Continuing with my on-again off-again look into Woody Allen’s filmography, I admit that I was reluctant to pick up his Fellini-inspired Stardust Memories. Federico Fellini is a director that I am only vaguely familiar with – beyond traditional Film 101 studies of a few of his films I know most of his pictures by name alone. With that, I can’t really say that I’ve ever been driven to look into his work with the same sort of conviction that I have for Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Krzysztof Kieslowski or Allen himself.
Stardust Memories opens with a scene that recalls Fellini’s 8½ - Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) is on a train. He observes the people on board – it’s a dull bunch. He peers outside to another train going in the opposite direction – it’s a train full of life and extravagance. The larger implications begin to seep into his (and the audience’s) consciousness as Sandy attempts to bust out of the moving car. But the door is jammed and the interior begins to fill with sand, as the ambivalent passengers remain in their seats. We cut away from Allen’s worrisome gaze as we discover that the whole scene was part of a film. What follows are critics and film executives dismissing Bates’ efforts – why be serious now when all of his previous “funny” pictures have been so good?
It’s probably the most interesting set-up to an Allen film I’ve seen yet, or at least the one that deviates the most from formal Allen expectations. Given the tepid response to his first serious mainstream attempt (Interiors), Stardust Memories seeks to address the circumstances of Allen’s fame while deconstructing (and reaffirming) preconceived notions of his celebrity. It’s most effective when Allen contends with the crowds of raving fans who always want something from him – he can’t outright reject them, nor does he have any intent of following up on his many promises. You get a sense that he wants to please, but overwhelming demand makes such a course difficult to embark.
While all of Allen’s films have an “Allen-type”, it was incredibly difficult to separate Woody Allen from Sandy Bates. Given Allen’s rich personal history made available to the public, there are certain prophetic instances throughout Stardust Memories that suggest personal tendencies in Woody Allen himself, rather than distinctive attributes to the written character of Sandy Bates. In a lot of ways, it makes for some retroactively imposed moments of awkwardness as Bates discusses marrying a younger woman.
There’s a moment in Stardust Memories where Bates is visited by aliens. He asks what he should do when choosing between two women. According to the aliens (voiced by a high-toned Allen), such a decision is of limited difficulty given their high IQs – they let Bates know exactly who to go for. Bates goes against their word and picks the other woman. It’s perhaps the clearest statement that Allen makes throughout the whole film – he’s going to do what he wants to do. Intellect doesn’t play a decisive role in his choices – it’s a gut thing.