Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on January 4, 2017
There’s something really special about transitional films in a director’s filmography, and it almost always drives critics insane when those movies first open. Case in point: Stardust Memories (1980), Woody Allen’s first film of the 1980s (or last of the 1970s if that’s how you prefer to count decades) and a challenging gauntlet thrown down by the director after two of his ambitious films, the austere drama Interiors (1978) and his most iconic ode to his favorite city, Manhattan (1979). There was a lot of chatter at the time about the “Serious Woody Allen” (the name of a little retrospective running right here, by the way), with admirers and detractors alike honing in on the increasing Ingmar Bergman influence that had been dotted through several of his films before leaping to the forefront in both Love and Death (1975) and Interiors. So what did Allen do? He pulled a Fellini instead, and for years, no one knew what to make of it. Of course, Allen was obviously braced for that reaction with the construction of the film itself, which riffs on 8 1/2 (1963) right from the beginning with its film-within-a-film sequence involving a panicked Allen trapped inside a passenger train, which provokes outraged responses from the powers that be who contemplate having him taken off the film. Allen’s suffocated response to being treated like a jester (“I don’t wanna make funny movies anymore. They can’t force me to. You know, I don’t feel funny. I look around the world and all I see is human suffering.”) led many to assume he didn’t want to make “silly” fare anymore in real life, though Allen himself (in addition to praising this film as one of his best) notes that he wasn’t playing himself at all but a character in the midst of a nervous breakdown. The real joke here of course for people taking this film as autobiography is that Allen’s films always had a lot more on their mind than just making people laugh; Annie Hall (1977) is almost as sad as it is hilarious, Love and Death functioned perfectly as a dissection of Russian literature as well as a pastiche of it and Manhattan, usually classified as a comedy, is just as much a serious art film whose most famous images and moments have nothing to do with humor whatsoever.
On top of that, Stardust Memories (which also slips a few Bergman nods in here among the Felliniana) is actually pretty funny in its own right. You still get plenty of Allen one-liners throughout, and any film that features Allen tackling a defective fire extinguisher, doing a Frankenstein parody scored by “Night on Bald Mountain,” or being confronted by aliens who want him to go back to making lighter comedies (with a response comparing them to a rabbi) is a far cry from downbeat territory. The little secret about Allen films that’s become clearer and clearer over the years is that, as with other examples like Pedro Almodóvar or Wes Anderson, they can’t be fully appreciated without the other movies made around them. People seem to love sorting Allen films between the “good” ones and the “bad” ones, but in fact, they all have worthwhile elements and feed into each other in fascinating ways both large and small. Manhattan informs this film with its continuation of Allen’s recent infatuation with black-and-white photography (though abandoning that film’s switch to wide Panavision lensing) and that gorgeous inky black Gordon Willis cinematographic touch throughout, not to mention its stunning array of magnetic female performers. This time we get rich turns by Charlotte Rampling (whose virtues can be further explored in this piece Kimberly wrote a few years ago), Jessica Harper (who had a brief but memorable bit in Love and Death), Eric Rohmer muse Marie-Christine Barrault, an uncredited cameo early on by Saturday Night Live alumnus Laraine Newman and even a quick but luminous appearance by a young Sharon Stone.
Allen was really starting to explore the odd vagaries of romance, something he’d touched on with his potentially volatile fling with Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan and carried over here into an on-set relationship with Rampling that feels like an elegy now for his relationship with Diane Keaton, a core element of many of his 1970s films. They wouldn’t reunite on a project together until Radio Days (1987) and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), by which point they were good friends with their romantic days long past. That means that this film is a fulcrum of sorts between the Keaton era and the decade-plus Mia Farrow stretch (he and Farrow started dating during this film) that would begin with Allen’s next film, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982). (Curiously, the interim of 1981 would be a rare case of a year that passed without a single Woody Allen film.)
There are a lot of special little moments studded throughout this film, though one of my favorites comes around the 49-minute mark when Allen reunites with Tony Roberts (who carries his own associations with the filmmaker) at dusk in the plaza outside the seaside Hotel Stardust (one of the many sources for the film’s title) as they are surrounded by dancing guests. Their reminiscence is one of the most beautifully lit Allen/Willis moments, which segues into a rapid-fire montage of moments between Allen and Rampling as related by him. It’s a throwaway little scene that doesn’t advance the story, but it’s the kind of nice little mood moment that makes the film linger in your memory just a bit longer.
The rest of Allen’s career has inadvertently been very kind to Stardust Memories and made its virtues far more accessible. The contemplation on the relationship between a filmmaker and his critics and fans was explored further in such films as Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Celebrity (1998), while audiences caught up to the tricky balance between humor and intense drama by the time Allen moved on to The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), a “comedy” that’s also perhaps the most heartbreaking film he ever made, and the sublime Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). We can now set aside any autobiographical expectations and enjoy this as a pivotal Allen film, showing a director maturing before our eyes as he continues to riff on the meaning of life sought by the characters in all of his film. And like those later efforts, it all boils down to two simple, precious thoughts: enjoy yourself, and life’s just a movie we make one day at a time.
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