‘My Stupid Little Films’: Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories at 40


Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories shares a number of qualities with Richard Fleischer’s The Jazz Singer, the last 40-year-old film I spotlighted here on The Curb. Both films centre on the professional and existential crises of a popular Jewish entertainer, played onscreen by a popular Jewish entertainer of the same profession. Both are remakes of sorts, of films which in retrospect seem puzzling source material for major American releases of the brash 1980s: Federico Fellini’s for Allen’s opus, and for Fleischer the creaky 1927 film of the same name that ushered in the sound era of motion pictures. And both The Jazz Singer and Stardust Memories were late 1980 releases, though I’m belatedly turning my attention to Allen’s film. The easy joke would be that I was waiting for Allen’s reputation to be rehabilitated… 

It’s impossible nowadays to talk about an Allen film completely divorced from the writer-director-star’s crimes and misdemeanours (title pun intended), whether alleged or actual. The length of time Allen has been a figure of controversy now equals, and will soon eclipse, the length of time he was a popular comedian and artist with a relatively uncomplicated reputation. While I think cancel culture can be problematic, I don’t begrudge anyone who opts out of an artist or their oeuvre on moral grounds, and thus opts out of reading this article at this juncture. Nonetheless, I’d argue that Stardust Memories is a worthwhile film to revisit. I’d also argue that where The Jazz Singer is, cinematically speaking, a dinosaur, Stardust Memories remains fascinating and relevant in 2020 for a mess of reasons, only some of which relate to Allen’s messy private life.

While the passage of time has rendered it a known entity, it’s worth reiterating how wild Allen’s career arc in the 1970s was, propelling the writer-director-star from the broad slapstick and visual gags of Take the Money and Run to the ambitious, Oscar-winning romantic comedy Annie Hall to the pointedly joyless, Ingmar Bergman-esque drama Interiors. Like its immediate precursor Manhattan, Stardust Memories — his first film (of eleven) of the 1980s — tries to split the difference. It does this both tonally — mixing comedy with his European art film aspirations — and meta-textually, making Allen’s transition from the comedy club to the arthouse a major character and plot point.  

This agenda is established in the film’s dialogue-less opening sequence. Allen sits on a stationary train, surrounded by grim-looking visages. From the window he sees a neighbouring train populated by bubbly and glamorous passengers, including a young Sharon Stone. Realising he’s on the wrong vehicle, he scrambles to disembark but is too late, and the train transports him to a garbage dump. Cue a roomful of indignant executives, angry at the footage they’ve just watched from the latest film of writer-director-actor Sandy Bates (Allen). One executive — played by the great SNL alum Larraine Newman — is especially damning: “He’s pretentious, his filming style’s too fancy, his insights are shallow and morbid. I’ve seen it all before; they try to document their pathetic suffering and fob it off as art”. The opening minutes of Stardust Memories are intertextually and meta-textually dexterous: the film-within-a-film, which riffs on the claustrophobic opening scene of Fellini’s , sets up Fellini’s film as Stardust Memories’ primary influence; the imitation is both sincere homage and sly parody, and is also, aesthetically, deliberately sub-Fellini; it signals Sandy’s grasp for meaning in his art, and his falling short by reverting to and recycling European art film signifiers; and in the subsequent decimation of the footage by executives, Allen builds the very criticism that would greet Stardust Memories into the fabric of the film. 

The shadow of looms large over Stardust Memories: like Fellini’s film, Allen’s work encapsulates artist’s block, a cavalcade of romantic interests, a hotel setting, flashbacks, and demanding throngs. Allen’s Sandy Bates is a comedy writer-director-star who wants to be a serious artist and despairs at the state of the world. He laments: 

“I don’t feel funny. I look at the world and all I see is human suffering … The universe is gradually breaking down, there’s not going to be anything left. I’m not talking about my stupid little films here”. 

In the thick of post-production clashes, he is invited to attend a festival of his films. At the festival, he engages in flirtation with a sardonic musician (Jessica Harper) while entertaining his current romantic partner (Marie-Christine Barrault) and her young children, and enduring the unwanted attention of his rabid fanbase and the odd detractor. Amidst all this, he’s plagued by memories of Dorrie (an excellent Charlotte Rampling), a former partner who experienced a mental breakdown.

I alluded to Stardust Memories’ similarities to The Jazz Singer earlier, and on the surface it’s an unfair match. Where Fleischer’s film is generic and functionally executed, Allen’s is nimble and witty and gorgeous, thanks to the black and white cinematography of Gordon Willis, a regular Allen collaborator who also shot The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and All the President’s Men, to name a distinguished few. Yet The Jazz Singer is the more accessible film. There are Allen films with crossover appeal — Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Match Point, Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, and once upon a time Manhattan — and films without, and Stardust Memories falls into the latter camp. And while commentators were kind to neither film in 1980, critics responded to The Jazz Singer with charitable contempt, but greeted Stardust Memories with venom befitting a scorned lover. Particular issue was taken with the film’s Fellini-aping, its pretensions of grandeur, and Allen’s perceived contempt for his admirers, given the filmmaker’s depiction of Sandy’s fanbase as parasitic and needy. 

