A man sits in a stationary, silent train carriage. He looks around. He is surrounded by very odd looking people. It is a depressing place. The man looks at another train through his window. It is full of glamourous folk, laughing and having the time of their lives. The man is confused. Suddenly, the man’s train lurches into motion and he realises something: he’s on the wrong train. He pleads with the conductor to let him switch trains, but it’s no use. In the end, however, it doesn’t matter, because the freaks from one train and the socialites from the other wind up at the same place. A garbage dump.
This is the opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, his follow-up to to the popular Manhattan. This film, however was not a hit with critics or the public, and even for Woody fans, it’s a tough sell. I’ve seen it a few times and it’s one of those films I admire but ultimately don’t think I really like.
That opening sequence turns out to be the final sequence of the latest film by a director (played by Woody) who is tired of making funny movies and wants to address the existential questions that haunt him. He reluctantly agrees to attend a weekend retrospective of his films at a seaside resort, where his memories, his dreams and his fears all seem to coalesce. While he struggles with grand questions about the meaning of life, he also struggles with questions of which woman to pursue and how to cope with a seemingly endless parade of oddball fans.
Woody Allen has said in a number of interviews that he can never predict which films will draw a big audience and which will fail. This one not only failed, it enraged audiences who saw it as a personal statement that Woody resented his fame and his fan base. He has also said in a number of interviews that that was certainly not the case, that he doesn’t feel that way about his audience and even if he did he would be too clever to show it in a film.
But the film doesn’t do him any favours. Woody plays ‘Sandy’, the filmmaker who once directed an actor named Tony (played by Tony Roberts) and whose mother and younger self are played by the same actors as in Annie Hall. This is also the film where the phrase ‘early, funny movies’ originates. This is what some visiting aliens like about Sandy’s work, much to Sandy’s annoyance since he wants the extraterrestrial beings to give him the meaning of life.
There is a lot I do like about this film, especially the black and white cinematography, the soundtrack (featuring Louis Armstrong’s immortal version of Stardust and other classic jazz tracks) and the freakish gallery of extras. But taken all together, it doesn’t work for me. Maybe the misanthropic message – that anything we achieve is meaningless in a meaningless universe – is too much of a bitter pill to take. I’ve also never been a huge fan of dream-inspired movies, including the iconic Eight And A Half, a film from which Stardust Memories takes more than a few cues.
Just like dreams, this film is funny, depressing, beautiful and confusing all at once. To fully appreciate it perhaps I need to see it a few more times, or I need some analysis.
Next week: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy