Film: Very Good
Label: Twilight Time
Released: December 13, 2016
Genre: Black Comedy
Synopsis: A comedian-turned-director reflects on his career, the loves in his life, and self-worth during a retrospective of his work at a seaside resort.
Special Features: Isolated Mono Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
Woody Allen’s examination of fame, adulation, and the worth of a comedian’s career is filtered through a Felliniesque lens that’s still a bit of a challenge 35+ years since its release, perhaps because, to paraphrase fan salvos aimed at central character Sandy Bates, ‘it’s not as funny as his older films.’
Instead of being a film-within-a-film with backstage antics, Stardust Memories is an elliptical self-examination of a comedian-filmmaker searching for meaning within his substantive career and love life; questioning everything after a rise to the top, and finding his own life becoming as absurd as his scenarios.
The connection to Frederico Fellini (and the director’s 8 ½) is thematic – a director seems lost after having hit his peak years and fame – and his life flows in pristine B&W with eccentric characters drifting in and out of his apartment, film sets, and interwoven flashbacks, fuzzing the line between what is real and what feels like a dream as reconstructed for a sequence being filmed at that moment.
Bates never seems to settle for anything. He loves bipolar Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling attempting a rather wobbly American accent) but loses tolerance now that she’s chosen to go off her meds; and he initially embraces the instant family brought to him by former lover Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) but soon finds the kids annoying and is distracted by a new potential flame who comes in the guise of pretty Daisy (Jessica Harper), and yet that romance unfolds with ambiguity.
A retrospective of Bates’ work at a seaside resort has him defending himself against critical fans who literally want some piece of him, and want their idol to revert back to the original wunderkind with whom they fell in love a long while ago, uninterested in his need to explore and grow as an artist. Self-challenge, self-examination, and confronting the horrible truth he may be a lucky loser all seethe within Bates, and yet things don’t come to a head until aliens arrive and present both sage advice and a personal preference for his older funnier work.
Bates is perpetually winding through locales and wandering associates that drift into the fairly loose narrative with little cohesion, and the only firm arc has Bates settling into a trial relationship with Isobel, keeping his fingers crossed that maybe she’ll enrich and reinvigorate his creative mojo.
There are some sharp lines and eccentric characters – SNL’s Laraine Newman steals audience attention as a brutally cynical film executive, as does Anne De Salvo as Bates’ sister – and the cast is packed with tiny roles for up-and-coming stars (Daniel Stern, Sharon Stone) and marvelous veterans and extras cast for weird hair and cranial bone structure. The film also offers a strange sense of déjà vu, as though the deadpan behaviour, hair and heads of the cast may have seeded specific stylistic elements for Wes Anderson. (The best example is Bates’ nieces and nephews who were born odd and socially challenged, and live in their own peculiar microcosm of society.)
Perhaps the struggle for Allen’s fans in 1980 lies in the expectation of periodic zingers and a smattering recurring absurdism, but Stardust is more often filled with long dialogue exchanges captured in lengthy takes, and characters often doing mundane activities so audiences have no choice but to absorb the bitterness in Allen’s prose: Dorrie blathering in his apartment living room with weird dead eyes, Isobel brushing her hair for an eternity, and Bates’ brother-in-low huffing as he pedals on an exercycle in his sister’s bedroom.
There’s no doubt Stardust was conceived and built with exacting attention: in one subtle attempt to infer the extreme shift of Sandy’s state of peace between disturbed and contentment, we first see Bates eating nook flanked by huge portraits of a Vietcong suspect as a discharged bullet peels through his head, and from an earlier moment, the corner is a more ebullient with a Groucho portrait; an altar to the magic of cinema and its iconography.
Stardust ultimately requires a few more viewings for those puzzled rather than angry that Allen chose to make a film in which his alter-ego does nothing but engage in introspection, and the jokes are extremely dark.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a lovely transfer that showcases Gordon Willis’ stunning cinematography and camerawork – this is arguably one of his most beautiful B&W films, with every frame energized by gorgeous framing and beautiful lighting; it’s appropriate a movie about cinema’s peeling veneer of shiny magic shimmers with compositional beauty.
The isolated mono music track sports plenty of classic jazz ballads, and the trailer tries to push the film as another jovial comedy, which this clearly isn’t. Stardust followed the success of Manhattan (1979), and perhaps having expunged a need to self-flagellate, Allen moved on to the Bergmanesque delight A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) and a stream of further classics.
Julie Kirgo’s essay is defensive of this maligned work yet also contextualizes the horror that greeted Allen upon its releases, with some snooty critics calling it ‘a betrayal,’ which says more of a critic’s ego than a willingness to acknowledge artists are allowed to experiment and sometimes create a viciously self-critical assault, and a misfire. (Most misfires tend to require a few decades to earn a bit of appreciation.)
Woody Allen films released by Twilight Time include Love and Death (1975), Interiors (1978), Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days(1987), and Crimes and Misdemeanors(1989), and the Allen starring in the Red Menace satire The Front (1976).
© 2016 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review