“I thought it was very derivative. To me it looked like it was straight out of Diane Arbus, but with none of the wit.”
In a hellish world of anxiety, phobia and suffering why would anyone actually want to be funny? If a film director was aware he had a talent for comedy but a overwhelming sense of the misery and meaninglessness of life, what kind of film should he shoot? Stardust Memories, 1980, is the forgotten film of Woody Allen’s great period, but to me one of his best.
It was the third in a succession of black and white films (Interiors, 1978, Manhatten, 1979). The story is about a director at the height of his fame, Sandy Bates played by Allen, in artistic crisis who no longer knows what sort of film he wants to make. Fretting about issues large and small, Bates attends a weekend retrospective of his oeuvre in coastal New Jersey surrounded by lunatic, objectionable, overbearing fans. Released in 1980 to a nasty, vicious critical mauling Stardust Memories bombed at the box office and the audience Allen had gained since Annie Hall in 1977 deserted him and, in America, didn’t return. Many viewers were affronted to have been satirised and took offence at what they saw as being treated with disrespect.
The delegates at this weekend festival of Bates’s films are maniacs, sycophants, overbearing theorists, infantile critics, culture vultures, out of work actors and groupies thrusting unwanted gifts into his grasp, besieging him, demanding his attention and invading his privacy (including his bed). One man thrusts a screenplay into Bates’s hand to provide him with material “it’s a comedy based on that whole Guyama mass suicide”. There are polaroid selfie takers and endless autograph hunters “could you make it out to: Phyllis Weinstein you unfaithful lying bitch”. Bates is a man at a low ebb, in an artistic cul-de-sac and not in a position to cope with this dawn to dusk unwanted attention of pestering groupies.
I suspect that the main reason the movie-going public was offended by Stardust Memories was not because of the behaviour of the fans portrayed, but because of their physical features. Allen had his casting agents seek as many strange looking people as they could for these scenes. This is a festival of the grotesques and the awkward, the hideous and the hilarious, the misfits and the extraordinary. Shot in black and white by the cinematographer Gordon Willis, the carefully coiffured and stylishly dressed men and women look, to my eyes, beautiful and interesting. But they are not conventionally good looking. There are no beef-cakes and Barbies here: not a silicone breast nor lifted face in sight. In fact there seems to be no attempt by any of these people to even look young. Allen made the mistake of making his fans appear ugly, and they could not forgive him for that. Diane Arbus, the great American photographer of the 1960s, took black and white pictures of misfits and the marginal with lyrical and tender compassion. She too was misunderstood and taken to task.
Although we see none of Bates’s previous films screened, Stardust Memories is in fact a retrospective of Allen’s own themes and tropes. Bates’s relationships with a trio of neurotic, troubled, beautiful self-medicating women are revealed in flashback and a stream of consciousness structure. He himself is not given preferential treatment: depicted by Allen as narcissistic, selfish and egocentric. There is a mixture of European noir, surreal and slapstick humour and ribald and intelligent wisecracks “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.” There are magic tricks and bad driving, jazz (Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet) and dream sequences. Bates and Dorrie (played by Charlotte Rampling) struggle to expel an unwanted pigeon from their New York apartment. At one point Bates’s ‘anger’ escapes as represented by a bear killing his ex-wife, divorce attorney and capturing his mother. The actress playing his mother is the same woman who played Alvy Singer’s mother in Annie Hall. Tony Roberts, an actor who appeared in several Allen films, is at the retrospective playing an actor called Tony Roberts who appeared in several Bates films. Bates is having trouble with the studio heads who want to create a new audience pleasing ending, they are acted by Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe, Allen’s long time producers. The director is taking stock of his work. This is a film about sycophants who cannot be endured by the famous director; Allen unwittingly killed them off with images of severe representation. It is art controlling life. At the end of the film one of the delegates shoots Bates; in fact it was Allen who shot them.
One of Fellini’s great films 8 1/2, 1963, was about a director in a crisis of confidence who no longer knew what film he wanted to make. Guido Anselmi, played by Marcello Mastroianni, wanders through a world of grotesques and underworld degenerates, in a delicate balance between dreaming and waking. The opening shot of 8 1/2 is of a man in a dream sequence trapped in a car. Stardust Memories opens with Bates in a dream sequence trapped in a train. Allen’s working title for the film was 4, because he said it was not even half as good as Fellini’s. Many people agreed.