As the celebrated filmmaker protagonist of his latest movie, Woody Allen protests that "I don't feel funny. I look around the world and all I see is human suffering."
The second sentence can be disregarded as a standard Allen platitude. The first should be taken as fair warning. There's precious little fun to be gleaned from the barren firmament of "Stardust Memories," and even less profundity.
Evidently starved for inspiration for fresh subject matter -- but loath to let the old technique get rusty -- Allen has gone browsing through a junkpile of autobiographical jottings and impressions: fragmentary romances, recollections, fantasies nd bothersome encounters with a presumtuous, freakish public, plus assorted quips, notes and doodles.
As a result, "Stardust Memories," opening today at area theaters, has no dramatic shape or resonance, and the incidental laughs are few and far between. dThere's one wittily visualized and sustained comic interlude: a conversation between Woody Allen as filmmaker Sandy Bates and Anne De Salvo (probably the most effective member of the cast) as his sister, conducted in her bedroom while her husband rocks in and out of the frame on his exercise bicycle. Even when Allen articulates the occasional nifty -- for example, "I've always said intellectuals were like the Mafia: They only kill their own" -- one has the uneasy sensation of having heard it (or something awfully like it) too many times before.
The assorted narrative fragments are aranged around a potentially amusing premise: Bates has reluctantly agreed to let himself be adored and grilled at a weekend film seminar for movie buffs organized by an effusive woman critic (Helen Hanft in what is bound to be interpreted, mistakenly I think, as a caricature of Judith Crist, who does indeed preside at such affairs).
Bates' appearances at the seminar, held at an oceanside retreat in New Jersey called the Hotel Stardust, facilitate a series of encounters (past, present and possibly future), as well as flashbacks, hallucinations and apocryjphal excerpts from the work of Sandy Bates. Presumably, a revealing portrait of the artist as a hassled, amorous filmmaker is meant to emerge from this impressionistic clutter.
The episodes are depicted in black-and-white imagery whose contrasts are occasionally so harsh that one has the curious, dispiriting impression of looking at abstract arrangements inspired by Rorschach blotches. The effect is most pronounced when Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis are playing with sihouettes or posing characters and objects against he glaring white walls and photo-art wallpaper (blowups of movie stills or photojournalism, notably the infamous summary execution in the streets of Saigon during the Tet offensive) inside Bates' New York apartment.
The elaborate, self-conscious graphic design may be striking, but it isn't emotionally stirring or revealing. The Rorschach abstracts simply reinforce the impression that one is observing fleeting, inconclusive blobs of characterization, experience and thought. A second visual scheme is deliberately grotesque: The people who attend the film seminar and clamor so pretentiously or pathetically for Bates' attention have disorted features that make them appear ugly and threatening. The distortion seems to be achieved by manipulating both the camera lens and the makeup of the actors; one is made keenly aware of obesity, elongated faces, outsized features (particularly noses and lips), huge glass frames and darkened lenses and wigged-out hairstyles.
In the self-pitying tradition of "8 1/2" and "All That Jazz," the celebrity artist envisions himself as a potential victim of this freak show of admirers and supplicants. Allen even shows Bates fantasizing his own murder at the hands of some blandly psychotic fan. There's no satiric distancing to soften or contradict the impression of fundamental distaste. It's never seriously suggested that Bates' perception of his milieu may be a trifle myopic. If anything, he is congratulated for being too much of a realist, for seeing things more clearly and painfully than his public desires.
"Stardust Memories" may be the second coming of "Anhedonia," the mordant autobiographical mosaic that became "Annie Hall" after Allen and editor Ralph Rosenblum performed some drastic surgery in the editing room and Allen did a bit of reshooting to enhance the change of emphasis toward romantic comedy. Perhaps the reason "Stardust Memories" seems so washed-out and cheerless is that it represents a misguided attempt to retrieve a creative impulse that was exhausted on a previous occasion.
The upshot of the film's rambling continuity couldn't be more trite. Despite his keen awareness of the tragic side of human history, Bates concludes that perhaps there are a few emotional consolations here and there, especially in the company of women. In fact, the only activity he seems to practice with any dedication is flirtation. We see bits and pieces of an unhappy affair with a flaky part-time actress played by Charlotte Rampling; a possibly stable affair with an amiable but maybe jealous Frenchwoman, Marie-Christine Barrault, who has two young children; and a tentative approach to another prospective flake, a musician played by Jessica Harper.
Like almost every figure in the film, these women are too fragmentary to emerge as autonomous. At best, they impose distinctive physical traits on the shadowy indentities, but Rampling's tense angularity does not suffice to explain her climactic appearance in an insane asylum (her breakdown is in the nature of a specialty act rather than a dramatic culmination). In a similar respect, Harper's wonderful moon face and husky voice do not account for the hints of instability in her makeup, and the hints appear misleading or insignificant anyway.
The most evocative aspect of the film is its score: a collection of classic jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Django Reinhardt and many others. The movie may not give much pleasure, but the album should be a treat.
It's not so much the self-infatuated focus of "Stardust Memories" that seems disappointing as the absence of an interesting self to focus upon.
It's not unthinkable that Allen has simply exhausted his own personality and professional status as a source of material. "Mahattan" left the impression that he was describing a set of people he knew intimately, and perhaps it will be more productive to return to that set, inbred as it appears in many respects. It's also conceivable that Allen is having a vain little joke with the same public he seems to view with such exaggerated hostility and trepidation. The life of a celebrity is a nightmarish nuisance, he seems to be saying, so stay in your place. If you too aspire to cinematic renown, you too may have to tolerate people as unpleasant as yourselves.