Nov 7, 2010

Stardust Memories (1980)

Charlotte Rampling, Woody Allen
It's hard to believe that such a rich film as Stardust Memories caused an uproar back in 1980. In light of the "automatic pilot" films Woody Allen has been making lately, this object of bitter debate is much more adventurous, more dense, and certainly more challenging. Allen of course was pigeon-holed after Annie Hall- all anyone ever wanted from the poor guy was more of the same kind of romantic comedies. Then his subesquent film was the confounding Interiors, his first foray into Ingmar Bergman Territory, whose austere, cold tone shocked a lot of his fans. All that was forgiven however, with his next release, Manhattan. This great old-fashioned valentine featuring a heartbreaking romance made a lot of viewers feel safe again. Then came Stardust Memories.

Even today, people still write this film off as being narcisstic, and cruel to Allen's own fans. This argument is understandable, but not entirely founded. Stardust Memories chronicles the weekend in which director Sandy Bates is at a festival screening his films, "patricularly the early funny ones". Every other scene depicts the man being mobbed by psychotic fans, or leeches who want him to do a favour for their cause.

All the poor guy wants to do is make movies! Because these admirers are so exaggerated, I highly doubt that these scenes are meant as an attack on his loyal fans (if anything, they satirize the Hollywood scene, which Allen has safely avoided for most of his career). Plus, critics may have cringed at the Q&A sequences in which Bates expertly shoots down people's pretentious questions. In this case, he is dead on. Press junkets are full of hogwash like this. Let's be honest, 90% of film criticism is junk. But perhaps most scabrously, Stardust Memories could be his revenge on those who frowned on Interiors.

Bates' neuroses is steeped in his desire to make serious films; in light of all the human suffering, he can no longer make funny movies. Like the lead character in Sullivan's Travels, he doesn't realize his greatest gift of all: the gift of laughter. This quirk is certainly indicative of Allen's state of mind-- why shouldn't he make a serious film like Interiors if he wants to, just because some fan only wants to laugh? But what is most uncompromising about this picture is its ambitious narrative. Annie Hall is very complex with its "flashback within a flashback" structure, but this film consistently challenges the viewer to discern what is real, and what is part of the movie within this movie.

The opening sequence is one of Allen's greatest setpieces. Our favourite red-haired New Yorker is in a train filled with morose people who sit around pondering (the greatest satire of Bergman since De Duva). He becomes aware of a beautiful blonde in the train leaving next to his. He tries to get out of the train to join her, but is trapped. Cut to white leader. Dissolve to Allen walking through a land in which seagulls fly overhead. At first we think it is a beach, and then it turns out that he and his fellow passengers are at a garbage dump! Cut to critics in front of a black cyc saying what a pretentious piece of crap Sandy Bates' latest film is. So begins Woody Allen's own 8-1/2, a confessional fantasy about a director questioning what his next film should be, as surrealistic moments reflect on his own neuroses.

Like that inspiring 1963 movie, as Stardust Memories unfolds, we are constantly questioning what we see. Some moments which we believe to be in the present are actually flashbacks (he has mastered Bergman's use of characters looking offscreen to "view" an incident in their past). Other moments which we are sure really happened in the "real" world, turn out to be neurotic dream sequences, or scenes from the films which Bates is showing at the festival. Plus, he uses Fellini's clever device of confounding the POV. In the scene where Sandy visits his sister, we see this moment through his eyes (as people with whom he interacts speak directly to the camera), then Bates walks into frame.

Sandy Bates with Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) and Daisy (Jessica Harper)
Ever the cavalier actor-writer-director, Allen also writes in three women who share Bates' life. We first meet the dark, coldly sexy, but neurotic Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling!) before he leaves for the festival. Then at the hotel, he reunites with Isobel (played by Marie-Christine Barrault; whose pale features may have reminded Allen of Bergman's frequent star, Liv Ullmann). Plus, he is charmed by a daffy groupie, Daisy (Jessica Harper), whose off-the-wall demeanour is an interesting photocopy of Annie Hall. However, we soon learn that Daisy's flightiness is a facade-- she is a depressive neurotic... much like Sandy.

During Sandy's stay at the Hotel Stardust (hence, the title) he frequently has Bergmanesque sequences which involve Dorrie, both romantically and professionally. One memorable moment features the two kissing in the rain, then the camera tracks out to reveal that the two are being filmed on a movie set. This simple, sly gag is indicative of the film's entire dizzying structure. So crammed is this film with fantasy sequences, that we begin to question if Dorrie exists in the present at all (despite what we hear in her first scene).

