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Dorothy Leon, Woody Allen

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Stardust Memories

Twenty-five years later…

By Richard Armstrong

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    Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) is 25 years old this year. It was a warm Sunday evening in north London in July 1989 when it aired in the Moviedrome slot on BBC2 and I first saw it. I was fishing around for a videocassette when a knock on the door startled me. I answered it and leaning against the wall was Siobhán, the Irish girl from Flat 1. She had been out drinking with her brother, had lost her key and needed a place to crash for a while. She looked as embarrassed at this turn of events as I was taken aback. After staring at each other for a moment, I let her in, pointed at the bed and said something about coffee. She mumbled a decline, thanked me with a wan smile and, aside from the odd whimper, I never heard another sound out of her. Musky scent and cigarette smoke wafted in the air as the door closed and this disheveled woman flopped onto the bed. I switched off the light and switched the television on.
    Stardust Memories appeared in 1980. Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) had consolidated Allen’s reputation with the bookish liberal fanbase with which he had become associated during the ‘70s and which, during the ‘80s, would traipse back and forth to every new Allen release. I would be among them and had already traced his evolution from Manhattan to Hannah and her Sisters (1986), and Radio Days (1987). Another Woman (1988) and my first serious relationship lay on the horizon. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) would salve the pain. For audiences and critics in 1980, Stardust Memories was Allen’s most difficult film yet, a challenging, allusive excursus on the creative intellect prompted by box office kudos and full of the Freudianism and in-joking that Allen had made his own. Reflexive and interior, Stardust Memories echoed the postwar European art cinema that Allen’s own generation had been brought up on. But it made few concessions to its ‘80s audience. Only the most hardcore Allen completist could get anything out of this one, seemingly. With the sound down low, I watched and waited, agog…
    At the center of Stardust Memories are the thoughts of Woody Allen’s character Sandy Bates, a celebrated film director attending a far-flung festival of his work, conflicted over his next film, unable to choose between the women in his life. Images and events push its protagonist first in this direction, then in that. If Allen's trademark attitude charts contemporary existential malaise, Stardust Memories is possibly his most convoluted, complex, many would say self indulgent film. For some, it was a mess.
    You remember the film the way you remember a dream. By turns, it makes sense, makes no sense, its imagery overloaded, underfilled, utilitarian. It lingers not as story, plot, succession, but as fragments, contingency, mishmash. star005.JPGWatching it that night was difficult. Not so much because there was a good-looking redhead lying unconscious and vulnerable on the bed behind me. But because the normal moviegoer’s acculturated desire to follow the movie was being waylaid minute by minute by strange faces, curious exchanges, distracting tunes. I have seen Stardust Memories many times since that night, but to think about it now is still to find scenes and sounds crowding in on me. Only the music seems to bring periodic order. The Tin Pan Alley songbook represented by Allen’s work is renowned. Here a delicious soundtrack—Django Reinhardt’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” Mussorgsky’s “Night on a Bare Mountain,” Jazz Heaven’s “Three Little Words,” Dick Hyman’s “Hebrew School Rag,” Louis Armstrong’s “Stardust”—confers sonorous continuity on discrete, fragmented, maddening episodes.
    Mirroring Sandy’s apoplexy, the film seems to revel in confusion. It begins in a Hollywood screening room where Sandy’s latest film, the comic director’s earnest attempt at a serious statement, is being previewed, and scorned, by executives and critics. Faces huddle into the camera as judgment is passed: “Well, I thought it was terrible...Sea gulls! Dead cars!...He has no balance left…garbage!…He’s pretentious. His filming style is too fancy. His insights are shallow and morbid. I’ve seen it all before. They try to document their private suffering and fob it off as art.” Just as it is easy to see Allen in Sandy, this scene seems, in hindsight, to predict what is to come. In release after release, Allen celebrated cinephilia and the contract it afforded him and his audience. But for Chris Auty in London’s Time Out in December 1980 Stardust Memories seemed to celebrate the death of cinema itself. Auty wrote: “Woody Allen, for the first time, pisses on the integrity of his audience and their world.” The oft-cited critical comparison with Fellini’s (1963) was certainly to be felt in the seaside setting—“little old decaying hotels and awnings” (Sandy)—the conflicted genius, and the constant human carnival. But the allusiveness was not enough for me. I was perplexed by the continual segue from the objective to the subjective, actuality to memory, reality to dream, as Sandy contemplates his existence while the carnival becomes increasingly bizarre and hectoring around him. Stardust Memories is a cacophony of voices from movie executives to UFO spotters, fans to psychoanalysts, visiting aliens to Sandy’s relatives. Only Woody Allen could get an analyst to quote a movie producer. The faces in this film are extraordinary. Shot in monochrome chiaroscuro by Gordon Willis, the Bergmanesque scene on the train at the end of Sandy’s film finds a succession of gargoyles reminiscent of German expressionism. Allen is habitually taken with odd faces. Here you detect the legacy of countless rides on the New York subway as Editor Susan E. Morse cuts from the dejected to the moon-faced to the tearful. What are the implications for Allen’s audience? Fans jostle the Great Man everywhere. One wants him to sponsor a screenplay on the Guyana mass suicide cult. Another tells him of his origin as a caesarean. Another wants him to sign her left breast. Another fetches up in his hotel room with chocolate brownies and hash on the side: “because I didn’t know how much you took.”

