Stardust Memories

Marina Chavez

"You can't control life. It doesn't wind up perfectly. Only art you can control. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert." — Woody Allen as Sandy Bates, Stardust Memories

Coming after the popular and cultural successes of Annie Hall and Manhattan, Woody Allen surprised, and some say slapped, his audience with Stardust Memories, a dark little comedy about the pitfalls of fame, the pressures on a filmmaker, and, of course, the frustrations of love. Allen takes Fellini's 8 ½, adds in his trademark sarcastic humor and self-obsession, and comes up with an amusing and intelligent film. Neither audiences nor critics appreciated the harsh light he cast on their grasping for an explanation of celebrity, but 20 years later many of his insights about fame now seem dead on: the groupie breaking into his hotel room so she can sleep with him (think of Brad Pitt's and David Letterman's recent experiences), the "biggest fan" pulling a gun out and shooting him (it happened to John Lennon less than a year after the film's release), and the endless requests to read a script, attend a charity benefit, and sign an autograph. He doesn't spare himself either, for once. His Sandy Bates whines and pouts through the adoration of the masses, suffering love with all the wrong women, and cursed with the existential search for meaning — yet his saving grace is the ability to make a wise quip. Though Allen doesn't reach the classic heights of Fellini, his despairing comedy paints an apt portrait of the dark side of movie love.

Sandy Bates is a much-loved comedic filmmaker who doesn't want to make funny movies anymore. He's just finished a turgid, Bergmanesque drama that the studio heads want to give a happy ending (think Interiors). He attends a weekend retrospective of his work at a seaside resort, where the audience of loyal fans and critics have a chance to rub shoulders, ask questions, and harass a favorite filmmaker. Meanwhile, Sandy struggles with his personal and professional demons. He's involved with a married woman, Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault), who's just left her husband for him, which sets him running after Daisy (Jessica Harper), the girlfriend of a Columbia professor attending the weekend screenings. Through it all, he's haunted by the memory of Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), a beautiful-but-crazy ex-girlfriend who left him for a doctor she met in the mental hospital. The women serve as a counterpoint to the adoring masses. He tries to woo them while the fans chase him, forming a unique kind of love triangle.

After trying to convince the studio to leave his dour drama alone, answering endless ridiculous questions about his work ("why are all comedians hostile or latent homosexuals?") and smiling through the endless demands of his public, he runs away from the conference with Daisy where he chances upon a group awaiting an alien encounter. There, the threads of memory, movie clips, and hallucination come together and he's able to return to Isobel, at least for the time being, and make a commitment.

Allen uses washed-out, black-and-white cinematography and a cast of grotesques to seamlessly blend dreams and hallucinations with "reality," giving a surreal quality to the entire experience. The film balances between his comedian schtick (in the "clips" from Sandy's retrospective) and his morose meditations on human suffering. With the help of a Dixieland soundtrack (particularly Louis Armstrong's delightful rendition of "Stardust") Allen manages to bring this stark circus around to a hopeful conclusion without undercutting his trepidation at the consuming power of movies and stars. Though his familiar tangled tango with women gets a little tired, Allen brings a more satisfying and savvy perspective to the weird world in the spotlight than in his recent film Celebrity. If you've ever hungered for 15 minutes of fame, Stardust Memories may keep you in Kansas just a little bit longer.

Copyright © 2001