Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stardust Memories (1980) *****

Woody Allen has always annoyed me a bit. His nebbishy, New York persona is hard for me to relate to. I have to admit, though, the guy is funny, and he’s a genius of a filmmaker. I just saw “Stardust Memories,” and I have to say that even among Allen’s filmography, this is a gem of a movie.

The film is an homage (or maybe more of a parody, if you will) to Federico Fellini’s “8 ½.” Just like “8 ½,” “Stardust Memories” is a stream-of-consciousness examination of the inner life of a famous movie director as he struggles to make a movie. Unlike Fellini’s director, who suffered writer’s block, Allen’s Sandy Bates character has already made the movie he wanted, but he is forced by the movie studio to create a new, more uplifting (marketable) ending. He does this while pursuing a love affair with one woman (Marie-Christine Barrault), reflecting on his failed affair with his ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling), and considering an affair with a third (Jessica Harper). As the beautiful black-and-white footage unrolls, it is difficult to tell when we are in the present, in memory, or in fantasy. We are in Sandy Bates’ mind, which, like everyone’s, jumps around freely between these options.

I liked “Stardust Memories” considerably better than “8 ½.” Fellini’s film was a work of experimental genius, to be sure, but it was too long, and Fellini’s antagonist, Guido Anselmi, is too self-absorbed and weak of character to be much of a hero. I like my movies to have a hero, and unlikely as he is, Woody Allen manages to be a hero in this. Sandy is deeply flawed as a lover, but he engages in a small amount of growth during the movie, which is somehow enough to redeem his character.

There are a handful of films which are best described as Existentialist, and “Stardust Memories” is a masterpiece of the genre. The film begins with what is intended to be the end of Sandy Bates’s movie. Allen’s character sits alone on a train car filled with somber, sour-looking people. He looks across the tracks longingly at another train full of lively, happy people socializing, sharing wine, and basically having a ball. The trains take off, and Allen is miserable at being on the wrong train. When he arrives at his destination, however, he and his joyless companions find themselves at a garbage dump. As they walk through the trash, they are met by all the people from the happy train. They had very different journeys, but in the end, they all wound up in the same place. This is a rather blunt rendering of the more pessimistic side of Existentialism. The movie studio hates this ending, and Bates spends the movie dealing with his relationship issues and trying to come up with a more audience-friendly ending that won’t feel too contrived. He finds not one, but two solutions to the essential Existentialist problem: One is the pleasantly happy ending-on-a-train that he creates for his film, and the other is a quiet moment of bliss that is fully realized only as he looks back on it.

“Stardust Memories” beautifully balances the humorous and the profound. Watching it has given me a much deeper appreciation of Woody Allen’s genius. I think this movie may be slightly easier for someone who has already seen “8 ½,” but I think you will do fine with this movie as long as you come into it prepared for an atypical movie experience. This is a must-see for Existentialists everywhere!

5 stars out of 5

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