“ Genre: Comedy / Theatrical Release: 1980 / Actors: Stanley Ackerman, Tony Azito, Marie-Christine Barrault, Gabriel Barre, Roy Brocksmith ... / DVD released 2000-07-05 at MGM / Features of the DVD: Black & White, DVD-Video, Widescreen, NTSC „
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Stardust Memories was written and directed by Woody Allen and first released in 1980. The film, an experimental Fellini inspired picture shot in black and white, is one of the most controversial and divisive of Allen's career. For some it was a pretentious piece of naval gazing that mocked Allen's critics and fans and for others a masterpiece and the best film he had made.
Allen himself has always maintained that Stardust Memories is one of his favourite films and that the criticisms of it were unfair.
Stardust Memories is about a famous film director called Sandy Bates who is played by Woody Allen in the film. In Stardust Memories Bates has to attend a weekend film festival held in his honour. When a dead rabbit is brought into his kitchen by his housekeeper ("I don't eat rodent!") he is overcome with a sense of mortality and reevaluates his body of work and life in general.
The film uses flashbacks and fantasy scenes and, in this loose and experimental manner, we meet the unhappy Sandy and his three very different girlfriends/ex-girlfriends and his eccentric fans who are always overflowing with praise and asking for autographs or a quick scan through their script: "Do you have a moment, please? It's a comedy based on that whole Guyana mass suicide."
As Sandy juggles these distractions he relects on his own mortality and wonders if his films will last. He wants to make serious films now but the studio and his audience can't understand why he would shun his comedic abilities. Even a visiting spaceman tells him he prefers "The early funny ones." Stardust Memories is about the gap between reputation and one's personal assessment. For Sandy, popular success means he must have failed somewhere.
Understandably perhaps, Stardust Memories was interpreted as a big whinge and swipe at Allen's critics, even his audience, in some quarters. It's hard not to think that Bates is Woody Allen sometimes. Bates feels that his more insubstantial earlier films are overpraised and that his attempts to be more serious are not understood by the studio. He also wonders what the point of anything - even art - is if he's going to die one day anyway.
Allen himself dissmissed attempts to portray Stardust Memories as autobiographical, explaining that the film was simply about a character having a breakdown and reaching a point where he was unhappy, despite success. If another actor had played Sandy Bates, which could easily have happened, would everyone be taking the film so literally?
Whatever the intention was, there is no denying that Stardust Memories is a technically brilliant and sometimes magical film over its 89 minute running time. It begins with a famous scene that is indebted to Fellini. Bates finds himself on a train with a grotesque group of strange and miserable characters. He looks across at another train where everyone seems to be beautiful and having a lavish party. A young Sharon Stone blows him a kiss through the window. Bates decides he wants to be on the other train and tries desperately to get off. However, both trains end up at the same metaphoric rubbish dump - thus expressing Sandy's philosophy of life.
It's a wonderfully arresting start to the film and revealed to be a clip from Sandy's new picture. In another clever touch the studio later change the rubbish dump to Jazz heaven because they thought it was too gloomy, much to the annoyance of Sandy. Stardust Memories has a chinese box film within a film structure which is sometimes confusing but very effective. It's more of an experience than a traditional narrative. A selection of images, montages and thoughts.
Although the subdued humour was another reason some people didn't warm to Stardust Memories, it can actually claim to be a very funny film in places. I found it included a more than satisfactory number of witty lines and jokes for an Allen film. "I took one course in existential philosophy at New York University," says Sandy in a speech. "On the final... they gave me ten questions, and, uh, I couldn't answer a single one of 'em. You know? I left 'em all blank... I got a hundred." Later, stuck in a traffic jam, Sandy asks if "The Pope" or "Some other show business figure" is in town. Told that his aftershave brings back memories of childhood in a 'Proustian' rush he replies that he's wearing "Proustian Rush by Chanel."
Stardust Memories, like most Woody Allen films, can also claim to have an interesting and unique cast. Charlotte Rampling is well used as the moody Dorrie, another character rumoured to be based on Allen's former wife Louise Lasser. Marie-Christine Barrault is also excellent as the very different Isobel and Jessica Harper as Daisy rounds off the trio of women who each represent a different type of romantic ideal. Each of the actresses has at least one stunning solo scene. Carlotte Rampling is featured in a quickly cut montage where her character seems to be in a sanitarium that is brilliantly done and Jessica Harper has a memorable telephone conversation where she confesses that she's taken Valium, Darvon and 'a pound of cookies.'
There is also a wonderful, moving moment in Stardust Memories where Sandy remembers listening to Louis Armstrong in the company of Dorrie and refelcting that this memory is one of pure happiness and contentment. "For one brief moment everything just seemed to come together perfectly and I felt happy, almost indestructible in a way."
Stardust Memories is a great film to look at. Photographer Gordon Willis does a wonderful job, especially in the fun creation of clips from Sandy's previous films. Some of these are supposed to have been silly 'early funny' ones so we get to see Allen clowning around in some of these sections. One of Sandy's films seems to be a horror spoof and the basis for Steve Martin's 'The Man With Two Brains' film of a few years later. It's nice to see Tony Roberts joining Allen for these scenes and the two have some funny banter as they look back. "I didn't have a good voice for God," says Sandy.
The film is endlessly atmospheric and interesting with an eclectic and strange jazz soundtrack chosen by Allen. Scenes where Sandy stumbles onto a UFO convention held in the country and attends his film festival are wonderfully done with spacemen, hot air balloons and distinctive, strange people deliberately cast to add to the surreal and dream like tone of the film. There is a moment in Allen's classic 'Broadway Danny Rose' where Danny and Tina get lost and end up in a strange landscape of undergrowth before stumbling across a group of people shooting a television advert with a man in a superhero costume. Stardust Memories is like an entire film shot in the strange and offbeat atmosphere created by that scene in Broadway Danny Rose.
There are also a number of beach scenes and beach scenes are always very appealing and interesting in black and white films for some reason.
I can understand how some people might find Stardust Memories pretentious but for me it's one of more unique and underrated in Allen's career. It has an excellent script, it's always interesting with its loose, surreal structure, and it looks incredible.
It's also a film that one can watch more than once and yet find something you didn't notice last time.