Wednesday, December 2, 2015

#567: Stardust Memories

Directed by: WOODY ALLEN
1980, TSPDT Rank #932

Sometimes it's hard to take a Woody Allen film at face value when many of his films seem more like variations on a theme than individual works. I'm so used to films like Annie Hall and Manhattan that initially it was difficult to separate my thoughts about this film from them. And while Stardust Memories focuses on many of the same themes as those films, I eventually came to see it as a culmination of a certain phase of Allen's career. Annie Hall had been released three years before this film, signaling a major change of pace from the madcap absurdist comedy of Allen's early films to a more neurotic self-reflexivity. It was succeeded by the austere Bergman tribute Interiors, which was seen by many as Allen's bid to be recognized as a "serious" filmmaker, and Manhattan, a continuation of the pensive romantic themes addressed in Annie Hall, dressed up as a tribute to New York City and filmed in black-and-white. However, with Stardust Memories, Allen made a film which functions as both a parody of Fellini's 8 1/2 and a summary of his career to that point. At the time, Allen's career had probably seemed to have taken such a sharp left turn in the late '70s (there are various references throughout the film to Allen's "early, funny" films) that many considered this film to be little more than another self-indulgent exercise in narcissism, but now it seems more apparent that Stardust Memories was really the grand finale of the first phase of Allen's career - a nine-film run which started with Take the Money and Run in 1969 and continued through to this film. Following the disastrous reception to which Stardust Memories was released, Allen moved on to a new phase of his career, making films which varied widely in terms of content and quality and tended to feature himself much less often as the lead actor.

But Stardust Memories, by comparison, clearly seems cut from the same cloth as the films that came before it - with traces of each of Allen's previous eight films crammed into its 88-minute running time. Along with its unveiled and playful homage to 8 1/2, which serves to tie all of the material together, the film shares a similar narrative framework with Annie Hall. However, the film also references and revives the madcap humor of Allen's earlier films, along with the non-linear, episodic structure which also defined much of his previous work. Along with the romantic musings that defined Annie Hall, Interiors, and Manahattan, the film also brings Allen's preoccupation with death and existentialism back to the forefront - recalling their prominence in 1975's Love and Death. All of this varied material is tackled with a enthusiastic irreverance that is quintessential Woody Allen - with the nature of celebrity, film critics, and the value of a filmmaker's work being brought into question repeatedly. Most contemporary critics took issue with what they saw as Allen's self-important portrayal of himself, which he claimed was a caricature of a celebrity filmmaker (intentionally similar to the character Marcello Mastrioianni plays in 8 1/2), and was not intended to be a direct representation of himself. Nevertheless, the self-referential nature of the film and the prominence of many of Allen's common themes make it impossible not to look at the film as a self-portrait of sorts. In later films about themes of celebrity featuring similar characters, Allen tellingly chose to cast other actors instead of himself, which hasn't really fooled anyone (critics often use terms like "Woody Allen stand-ins" to describe these roles), but has arguably succeeded in making Stardust Memories remain Allen's most personal film to date. He wouldn't attempt to assess himself and his work quite so blatantly after this, which effectively makes Stardust Memories seem like the end of an era. The films that he made from the end of the '60s to the end of the '70s were of a particularly high quality, and Stardust Memories is no exception. Its biggest flaw is most likely its attempt to fit such an exhaustive array of material into such a brief film - which, although the film generally hits its mark, makes for a somewhat scattershot viewing experience at times. But while it doesn't have the poignant simplicity of a film like Annie Hall, it represents what it most likely the apex of Woody Allen's range as a filmmaker, and often goes is unfairly excluded from the ranks of his best and most interesting films.

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