What is also striking about this picture is that Allen wisely gives each scene a different texture. He begins his movie with a light-hearted nod to the classic traffic jam sequence which opens the great Fellini film. But Allen's movie is a nod to more than a few great European masters. Throughout, there are whispers of Bergman, Antonioni, Melies, and even the delicate touch of Tati!

Even the flashback sequences to Bates' own childhood have unique styles. When Sandy as a child breaks down on the stage of a school pageant because he wanted the part of God, the destruction of the set is filmed like a Keystone Kops comedy. Because this film is about a guy who can't seperate real life from reel life, what better way to illustrate this fact than to load this picture with scenes which evoke references to directors and/or filming styles of the past?

Another amazing setpiece unfolds when Sandy and Daisy encounter a group of people waiting for a UFO landing-- a perfect motif for his character to ask the big cosmic questions.  But in this field, (a classic location for Bergman's characters to have dream sequences), we also begin to see major characters in Bates' life, even the extras who appeared in the opening scene! Like Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, Allen fills the frame with characters who less represent people than a state of mind. Every person on this enchanted locale is some facet of Bates' own doubts or fears. Within this sequence, we are given to question life, love, religion and finally, death.

Despite the dense narrative, Stardust Memories is also a romantic comedy, only this time the fans have to dig a bit to find it. As usual, Allen's character is questioning whether or not he has found the right woman. Like any classic Truffaut, the one who loves the most is ignored. But because of the clever ending which reveals all of the preceding characters to be walking out of a theatre showing Bates' latest movie in which they all appear, we are never certain who if anyone he gets at the end.

But this amazing ending begs as many questions as it answers. Is everything we see previously a movie? Or is this just Allen's way of capping his own 8-1/2, much like Fellini ended his with a parade representing life, the universe and everything? And in that regard, does life, the universe and everything only exist for Sandy on the movie screen?

Finally, we are treated to a lovely fade-out as Bates walks through the empty theatre. This is everything he is. He is nothing without the image. I am reminded of Poe's lines: "Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?". Substitute the word "dream" with "movie", and that is Sandy Bates. That is Stardust Memories. Superb.

(originally published in ESR #7)

Nov 3, 2010

Hereafter (2010)

With the plethora of Hollywood product being aimed for twelve-year-old boys, it gets harder to become excited for any new mainstream release.  But I couldn't wait to see Hereafter.  The tantalizing subject matter, featuring three stories in which characters ponder the afterlife, makes for an endlessly fascinating discussion.  In addition to one's curiosity about our existences beyond the material world, one is also surprised to see a change of pace for director Clint Eastwood.  But the actor-director's oeuvre in the past decade has been nothing but surprising, creating a body of work with such a vitality that eclipses those of many filmmakers half his age.

The reaction to this film has been rather cold, perhaps because the trailer deceived people into thinking they were getting another Sixth Sense, but instead received another of Clint Eastwood's "chamber pieces".  Also, people have attacked this film for being rather superficial in terms of its approach to the subject matter.  But Hereafter isn't about providing answers about what exists further on, it's about how people cope with life-changing incidents.

ABOVE: Cecile de France, Thierry Neuvic

Peter Morgan, the script-writer of The Queen and Last King of Scotland once again incorporates historic events into a narrative, as seen in the opening scene which recreates the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, devastating a resort at which journalist Marie Lelay (Cecile de France) is vacationing with her lover and producer Didier (Thierry Neuvic).  Much has been made of this sequence, in which CGI has (for once) been properly used so that one doesn't see the craft.  Even the film's detractors concede that this scene is spectacular, but in truth this sequence is presented as lean and matter-of-factly as any other dramatic moments that follow.  For instance, a later closeup of a bereaved sibling is far more devastating than anything that the Dream Factory conjures up in these first few moments.  As usual, Clint Eastwood is less interested in spectacle than the humans affected by it.  (I am reminded of his refusal to turn Flags of My Fathers into a war-is-hell epic that could have rivalled his producer's own Saving Private Ryan).  Instead, you see just enough of the chaos to push the narrative forward, as Marie nearly drowns in the deluge, and has a near-death experience.  After this trauma, the aggressive journalism celebrity (whose face also adorns billboard ads for Blackberry) instead becomes aloof and meditative. While taking time off from her television show to recuperate, she begins her long held ambition to write a tell-all book about politician Francois Mitterand, but instead (much to the chagrin of her publishers) decides to write about her brief encounter with the hereafter.

