, and then Woody Allen made this – a scathingly existential and autobiographical deconstruction of fame and artistic purpose, which came and went in the eyes of the public with little fanfare. Stardust Memories was not what people were expecting from him at the time, though years later he would claim it as his best work, and steadily its reputation has begun to approach its deserved status as one of his most accomplished films.

In its early scenes one might draw comparisons to Sullivan’s Travels in the framing of a comedic director looking to work on something a little more serious and sombre than his traditional fare, though Allen himself has noted he had not seen the Preston Sturges film at the time of making this. A far more apt parallel is Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, not just in its self-referential subject matter, but in its suffocatingly surreal string of images working to trap an overwhelmed director in a culture that has its own mind made up about his life’s trajectory.

Allen skilfully blending the boundaries between life and art in such surreal imagery as this.

And much like the traffic jam scene that opens 8 ½, the first scene of Stardust Memories sticks its own lonely director, Sandy Bates, in a crowded, inescapable vehicle, introducing the underlying metaphor that runs through the rest of the film. As he sits on a train waiting to depart the station, he catches the eye of a woman on a neighbouring carriage, who flirtatiously kisses the window in his direction. The passive, zombie-like stares of his fellow passengers burn into him as he hammers at the doors and windows, trying to reach that woman, all the while the train whisks him away from the target of his yearning desire.

An entirely silent surreal opening paralleling Fellini’s 8 1/2, the first of many comparisons between the two movies.

It is clear who these nameless, expressionless men and women are meant to stand in for once we properly delve into the film’s narrative. All around Sandy, fans and journalists clamour over him with bizarre requests, questions, and statements, most of which are impossible to respond to. One man hands him a script his son wrote intended to be a “spoof on jockeys.” Another claims that he “can prove that if there’s life anywhere in the universe they will have a Marxist economy,” with remarkable confidence. “I was a Caesarian,” yet another states quite plainly. “That’s great,” replies Sandy. What else is there to say, really?

Allen continues to return to his first person POV shots all through these scenes, filling them with overzealous crowds peering enthusiastically right down the lens. Even beyond the masses of people, the overwhelming architecture of the Stardust Hotel continues to dominate compositions and obstruct characters, in one scene blocking Sandy out entirely as a man shakes hand protruding from behind a wall.

An entire conversation unfolding with Sandy blocked from view completely by the protruding wall.

Allen’s collaboration with cinematographer Gordon Willis has always been an important one, but here in Stardust Memories it is absolutely key to the diminution of Sandy’s stature beneath this constant onslaught of chaos, as well as the slightly more expressionistic divorce from reality than his typical black-and-white film. The subtle darkness of the narrative manifests intermittently throughout the film in the empty silhouettes of its characters, as well as at one point in a montage of critics delivering scathing reviews set against pitch black backgrounds. Sadly, the answers that Sandy craves are not to be found here.

More expressionistic than your average Woody Allen film, with silhouettes and shadows running throughout. This is from Gordon Willis, the cinematographer who shot The Godfather movies, and it absolutely shows.
Early on a barrage of scathing criticisms delivered in a darkly lit montage.

It is rather in the surreal blend of life and art, whereby one represents a larger, heightened version of the other, that he strives to find a common purpose in both. At least in the various women who come and go in Sandy’s life (perhaps mirroring the women of La Dolce Vita) he finds some companionship and understanding. In a flashback to his meeting of a previous lover, Dorrie, he spots her standing isolated beneath a large, overbearing mural, both overshadowed by and reflected in the art around her. Instantly, he recognises a shared pain between them.

The introduction of Dorrie in a fantastic composition, shrunken beneath the imposing piece of art painted behind her.

In more comedic moments, formal boundaries of narrative logic are pushed to great effect, as in one scene that may or may not come from one of Sandy’s movies where he encounters a group of aliens, and poses them grand philosophical mysteries which they cannot answer. It is ultimately when he arrives at his most pressing question about himself that his own position in a meaningless universe begins to take form.

“If nothing lasts why am I bothering to make films or do anything, for that matter?”

“We enjoy your films, particularly the early, funny ones.”

You can’t understate the influence of Antonioni on Stardust Memories, as Allen uses architecture to frame, divide, and obstruct his characters, creating a setting of isolation and disillusionment. Certainly one of his finest achievements in mise-en-scéne in his long, illustrious career.

Perhaps this is what provides the motivation for the final few minutes of the film then, in which personal and professional fulfilment meld together in a reflection of the opening scene, though this time with Sandy willingly riding the train in whatever direction it takes him. Suddenly we cut to a movie theatre audience applauding, having just watched everything we did, and in a starkly contrasted response to their earlier disparaging reactions there at least seems to be more thoughtful discussions.

There may be a slightly capitulation to populist sentiment in Sandy’s creation, though it is somewhat ironic that Stardust Memories is clearly not a film dedicated to audiences looking for easy entertainment. For those artists such as Sandy who place at least part of their self-worth in how much they are loved, the act of creation implies a question of who it is for – a question which Allen beautifully draws out with surreal, contemplative devotion to the act itself.

A perfect shot to end the film – still isolated, yet content.

Stardust Memories is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes.

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