By way of illustrating the critical tide, Andrew Sarris called Stardust Memories “knowingly nasty” and the “most mean-spirited and misanthropic film I have seen in years”. Pauline Kael, so often pitted against Sarris in critical discourse, concurred with her frenemy. She dubbed Allen’s film “the most undisguised of his dodgy mock-autobiographical fantasies” with “the merest wisp of a pretext that he is playing a character”, and deemed the film “a horrible betrayal”. Jason Bailey, author of The Ultimate Woody Allen Film Companion, summarises the widespread critical consensus that Stardust Memories was “the nakedly hostile gesture of a filmmaker who has all but had it with people who like his work”. It’s telling that after three Best Screenplay Oscar nominations in a row — for Annie Hall (which won), Interiors, and Manhattan, with another thirteen nomination and two wins on the horizon — the Academy skipped over Stardust Memories.  

In Woody Allen on Woody Allen, Allen cops to Stardust Memories being “one of my most stringently criticised films”, but also defends it as “one of my best films”. He laments that “The audience thought that I was saying … that [they] were fools and the critics were fools”, and asserts this was not intended. Allen has long professed that his films are fictions and that people who read them as autobiographical — as a celluloid psychoanalyst’s couch — are overreaching. But it’s disingenuous to say that his films, if not autobiographical, are not at least self-portraiture to a degree. A cursory survey of Allen’s filmography makes that clear. Women he dated have played his love interests. His own tastes in music, film, and literature are echoed by his characters. His characters lionize themselves as magnificent lovers. Sink deeper into the conjectural crevices of the analyst’s couch and there are relationships between older men and much younger women (Manhattan, Husbands and Wives, Mighty Aphrodite), not to mention characters tortured by guilt for crimes committed and/or washing their hands of these crimes (Crimes and Misdemeanours, Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream, Irrational Man). And Stardust Memories is, ultimately, a film about a comedic writer-director-star making overtures towards more serious material, directed by a comedic writer-director-star making overtures towards more serious material.

However, I’d argue that Stardust Memories’ real self-portraiture lies less in Allen’s maligning of his admirers and more in the film’s cinephilia, another point of critical contention but less deservedly. Allen’s use of Fellini’s as a point of reference for ‘serious material’ is more savvy and knowing than commentators like Kael — who calls the film “a dupe of a dupe of ” — would concede. Critics ridiculed Allen for falling short of Fellini, but part of the joke is that Sandy Bates is no Fellini, and Allen himself would be first to admit he’s a Fellini fan first, student second, and successor by a very distant third. Stardust Memories was not the last of Allen’s homages to the Italian maestro: there’s a marked Fellini influence on Radio Days (Amarcord), Alice (Juliet of the Spirits), and Celebrity (La Dolce Vita), and Allen rates the director alongside Bergman and Renoir in “a certain group of filmmakers whose films I love” (Woody Allen on Woody Allen). Allen has similarly paid homage to Bergman and Renoir in his work, along with German Expressionists and John Cassavetes. He also praises Kurosawa in the same interview, but has yet to don samurai garb onscreen (thankfully). In a sense, Allen precedes Quentin Tarantino as a fanboy intertextual bricoleur, though where Tarantino pulls from a wider range of (typically inferior) genre products and emerges superior, Allen’s films are more laser-focused on a (typically superior) art film or filmmaker and emerge inferior. 

Movies are meaningful to Allen, just as they are to Tarantino, but Allen goes a step further and makes that relationship between film and spectator part of the screen story: in Hannah and Her Sisters, watching a Marx Brothers comedy helps bring his character back from the brink of suicide, while in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow’s Cecilia finds solace in the movies, even after her heart is broken by a rising matinee idol. Two scenes from pre-Stardust Memories films help colour Allen’s cinephilia. In Annie Hall, Diane Keaton’s Annie and Allen’s Alvy are sifting through their possessions and she finds a collection of his badges: “Impeach Eisenhower, Impeach Nixon, Impeach Lyndon Johnson, Impeach Ronald Reagan.” In Manhattan, Allen’s morose Isaac ponders what makes life worth living, and lists, among other things, Groucho Marx, Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, Louis Armstrong’s ‘Potato Head Blues’, Swedish films, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Marlon Brando, and Frank Sinatra, among other things. Allen‘s characters, and arguably Allen himself, appear without a belief system, whether ideological—as evidenced by Alvy’s sweeping call to impeach all presidents—or of a higher kind, as evidenced by Allen’s own pronounced atheism, a stance articulated repeatedly both in his films (in Stardust Memories, Sandy comments “To you, I’m an atheist, to God, I’m the loyal opposition”) and in his public life: see, for example, this interview between Allen and evangelist Billy Graham, a fascinating relic from a pre-social media age where disagreement could be largely civil. All this suggests that for Allen life is ephemeral and gratification, as suggested by Isaac’s list, lies in ephemera: in entirely worldly and material objects and things, including movies. This certainly jibes with the misanthropy of Stardust Memories, in which family, associates, and admirers are ghoulish, but jazz and Fellini are great. 

