Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Midnight Special pays inspired tribute to the work of both Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. In its honor, we’re recommending excellent homages to other films and filmmakers.
Like the two roads that diverged in the yellow wood, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories opens with two trains heading in opposite directions. As some nebbish iteration of himself, Allen sits dormant on a bleak locomotive, its passengers uniformly affixed with blank, hopeless expressions. Looking out the window, he spots an antithetical monorail, replete with an assemblage of beautiful men and women laughing, kissing, and drinking, soaking up life’s innumerable pleasures. Our protagonist insists to the conductor that he’s on the wrong train. The ticket is a misprint. It must be. It has to be. The dialogue is muted, but Allen’s dismay is perceptible. You see over there? That’s supposed to be me! Except it’s not. This is the hand our character has been dealt. And all of Allen’s yearning for happiness, for contentment, is encapsulated in this man’s desperate attempt to just change trains.
The rest of Stardust Memories toggles back and forth between Allen’s greatest fantasy and worse nightmare, until they become entwined. For Sandy Bates (Allen), hell is other people—especially if those people are fawning fans at a film festival honoring his illustrious filmography. In one of the film’s many homages to Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, Bates is accosted by admirers who especially enjoy his “earlier, funny work.” This gaggle of followers is rendered grotesque leeches, parasitic folk who ooze praise for Bates in the hopes of shaking his hand, taking a picture, or receiving a charitable donation to their fund for cancer research. Coming off the heels of Annie Hall and Manhattan, Allen is rejecting his growing base. He doesn’t merely want to not be part of a club that would have him for a member. He doesn’t want there to be a club at all.
Throughout this long weekend, the movie—and Bates—seems to oscillate in and out of reality. It’s a fool’s errand to try to unpack what actually does and does not happen to Bates. The images unfurling before us appear to be snapshots in the movie of his life. And in this surreal excursion, the triumvirate of women are both improbably stunning and improbably into Bates. In flashbacks, there are romantic visions of Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), a budding actress and photographer who is “perfection” two days out of the month and misery the other 28. Then there’s Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault), a fair-skinned French woman who ditched her husband to be with Bates, triggering latent fears that committed monogamy may not be for him. And, finally, there’s Daisy (Jessica Harper), a violinist from the New York Philharmonic whom Bates meets at the festival. Daisy and Bates stumble around this provincial town as the famed director attempts to reconcile with the mounting dissatisfaction around his life and work. Chiefly, he wants to be taken seriously an artist. Like Ingmar Bergman or Fellini. He doesn’t “feel funny” anymore, especially not with all that suffering in the world.
Of course, Bates is nothing more than an avatar for Allen himself, who has—throughout his career—expressed his desires to be someone who makes important, enduring works of art, like the filmmakers he so frequently emulates. With 36 years of distance from Stardust Memories, it’s easy to see now that this battle for longevity and significance is one Allen, in 1980, was just beginning to wage. It’s an endless war, one both Bates and Allen seem to be at peace with by the end of the movie. If transcendent art cannot be created, then at least there’re those fleeting memories of delight with Dorrie, the brief exchange of a smile with a lover as she lays on the ground, a Louis Armstrong song spinning in the background. The window on this particular spring day is slightly ajar, just enough so the cool wind gently brushes your face and hers. Not too cold, not too hot. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than spending those lonely nights alone, dreaming of a song.
Available: Stardust Memories is available on DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented and purchased from the major digital services.