Wednesdays With Woody: Stardust Memories (1980)

“Art and masturbation – two areas in which I am an absolute expert.”  – Sandy Bates.

Following a negative screen-test of his latest movie, Sandy Bates agrees to attend a film festival held at the Stardust Hotel, to honour his older, funnier movies.

Woody Allen takes us back and forth through Mr Bates’ (masturbates?) films, love relationships and boyish fantasies and sifts them through an hilarious chorus of fans and peers – all critics, who appear to have the most reflective, inane (and admittedly familiar) understandings of cinema – all too quick to marginalise the art. In its obvious homage to Fellini’s 8 1/2, and to Allen’s own previous work, Stardust Memories is both a love-letter to film-lovers, as well as a satire of the pretentious, alienating fanaticism that surrounds cinema.

Bates’ funny films – a series of vignettes like Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, in which his hostility manifests as a monster and kills his mother; he switches the brains of two women to make the perfect one – casting himself in the lead, as Allen does – show his comfort with parodying himself, but also his utterly insulated annoyance with criticism from anyone else. Bates, like Allen, is his own toughest and most consummate critic. He is rightly furious when he observes the hilarious “jazz heaven” recut of his latest, serious work, by the newest studio heads, “but you love jazz” they naïvely explain.

Bates begins to struggle with reality, misconstruing memory with fantasy, in particular regard to Dorrie (a stunning portrayal by Charlotte Rampling) whose affect is completely dependent on her mood stabilisers and whose misery is constantly supplanted with distant generosity. The confusion of real and reel has its peak when a woman emerges, claiming to be his mother, casually clarifying that she played his mother in a film – Bates finds the reunion nonetheless profound and so do we.

With Stardust constantly traversing between Bates’ present life, past memories, and his portrayals in his films – which become films within films within films – Allen has created a delightful exercise in cinematic art. Something he was already experimenting with in Annie Hall, when he plucked Marshall McLuhan out of nowhere while waiting in line at the movies.

The reoccurring masturbation joke with Woody Allen is one of the cheekiest insights into humanity’s relationship with art – totally subjective narcissistic self-indulgent pleasure. Apparently a personal favourite of the director’s, Stardust Memories is like having a great private joke with Allen – or mutual masturbation.

Read more entries in our Wednesdays with Woody feature!

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