[box cover]

Stardust Memories

MGM Home Video

Starring Woody Allen, Charlotte Rampling, Jessica Harper,
Marie-Christine Barrault, Tony Roberts, John Rothman,
Daniel Stern, and Sharon Stone

Written and directed by Woody Allen

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Stardust Memories is Woody Allen's greatest movie.

I know there's no way to get you to believe that; frankly, I'm not even sure if I believe it. I'm well aware that Stardust comes on the heels of Annie Hall and Manhattan and just a few years before Zelig and Hannah and Her Sisters. I also know that it kicks off a creative decade for Allen that ended with the soul-baring artistic laser burst that is Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Yet I find myself returning to Stardust Memories again and again — over and above all his other classics, which even I must admit are probably "better" movies. But still. I relish Stardust's gorgeously photographed navel-gazing and its biting-the-hand-that-feeds-it viciousness. I believe it to be a perfect deconstruction of several eras of Allen's career, a flawless melding of several different storytelling techniques, and that rare work of art that manages, a la Fellini, to be pretentious as hell while commenting on pretension itself.

All that and it's also funny.

And so — much as Woody Allen asked you to indulge him when he released the film — I ask you to indulge me now:

Six Reasons Stardust Memories Marks
Woody Allen's Creative Zenith

1. It makes fun of Woody Allen fans. And good heavens, did Woody Allen fans ever deserve it at the time.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around filmmaker Sandy Bates (Allen — and yes, the "Mr. Bates"/"masturbates" pun is indeed obvious and sort of dumb) attending a retrospective of his career at a unnamed seaside town. When he's not fighting with the studio over his latest film, obsessing over his failed relationship with the bipolar Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), coping with the arrival of his French mistress (Marie-Christine Barrault) and her two Gallic hellspawn, or pursuing a high-foreheaded violinist (Jessica Harper), Sandy Bates is mobbed by his fans. They give him useless gifts. They ask him to show up at charitable functions. They pitch him idiotic script ideas. They sneak into his bedroom. They disclose needless personal data. They tell him how much they liked his "earlier, funny" films. In short, they behave exactly like real-life jack-a-napes rendered brain-dead by celebrity culture, and Allen just rips them to shreds — much better than he did in 1998's Celebrity, by the way.

Site contributor D.K. Holm put it best during a recent conversation, which I paraphrase here: "You know, when Stardust Memories first came out, I hated it like everybody else, because Woody Allen made fun of his fans and bit the hand that fed him and all that. But then I watched it again, years later, and I realized — well — he was right."

2. Its craftsmanship is gorgeous to behold. I would, in fact, argue that Stardust Memories is visually the most gorgeous of all Allen's films — even more stunning than Manhattan, which had New York and a planetarium to work with and thus received a sort of compositional head start. Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis out-Fellini Fellini here, shooting in black and white, boldly lighting the bizarre faces of their extras, and masterfully arranging large crowds for maximum comic/narrative impact.

The formally satirical "8-1/2"-lite plotline also allows Santo Loquasto to unhinge his set decoration: Sandy Bates frequently appears in front of walls plastered with 15-foot tall portraits depicting (among other subjects) the Marx Brothers and the Vietnam War. And editor Susan E. Morse hijacks pomo New Wave editing tricks to ginchy effect — from Godardian jump cuts (which didn't appear again in Allen's oveure until Deconstructing Harry) to seamless flashbacks that occasionally only reveal themselves to be flashbacks quite a while after they've begun.

Given the above, it's almost redundant to point out that Stardust Memories really must be appreciated in widescreen — an opportunity presented on home video for the first time thanks to the magic of DVD.

3. It's funny. (Also) given the above, it's a testament to Allen's craft that Stardust Memories never crumbles under the weight of its own self-reflexive conceit — that the relentless artsiness serves the comedy, and vice-versa. Many of my favorite Allen lines are in this film (Bates to a momentarily sane Dorrie: "They must be putting something wonderful in your lithium"), and although the jokes are spaced further apart than in, say, Annie Hall, many if not most of them are home runs or at least solid base-hits.

Among my favorite moments are those in which Allen spoofs his own early career as a director of proto-Airplane! Freudian laff fests. Sandy Bates' early comedies — "highlights" from which are shown at the festival-within-a-movie — are sort of lame and cheap-looking and badly composed but still, somehow, amusing; in other words, they're just like Allen's early comedies.

The level of self-awareness (or perhaps self-assurance) required for a director to do this particular variety of hatchet job on himself is, to me, stunning. Allen even makes damnable fun of his own fascination with Bergman, which had crescendoed only two films earlier with his critically and popularly reviled Interiors. As Stardust Memories opens, Sandy Bates is grappling with the studios over his latest film, which is deeply (and ham-fistedly) serious and symbolic (touches of Sullivan's Travels?) and involves train passengers at a garbage dump. The suits want to change Sandy's ending and send the passengers to "Jazz Heaven." It's alarmingly prescient of today's Hollywood climate.

(I should also note that Stardust Memories contains an out-of-nowhere moment involving young Sandy Bates pretending to be Superman that made me and my companions laugh hysterically for a solid three minutes when we saw it in an art-house theater half a decade ago. In my experience, only the convenience-store robbery and ensuing chase in Raising Arizona has had a comparable effect. Of course, I've now completely ruined any surprise that moment may have held. Hi.)

4. The depiction/satirizing of relationships is impeccable. Of course, this is pretty well true of all Allen's films from this period (well, maybe not Interiors), but it's noteworthy that the relationship themes in Stardust Memories are writ both large and small — with Sandy Bates' obsession with surface personality in his women mirrored by his fans' obsession with the surface flash of his celebrity. In both cases, the devourer ends up strangely unsatisfied.

Special attention must be paid to Bates' remembered relationship with the frequently unhinged Dorrie. Alternately intriguing and anorexic, bright and compulsive, creepily generous and (to borrow a phrase from D. Coupland) so self-involved as to be almost autistic, Rampling's Dorrie is perhaps the most criminally unappreciated of all Allen's female characters — Annie Hall by way of Frances Farmer.

(It's also sort of amusingly prescient when Dorrie, in a supposedly paranoid frame of mind, accuses Sandy of flirting with her 14-year-old cousin, but that particular bit of titillation has little to do with Stardust Memories itself and everything to do with Allen's later travails.)

5. Its musical soundtrack is to die for. But then, that's not surprising.

6. It has its cake and eats it too. Stardust Memories is a movie laden with showy craftsmanship that makes fun of showy craftsmanship — but, in my opinion, also succeeds as showy craftsmanship. For example: Two moments with Dorrie — an absurdly long take recalling a fond spring day in Sandy's apartment, plus a jump-cut-addled breakup scene — are genuinely affecting pieces of cinema, but they don't feel maudlin or out of place alongside the film's more overtly comedic elements.

I mean, really — could the Farrelly Brothers pull that off?

*          *          *

As for the DVD itself: The movie proper receives a lovely black-and-white transfer. As is invariably the case with Allen films, there are scant extras beyond the trailer, which is of interest in that (a) it sort of bills Stardust Memories as a Manhattan-esque comedy, which it isn't, and (b) it really makes you appreciate how marvelously the shades of black and gray were preserved in the movie itself, because in the trailer they, well — they suck.

— Alexandra DuPont

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