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Charlotte Rampling, Woody Allen

    And what about these women? Stardust Memories is a portrait of the artist as interior. Other characters become projections of this inner consciousness. But the more I see Stardust Memories the less engaging this process renders his women. Indeed, Allen seems to reserve a special kind of contempt for his women. Odd, unpredictable, thoroughly other to a mind with no time for them, the fans are a parade of grotesques. Conversely, his women are shorn of the very otherness that might even make them grotesque, let alone curious and interesting. We never see them independently of Sandy’s perceptions of them. As people, the women are absent. And the more I see Stardust Memories the more real that fact becomes. While the sense of limbo, Bakhtinian holiday, at the Hotel Stardust may seem refreshing—a reason to air the movie on a summer night—Sandy’s exchanges with his women seem increasingly stale, business as usual, the further I get from that summer night. The moments when Allen’s perennial interest in magic is showcased exemplify the elision of the woman. At one point, Daisy (Jessica Harper) becomes the imagined subject of Sandy’s levitation act and we see him pass a hoop around her supine body in a field. Elsewhere, we see Sandy as a boy kiss Sandy-the-man’s lover Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) on a beach as she gives him his birthday presents. The boy then runs out of the frame and Sandy the man comes back into the picture. When we are introduced to Dorrie, it is via her disembodied voice. Following a skirmish with press agents, accountants, his manager, his cook, Sandy is startled by her voice—“What are you thinking about when you look out there?”—as though Dorrie’s voice is nothing more than a product of Sandy’s thoughts. Later in the same exchange, she tells him that she has stopped taking lithium because she doesn’t think it does her any good. His reply—“You’re wrong. ‘Cause I notice the difference”—defines her interiority according to his perceptions. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Dorrie is seen in a series of jump cut close-ups in a psychiatric ward. Haggard and confused, her words are tightly framed by the image and its duration on screen. It is a sequence in which the director generously lends Rampling the stage for a telling rehearsal of mental breakdown. Although we are seeing her through his eyes as she speaks direct to camera. In a later ‘beauty shot’ we see Dorrie lying reading a magazine on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the camera marveling at Rampling’s face. As always, the perspective is Sandy’s sitting nearby. During successive viewings, the frivolity of admiring a woman’s looks when that person is in such inner distrait seems increasingly juvenile. We hardly see this woman in and for herself. Sandy describes a “strange quality” that he detects in Dorrie. Daisy reminds him of somebody else: “there’s some kind of odd…sense that I have.” Could these be intimations of these women’s status as sovereign individuals? Only when we see Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) brushing her hair and then doing exercises to tone her facial muscles, is the beauty treatment complemented by some sense of how this person might be when she is alone with herself. Confronted with these tantalizing people, we scarcely ever feel that we actually meet them. They remain figures in a dream, triggers for Sandy’s emotions.

    Woody Allen’s movies famously showcase young actresses. Annie Hall showcased Diane Keaton. Manhattan showcased the arriving Mariel Hemingway. Hannah and her Sisters showcased Dianne Wiest, while ‘80s Allen copiously did the same for Mia Farrow. Husbands and Wives (Juliette Lewis); Mighty Aphrodite (Mira Sorvino); Melinda and Melinda (Radha Mitchell, 2004): but these films have broader canvases. More open to the world, they could afford their women more generous remits to be people after their own lights. You guessed that Annie Hall and Mary in Manhattan had lives before the Allen character met them. While Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite (1996) certainly had, Allen’s ageing academic agonizes over his student Rain’s precocious sex life in Husbands and Wives (1992).

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    By comparison, the unabashed auteur showcase Stardust Memories feels remote from the world. Yet, paradoxically, thinking about these women begins to diminish the arty exclusivity. Even given the film’s self-conscious artiness, the women actually fit traditional remits. Isobel is warm and fecund and surrounded by her children. Allen’s one concession to her sexual identity—“I hope you’ve brought your little white cotton socks”—infantilizes her just as he would infantilize Farrow in film after film. (And women have been infantilized by male auteurs since Gish and Griffith). Daisy is a concert violinist, but the image is of the everlasting student, sweet and bohemian. Dorrie is the crazy femme fatale. “You like that—these dark woman with all her problems”, blurts level-headed Isobel, her broken English oddly isolating that sense in which Allen at his most absurd confuses the general with the particular when it comes to women. Arthouse intents aside, these stereotypes render Stardust Memories more conventional, more mainstream. Even in the arthouse, one cannot escape the patriarchal doodads of the mainstream. Being models for womanhood, these women make us more susceptible to Allen’s preconceptions and prejudices. Such stereotyped women have wide application in Allen’s work. But the years ahead saw in Hannah, Crimes and Misdemeanors, September (1987), Another Woman, Alice, Husbands and Wives, more nuanced portraits and an engagement with the world that amounts by comparison to the beginnings of a political cinema. Indeed, castigating the “Greed is Good” era, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Alice (1990) particularly, saw Allen come a long way from Sandy’s dismissing Daisy’s plea for Bicycle Thieves’ social import.

    In dreams, Freud famously said, wishes come true. At the end of Allen’s film Sandy is no longer on the train with the grotesques wishing he was in the passing carriage from which sex kitten Sharon Stone blows him a kiss. Now he is in a train carriage with the woman he really loves and she—Isobel—is about to come around to his way of thinking. The auteur chooses not life, but soggy French cliché. I remember thinking how great these women were that summer night in 1989. But the way directors use actresses as “creatures” seems so tiresome to me now. Doubtless, like many another of Allen’s ‘80s fanbase, other women, other movies, have urged me to move on.
    Stardust Memories ended and I switched the TV off. Glancing round in the dim light, the bed look crumpled and it seemed as though someone lay there. There was that smell of musk…
    But Siobhán had left, and it struck me as odd that I hadn’t even noticed her go. In London you seldom saw your neighbors and I didn’t see Siobhán again until the day two years later when she told me she was moving the following Sunday. I was Hoovering the carpet that July afternoon when I came across a woman’s earring. Rushing downstairs, I caught sight of Siobhán as her taxi purred down the rainy street. As I closed the door the smell of musk lingered in the hall.

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