Sandy’s arc from despair to optimism corresponds with him overcoming his director’s block. In a flashback to happier times and flowing creative juices, the wallpaper in his spacious apartment is a scene from the Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races. In troubled times, when he laments the state of society and his “stupid little films”, the wallpaper shows the famous (and still disturbing) 1968 photograph of a Viet Cong prisoner’s execution. At film’s end, Sandy overcomes his creative block, his new film is completed and unveiled, and presumably his wallpaper will return to a brighter scene. On a bad day, this all sounds rather precious and indulgent and naval-gazing, and as mentioned above Stardust Memories lacks crossover appeal. And yet the film feels more contemporary than most of Allen’s own contemporary works. Where recent releases like Magic in the Moonlight, Cafe Society, and Wonder Wheel are all set in bygone eras, consciously evoke old genres and tropes, and feel thoroughly coddled from the modern world, Stardust Memories — despite a certain insularity in its setting and preoccupations, and a certain baroqueness in its Fellini homage — feels fresh and relevant.  

One reason for this could be that Sandy’s hounding by the public, forty years on from the film’s original production and release, carries metatextual echoes with Allen’s own life and hounding by the media, though today he’s not being hounded with adoration. Allen’s rejection by Hollywood over the past couple of years has been very public and fairly wholesale, though it must be said this is as unflattering on Hollywood as it is on Allen. In the 1990s — a mere few years after accusations against Allen first emerged — he managed to snag the likes of Julia Roberts, Goldie Hawn, and Edward Norton for the cast of Everyone Says I Love You, Demi Moore, Robin Williams, and Billy Crystal for Deconstructing Harry, Kenneth Branagh, Charlize Theron, and an ascendant post-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio for Celebrity, and was cast as the nebbish lead in an animated blockbuster for children, Antz. One would think Allen’s rejection by the star system and the newly minted Dreamworks Animation in the 1990s would be a moral imperative, but it was not. A quarter century later, this rejection seems merely stratagem. Regardless, the affectionate mob harassment depicted in Stardust Memories ironically foreshadows the less affectionate but equally loud ostracizing of Allen in recent years.  

That hounding is largely online nowadays, and this is where the film feels particularly pertinent: though set and made in 1980, Allen, in presenting fans as ghoulish and rabid and often antagonistic, seemingly predicted social media and toxic online fan culture (likewise ironic given Allen’s own avowed technophobia). In his review of the film, Roger Ebert criticised Allen for saying nothing substantial about the fans that Stardust Memories purportedly mocked: 

They come in all styles: pathetic young girls who want to sleep with him, fans who want his autograph, weekend culture vultures, and people who spend all their time at one event promoting the next one they’re attending. Allen makes his point early, by shooting these unfortunate creatures in close-up with a wide-angle lens that makes them all look like Martians with big noses. They add up to a nightmare, a nonstop invasion of privacy, a shrill chorus of people whose praise for the artist is really a call for attention. Fine, except what else does Allen have to say about them? Nothing.

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/stardust-memories-1980

Yet Allen foreshadows and gives physical form to the ugliness that pervades much of online fandom, from the sort of curdled, warped adoration that leads Star Wars ‘fans’ to declare that “George Lucas raped my childhood” with the prequels and to besmirch The Last Jedi off the face of the earth, to the misogynistic attacks that have driven the likes of Kelly Marie Tran and Leslie Jones off of social media. And while fandom of white male directors is by no means novel, and Allen himself is guilty of fawning over a white male auteur in Fellini (and Bergman … and Renoir …), his depiction of Sandy’s zealous admirers also foreshadows the overblown fanbases that have calcified online around the likes of Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder. Allen’s foreshadowing was not completely futuristic, however; a mere ten weeks after the film’s release, John Lennon was shot by ‘fan’ Mark David Chapman, just as Sandy is shot by a supposed ‘fan’ in the film. 

Ultimately, while it remains one of the more acquired tastes of Allen’s filmography — and the passage of time has not and most likely will not be kind to said filmography — Stardust Memories remains fascinating and relevant forty years on.  

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen, Jessica Harper, Charlotte Rampling

Writer: Woody Allen

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