Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” and “Stardust Memories”

I could almost care less about the storyline of Manhattan, especially given the accusations against Woody Allen. But the plot advances an idea: to be childlike is to innocently accept the power of images. I remember watching the film on a larger screen, the room dark for the sake of attending to the movie only. Awash in nostalgic, black and white scenes of New York, I felt like I was flipping through a photo album. The one image which stuck with me was that of a moving car on the highway. How the light at night gave a surprisingly rich set of reflections, how magical it all seemed.

Stardust Memories uses a more subtle palette. It trades the objects of NYC for portraits of people. A director not unlike Woody Allen is the center of the plot. He’s got crazy fans and a bunch of critics either dismissing him as trite or praising him as a genius. As a creator, he’s alone. Bittersweet and powerful to watch, it remains an open question of whether it is simply self-indulgent or genuinely profound.

I side with the latter opinion. The movie brings into focus three lovers of his, tempting us to dismiss them as crazy or shallow or both. The movie also establishes where it is happening: this is all in his head, these are his own stardust memories. Given that setting, we’re seeing things his way, and we can identify where he would be most biased.

Thus, what could easily be an exercise in narcissism becomes the question of other people, of one’s relation to the world. Charlotte Rampling’s Dorie is who we most want to watch. She’s extremely attractive and very much insane. It pains over and over to watch her beauty break. As a result, I think, director Sandy’s film about the train only reaches cliche, as the critics pronounce in the opening scene. For us and him, it’s a distraction from her. Unwittingly, she is the Muse.

Inspiration, for one who creates, comes from bleakness and pain. This is not an innocent thought. It neither humbles us before some authority nor limits us, as we are still creating, even if utterly dependent on how our mind is pulled one day and the next. Hence, the most out of place joke in Stardust Memories. It seems to come out of nowhere, only consistent with other egomaniac jokes scattered throughout: “To you, I’m an Atheist. To God, I’m the Loyal Opposition.” Why God and atheism had to be mentioned at all is the puzzle.

The egomania is more than self-critical. It brings the creator down to the rest of us. If the portraits of the various lovers feel a bit shallow, it’s in large part because of the shallowness of the vision extended to them. Our director offers, at the end, happiness as love on a train with a beautiful woman fixated on her looks. If there is anything profound to be had, it emerges from childish sentimentality. The director/creator realizes this, and is accordingly frightened. He’s more than willing to acknowledge his childishness, his failure to make sense of it all, his dependence on putting images in a sequence of sorts. Maybe what endears me to this film is its honesty, buried under layers of pretension. Layers, to be sure, which exist no matter what we want to attempt.