Thursday, February 9, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.7: Woody Allen's Stardust Memories/A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen. Next up, 1980’s Stardust Memories and 1982’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

Stardust Memories Grade: 77 (B+)
Woody Allen’s work in the seventies was an inspiring run of films from a filmmaker whose talent and ambition seemed to grow with every movie (Everything…Sex aside). Allen’s long, fruitful creative peak wasn’t over by a long shot, but he did something curious with his first two entries in the 80s: both were virtual remakes of films by Allen’s favorite filmmakers, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. 1980’s Stardust Memories received mixed reception, with some calling it one of Allen’s finest where others ranked it among his very worst. There’s no denying that Manhattan’s intellectual airs and aspirations for great artistry were increased tenfold for its follow-up, sometimes to distracting degrees. Yet Stardust Memories is a perfectly enjoyable entry in Allen’s filmography, and it showcases Allen’s struggle with fame, the harsh realities of life, and the expectations of his fans.
Sandy Bates (Allen) is a renowned comic filmmaker whose latest work has put off certain studio heads with its wholly depressing ending. Bates doesn’t see the point in making comedies anymore when the world is so filled with suffering, and he’s annoyed that the studio wants to change the ending of his movie. He’s also annoyed that fans and critics constantly badger him, demand his attention (sometimes to frightening degrees, and insist that they enjoy his “early, funny films” more than anything else. When he has to go to a film festival honoring his work, he’s forced to consort with critics, fans, and aspiring actors who just won’t let him be. Bates also wrestles with several women: Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault), a warm and maternal French woman he’s currently dating; Daisy (Jessica Harper), a troubled, intellectual violinist he meets at the festival; and with his memory of his ex-girlfriend Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), a gorgeous and intelligent but unstable French woman.
From the beginning, Allen makes his inspiration clear: this is Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, Woody Allen-style (with a dash of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries thrown in for good measure). The opening scene turns out to be the final scene of Bates’ latest movie, but it plays like a dream sequence in either of those films: Bates sits on a train, surrounded by a group of decrepit grotesques: old, sickly, shaped like gargoyles. He looks out the window to see another train filled with beautiful people (including a starlet played by Sharon Stone in her first movie role). A clock ticks ominously in the background (Wild Strawberries). Bates tries to escape the train, to no avail. The sound is drowned out in white noise. The filmmaker who feels trapped and can’t escape/breathe is quoted directly from the opening of 8 ½, where Marcello Mastroianni’s character, Guido Contini (himself based on Fellini), is stuck in a traffic jam, surrounded by people, and he cannot escape his car. Stardust Memories’ “dream sequence” then cuts to a beach, where Bates wanders amongst decaying bodies.
As one critic notes, “It’s not funny!”. No, it certainly isn’t. Allen traps Sandy among the common rabble, a group of frightening grotesques. It’s a clear depiction of how Sandy (and Allen, for that matter) feels trapped by his fame and his fans. He can’t escape the feeling that he’s destined to be a common filmmaker making comedic films that he no longer feels attached to. Bates, being a Woody Allen character, has some good Bob Hope-style zingers (“To you, I’m an atheist. To God, I’m the loyal opposition”), but he’s increasingly uncomfortable with his persona and stigma as a comedian. He wants to say something about the world and existence! Matter is decaying! Doesn’t that mean anything to anyone? That Hollywood wants to cut his film’s ending to show the dead characters in “Jazz Heaven
The film goes on to illustrate just how ugly Sandy’s fan base can be: aside from the constant assertions that people love his “early, funny” films (which Allen’s pre-Annie Hall works are commonly referred to as now), he’s hounded by actors (Daniel Stern, who thinks it’s proper to approach a director with a headshot) and critics, who often call him a self-indulgent narcissist (which, yes, but…), and one dismisses his darker films as “pretentious, fancy, shallow and morbid…putting his private suffering as art” (sounds like someone was mad at Pauline Kael). Fans feel they can approach him for autographs at any point, no matter what he’s doing, whether he’s in the middle of an argument or sharing a tender moment with a loved one. One character played by Amy Wright goes so far as to tip the bellhop at Sandy’s hotel in order to get into his room and sleep with him (in a scene that references John Huston’s Wise Blood, in which Wright’s character did the exact same thing to Brad Dourif). Bates’ good friend and frequent collaborator, actor Tony (Tony Roberts), is a lusty, leering man who brags about dating a Playboy Playmate. With Stardust Memories, Allen attacks anyone who ever put a label on him, or expected too much of him.
Allen’s Bates is hardly an innocent, however. He is a narcissist. He is self-indulgent and self-important. He treats people badly, his resentment for his fans, family, and co-workers goes beyond misanthropy, and he’s more than willing to play the “I’m a celebrity” card when he needs to. His treatment of women, meanwhile, leaves something to be desired. Bates worshipped Dorrie’s feet, but she was unstable, jealous, and dissatisfied. She often refused to take her lithium. For every moment she made him happy, she made him miserable (Dorrie is supposedly based on Allen’s ex-wife Louise Lasser). Bates has followed Dorrie with a kindler, gentler girlfriend (although she’s also a French actress), but he treats her like a mistress, and the fact is, she’s married. She has two kids, and he’s unsure if he wants that baggage. He then gravitates to the more tragic (or “lost”, as he calls it) Daisy, who’s currently seeing someone and warns Bates that she’s trouble, which only further entices him. He’s neurotic, he’s paranoid, and he’s frequently hostile. Ultimately, Bates is one of those grotesques on that train; he knows he’s not much better than anyone else, even if he sometimes acts like he is. “For a funny guy, you’re a depressive”.
