“You wanna do the world a real service? Tell funnier jokes.”
More than anything else, it’s the breadth of Woody Allen‘s craft as a filmmaker that has never been fully recognized or appreciated. With a body of work varied enough to include “Love and Death,” “Interiors,” “Husbands and Wives,” and “Everyone Says I Love You,” among many others, it’s apparent that the only reason skepticism toward his creative range has persisted is due to a lack of mainstream attention.
In “Stardust Memories,” the director’s most narratively obscure and visually sumptuous film, Allen was able to pay homage to Fellini’s “8 1/2” as well as create a piece full of its own weighty emotional truth and equally jarring existential implications. In the film, Allen stars as Sandy Bates, a neurotic New York filmmaker who’s been coerced into attending a film festival celebrating his early work on the Jersey shore. He’s disillusioned by human suffering, and, as a result, has all but abandoned his comedic mode of cinematic expression in favor of a more despairing one.
The parallels between the character and his author are fairly obvious, and Sandy’s general regard for his audience is almost certainly a big part of the reason this film has been so egregiously maligned in the 30 years since its release.
Admittedly, my initial reaction to the film was unfavorable. The overall disjointedness and narrative inscrutability on display were not easily digested by me at the time; I distinctly remember it being the only occasion I really felt wanting at the conclusion of a Woody Allen movie (aside from maybe “Scoop,” but that’s territory best left unexplored). It took me at least two more viewings to finally develop some kind of grasp on the film’s intentions and comprehend its rifts in story construction as purposeful and enchanting instead of bewildering and annoying.
But those were simply the shortcomings of an immature viewer. In actuality, much of the film is highly accessible, really funny, and haunting in the cinematography by Gordon Willis and its creaky, mournful soundtrack primarily comprised of Django Reinhardt.
With the film festival as a template, we’re shown a series of sequences that may or may not be excerpts from Sandy Bates’ various pictures (some more obviously so than others) that give us an understanding of the general romantic and interpersonal milieu of the filmmaker’s life. His lost love, Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), is a prominent fixture of many of these, and the scene in which Sandy recalls a spring afternoon spent with her is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen.
What is perhaps most compelling about the film is its total lack of sentimentality about its own sentimentality. It contains no melodrama, is sparing and frank in its regard for romance, and in scenes of vast emotional expressiveness, the framing is so cold and delicate that its effect is a dull ache. The seaside aesthetic lends itself rather easily to muted turmoil, and the impression is that unexpressed feelings are abound.
The film does, however, have its share of levity. On a car ride gone horribly awry, Sandy and Daisy (Jessica Harper), the most recent recipient of his muddled affections, find themselves in the middle of a vaguely defined gathering of people in an expansive field somewhere in Central Jersey, and Sandy wonders off into an imagined encounter with alien visitors. Their exchange prompts a shift in his outlook—artistically and personally—that is as self-effacing and ironic as it is revelatory. It is immediately followed by an eerie assassination and a consecutive resolution that propels the film toward its bittersweet conclusion.
There are no definite answers in the grand scheme of things in the world according to Woody Allen, and no real solace about the inevitable demise of anything and everything. From this to “Crimes and Misdemeanors” to “Deconstructing Harry,” our place in the universe has been the focal point of his obsessive tendencies. He’s always had a way of earnestly approaching life’s dilemmas with the acknowledgment that those dilemmas really don’t matter much to begin with, and this film is his most intoxicating effort to that end.