ABOVE: Frankie / George McLaren
The second story, set in London, features 12-year old twin brothers Marcus and Jason, who live with their loving but drug-addicted mother.  (It is to Morgan's credit that this substance abuser is presented as a compassionate human being, instead of a physically or psychologically abusive lout.)  After Jason's death in an accident, social services move Marcus to a foster home.  However, he remains socially withdrawn and instead spends his time researching psychics in order to seek some solace over the loss of his brother.  Of the three stories, this one is perhaps the most satirical, despite that it it depicts a broken family unit and the unimaginable loss of losing a child.  In one sequence, Marcus sees an array of caricatured new age psychics in his quest for answers, each one more ridiculous than the last, thus informing the viewers that this film is less keen on providing answers about the almighty than studying the lengths to which its characters will go to explore these new senses brought upon by grief.

ABOVE: Bryce Dallas Howard, Matt Damon
And while these central characters are trying to explore the other side, in the third story, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) conversely wants to put aside his former self as a celebrity psychic and live a simple life in LA.  However, he is constantly forced to demonstrate his psychic abilities on people who are seeking contact with those on the other side, often at the prodding of his own brother.  His sibling Billy (Jay Mohr) urges him to use the gift he is given, but George relents, instead calling his abilities a curse.  As George attempts to have a normal life, wearing a hardhat at his construction job and taking a cooking class, one is tempted to compare Damon's character to that of his boy genius character in Good Will Hunting, who likewise forsakes his gifts for a blue collar world. Despite that these moments have the most star power, perhaps some of these scenes are the weakest in the film, especially when George attempts to have a relationship with his cooking class partner Melissa (Bryce Dallas Howard).  The overlong sequence in which their tasting of food, while meant to be passionate and subtly erotic (as which both of these characters are escaping pasts and attempting to embrace the gift of life), instead becomes plainly silly, because Ms. Howard doesn't rise up to the fun and frolic that these moments require.  (One is reminded of the endless Lady Chablis sequence that train wrecks the otherwise very good Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.) Much better are the dramatic moments when Melissa discovers George's psychic abilities (indirectly due to his brother), and urges him to do a reading for her, which reveals more of her past than she would have imagined.  As the other characters in the narrative are seeking answers, this story thread reminds us that some questions are best left unanswered.

These three stories converge in a carefully plotted resolution that feels neither contrived nor satirical (for example in the cute ending of Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red, which joins the stories of the other two films in the "three colors" trilogy).  Eastwood has a good trump card with Peter Morgan, who cleverly weaves the threads together, unlike Paul Haggis' messy attempt at meta-narrative in Flags of Our Fathers.  (He further blurs fiction and reality with the addition of the 2005 London bombing, and actor Derek Jacobi playing himself.)

Hereafter isn't the masterpiece I had hoped for, as it admittedly has some choppy sequences, and some weak secondary characters.  If one is expecting a Hollywood extravaganza, one will end up being as disappointed as some of the characters looking for enlightenment.  Instead this is a low-key study, where the other world is presented only sparingly (with blurry silhouettes in the foreground, bleached out by the traditional white light), and the supernatural is presented as subtly as a hat blowing away.  Despite that Steven Spielberg is the executive producer, there is little wonderment to behold other than that of human emotion.  Once again, Eastwood presents a film with his typically lean direction, jet-black cinematography by Tom Stern, and a characteristically sparse musical score. (Upon leaving the theatre, I found myself humming the similar piano trickle from Million Dollar Baby.)  And perhaps in light of the bombast we customarily expect from Hollywood this days, this film is a quiet relief.

In the past decade, Clint Eastwood has consistently given us surprises: seldom delivering what we expect, but instead what we need.  Happily, Hereafter is another fine example of Eastwood's renaissance as a filmmaker.  His recent oeuvre can only be compared with the impressive string of films released by other directors like Robert Altman, Luis Bunuel or John Huston, who made career-defining comebacks in their post senior years.  While this film may sound elegiac, (as in Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, which the director likely knew would be his final picture) especially since it is made by a filmmaker in his autumnal period,  it is one of the most life-affirming movies ever made about death.  (One would put this film in that very small catalogue shared by Peter Weir's Fearless.)   It is a surprisingly rapturous study of people who learn to appreciate the great gift of life after their experiences with death.  And while still showing no signs of slowing down at the age of 80, we can only ask, what is Clint Eastwood going to do next?