27 July 2010
It's hard to believe this is the first Woody Allen film I've seen this year. It was picked essentially because I knew I hadn't seen it in a while and it was a mid-era piece, one of the Three Favorites (he's famously said that only three of his films turned out exactly how he wanted them: if memory serves it was this, Purple Rose of Cairo and Match Point). I'd seen a handful of Woody Allen movies over the years of course, but I wasn't in love with any of them (not even Annie Hall... though as a kid I loved Sleeper) until my first in-theater Woody Allen experience, which was Deconstructing Harry. Somehow that opened me up to the world of Woody Allen, and I began falling in love with his older films as well. To this day Deconstructing Harry remains one of my favorite and most-watched of his. I bring this up because Stardust Memories feels in so many ways like the same film.
In a way that goes way beyond mere auteurism in filmmaking, Stardust and Harry take the same approach to the same story. In the former, he's a filmmaker being celebrated at a weekend-long event, and the story is intercut with expressionistic vignettes, purportedly scenes from the films made by his fictional character (Sandy Bates), while the story explores the three major relationships in his life and the nature and value of his work. In the latter, he's a novelist being honored somewhat ironically at a university he dropped out of, and the story is intercut with expressionistic vignettes, purportedly scenes from the novels written by his fictional character (Harry Block), while the story explores the three(ish) major relationships in his life and the nature and value of his work. (Further, they're both Wild Strawberries; but Woody Allen riffing on plots by Bergman -- who'd have guessed?) The main difference seems to be that in Stardust his adoring fans are ubiquitous, an unavoidable torrent of love and awkward conversations, and the primary conflict is in his shift from bright comedy into deeper, more thoughtful dramatic territory; and in Harry his fans never make an appearance, and the primary conflict is that his work too closely mirrors his own life and constantly gets him into trouble with the loved ones whose quirks or natures he exaggerates for effect.
I know Woody Allen says his films are decidedly not autobiographical and that he hates the idea that people read them that way, but come on. In 1980, when Stardust Memories came out, it was his fourth "more mature" film, including the challenging-at-the-time Annie Hall and Manhattan, and the somber Interiors. How can there be no autobiography in a story about a well known director of comedies segueing into Fellini, Antonioni and Bergman homages as he explores issues of psychology, existentialism, and the idea of perfect love, whose fans are still yearning for the days when he made silly comedies? And then, seventeen years later, after fighting the "this film isn't about me, it's just a story I made up" battle for almost two decades, along comes Deconstructing Harry, a film about an author burning every bridge by writing a little too close to what he knows. I try to respect an artist at their word, at least about the intent of their work (even if I often disregard their intent as tangential to the value of the content of their work), but I find it impossible to watch a Woody Allen story and not view it as self-derived, and wonderfully, honestly, multi-dimensionally so. Like it or not, I don't think any other filmmaker alive approaches the themes and nature of their own life and work with the kind of candor that Woody Allen has for decades. Not every film he makes is a gem, especially these days, and dare I say it: I wish he'd stop rushing one out every year and spend a couple of years per film, really perfecting it -- because when he's on, when he does make a gem, it's an instant classic, a piece of the canon not to be ignored. For me, Stardust Memories is one of those instant-classic gems.