Stardust Memories shares 8 ½’s self-deprecation and desire to skewer critics and fans alike; it also shares certain breaks from reality combined with an autobiographical nature. Both films (and Wild Strawberries, for that matter) often travel back to the protagonist’s childhood (Bates got his start doing magic tricks, as did Allen). Both films’ protagonists are haunted by past relationships and juggle relationships with several women. Both feature elaborate fantasy sequences (including one in Stardust Memories where Bates is “killed” by a fan). Both feature director protagonists trying to make films full of great meaning (Allen and Fellini surrogates). Both even contain sci-fi elements: Guido of 8 ½ is making a sci-fi film, while Bates has an vision where he meets aliens who tell him his gift is in comedy, and to lighten up (also, they prefer his “early, funny” movies). The film’s plotline of a man going to a ceremony in his honor, meanwhile, is straight out of Wild Strawberries.
Stardust Memories is a bit too reverent to Fellini’s film, and it can’t quite compare. It’s also easy to be turned off by how much misanthropy the film is truly filled with. Yet for all its pretensions and occasional nastiness, it maintains a mostly…well, not exactly optimistic, but mostly light tone throughout. It’s a comedy, ultimately, and Allen ends it on a rather sweet note as Bates comes to the realization that life, for all of its misery, is filled with cheerful moments, and finding them is the key to getting by.
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy Grade: 15 (D)
Allen’s next planned project, Zelig, was more unique and ambitious in its conception…so ambitious that he, cinematographer Gordon Willis, and other collaborators didn’t quite know how to do it. It was going to be a long pre-production, and Orion Studios (Allen’s new home after United Artists’ troubles), wanted something as soon as possible. Allen responded with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, an ensemble piece inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s comedy (which, yes, Bergman did make a comedy) Smiles of a Summer Night, itself inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Bergman’s film was also the inspiration for the exquisite Stephen Sondheim  stage-musical A Little Night Music). The result wasn’t quite up to par with its inspiration, to say the very least.
Early 1900s: Leopold (Jose Ferrer) is a philosopher who denies anything outside of the material world. Leopold is engaged to Ariel (Mia Farrow), a much younger woman, and his cousin Adrian (Mary Steenburgen) has offered her country home for a final pre-wedding weekend together. Adrian and her husband, the unsuccessful inventor Andrew (Allen), are having marital problems, which are only exasperated when Andrew realizes that Leopold’s fiancĂ©e is an old flame of his. To make matters worse, Andrew’s womanizing doctor friend Maxwell (Tony Roberts) is also on the guest list, and he too has fallen for Ariel; Maxwell brought his sexually liberated nurse Dulcy (Julie Hagerty) along for his own purposes, but now Leopold lusts for her. And as if it weren’t complicated enough, the pompous Leopold debates Maxwell and Andrew at every turn about the reality of the metaphysical and spiritual world.
It’s a funny enough idea for a movie, and to his credit, Allen is trying something new. This isn’t an Allen-type one-liner driven comedy, but rather an attempt at a more delicate and sophisticated film. Allen wanted to do for the New York countryside what he did for Manhattan, and Willis photographs the it beautifully. Allen also assembles a fine cast- Steenburgen, shortly after her Melvin and Howard Oscar win; the highly respected Ferrer; talented comic Hagerty shortly after Airplane!’s release; old friend Roberts; and Farrow, in a role originally intended for Diane Keaton, who was too busy promoting Warren Beatty’s epic Reds. Farrow and Allen would establish a ten-year romantic and creative relationship that would reach great heights.
That isn’t to say the film is successful, however. Allen’s later works (cough, Small Time Crooks, cough cough, Midnight in Paris) often have the stink of a first draft rushed into production. Here, that’s literally the case: Allen claimed that the script was written in two weeks. The film is all set-up, no punch-line. Allen doesn’t have a feel for this type of comedy, and without the typical one-liners to rely on, he’s completely at sea. It’s a pale-Bergman imitation of a far worse kind than Interiors: it can’t even be called lively. This movie is lazy. Worse still, Allen doesn’t give his actors (including himself) anything funny to do or say. Ferrer is pompous, Roberts sex-crazed, Hagerty oversexed. Great set-up, but where’s the joke? Allen himself looks completely out of place in the 1900s countryside, and Farrow’s debut  in an Allen film is pretty inauspicious. Allen fleetingly covers his favorite subjects- philosophy, religion, existence-  and when it comes to the “sex”, it’s all painfully unfunny farce.
 Allen’s output throughout the rest of the 80s was inspired (give or take a few more Bergman imitations), but Midsummer is a major stumbling block for the director, a boring, laughless affair, and his first truly awful movie. Thank goodness Allen’s next five films saw the director trying something new (Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters) or otherwise reliving his glorious past (Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days). Any more of this junk, and the world would have given up on Allen long ago.

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