My dislike of Woody Allen films is well documented, through Netflix ratings and comments on blogs, including a few posts on Jeremy Richey’s Moon in the Gutter. Of the twenty-four films directed by Allen that I had seen before my trip to Paris, I liked three: Manhattan (1979), Another Woman (1988), and Husbands and Wives (1992). Not a very good batting average. In fact, I almost skipped out on attending the screening of Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) at the Filmothèque du Quartier Latin based on our history together. Thankfully, I did not.
It was the middle of June and homesickness was taking its toll. I missed my girlfriend. I missed my cat. I missed forests and hills. I missed staying up late and watching stupid television. My heart was heavy and my head was constantly throbbing. I had just picked up the current issue of Pariscope, the guide to all cinematic happenings in the city, and, moping along in muggy dreariness near the Place d’Italie, I spied a listing for the Filmothèque’s Woody Allen retrospective (God, the French love him), and decided the day might be brightened by a light dosage of Woody’s usually unbearable routine of nervous romance and pseudo-intellectual banter. What really sold me was the film that was playing – Stardust Memories – a gigantic allusion to Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), one of my all-time favorites, and photographed by Gordon Willis, whom I trusted to at least provide some enticing visuals. I hopped on the Metro and had to half-jog once I got to the Boulevard St-Michel in order to make it on time for the 2:00 pm showing. Sweaty and a bit tired, I waited in line for the doors to open with about twenty people, all looking equally uncomfortable.
Seated in the Filmothèque, anticipating the dimming of the lights, I heard English being spoken by a trio of students around my age – two American guys and a French girl, who was romantically linked with the more attractive dude. They were seated at my left, and I was positioned in the center of the screen. They complained about not having a good enough view when I decided to speak to them. I think it surprised the girl-less American next to me when I told him, in English, that I could move over a few seats, if they wanted. Enthusiastically and with genuine gratitude, they thanked me and we all proceeded to shift down the row. Pre-flick friendly chatter started up and I learned that my next-seat neighbor was from Oklahoma. I told him I was from Kentucky. He had never been there, and I told him that I had never visited the Sooner State either. I inquired as to if he had seen any good movies in Paris and he revealed that he and his friend had seen Five Easy Pieces (1970) a few days earlier and that that was about it. I asked if he had seen 8 ½, to which he replied in the negative, prompting me to briefly explain the plot and style of that film so that he could get the most out of Stardust Memories. He was sincerely appreciative of my half-assed introduction, and, for once, my film geekiness came in handy. How about that?
The opening scene of Stardust Memories, a sarcastic, yet loving, quotation of 8 ½’s famous introductory dream sequence, had me nearly rolling on the floor immediately. Woody Allen was making me laugh! What a novelty! Gordon Willis was coming through as well, imitating the crisp black-and-white cinematography of Gianni Di Venanzo, while concurrently injecting a humorous, satirical flair that further embraced the comedic edge of Fellini’s masterpiece. Then came the turn – instead of the opening all being a dream, it was a movie, created by Allen’s fictional protagonist, Sandy Bates (played by Allen, of course), a director in the midst of an artistic and romantic crisis (sound familiar?), openly seeking to emulate Fellini’s precedent and rescue himself from being pigeonholed as a solely comic filmmaker, just as Allen had been the time. Autobiographical elements popped up throughout the film, although Allen denies the autobiographical quality of Stardust Memories, and the film sustained a brilliant blend of absurd/surreal humor and existential/romantic tragedy as it relayed some of the most intense moments in any Woody Allen picture – a fitting tribute to the Maestro.
Watching Sandy Bates struggle with lost love, trust and idealism, his flashbacked past, and the dark cloud hanging over his future, I felt centered and placid. The screen was talking to me, calming me, and I was talking back, in my chuckles and moments of sharp recognition. Woody and I were finally having the conversation that I felt like he had always been trying to have with me. He and his fellow filmmakers had found the right framing, the right lighting, the right emotions, the right movements, and the right cuts. As the film played and I grew closer to it and I felt myself loving my girlfriend more, loving my home more, loving cinema more – all without bittersweet loneliness, only an exuberant promise of being held: by her, by the foothills, by each frame of film. I felt comfortable in Paris, really comfortable, for the first time. And at the end of the film, Woody did something that made me love him.
After Sandy Bates screens his finished film for the entire cast and crew (a meta-feat of “hey, was she playing an actress playing a part or was she just playing the part or is she just playing herself?” comparable to Fellini’s achievement), and after they all rush out, muttering critical opinions to one another, he is left alone in the relatively small screening room. A bit somber, a bit relieved, Sandy (or is it actually Woody this time?) walks up and down the vacant aisles, touching his hand slightly on the tops of empty chairs. He grabs his thick-rimmed glasses from his former seat near the front of the pew-less congregation and looks up at the plain white screen affixed to the wall. Staring deeply, lovingly, he pauses and carefully moves closer to the smooth rectangular icon, suggesting intimacy. Slowly, he places his hand upon the screen and lowers his head slightly before moving away respectfully and exiting the screening room. I knew what he had done. He had said, “thank you.” I understood. I knew that gesture, that feeling. Woody and I were on the same wavelength then – grateful for the cinema, grateful for its generosity. And that’s a sensation that I have brought back with me – all the way home, thousands of miles from Paris, where Woody spoke to me and made my loneliness bearable.
by Brandon Colvin