Archive for September 1980

Stardust Memories

September 26, 1980

I like Woody Allen when he’s nasty. Many fans and critics don’t, and when he squeezes out a sour pellet like Stardust Memories (or the later Deconstructing Harry), some critics stop being critics and start being armchair psychologists. They can’t separate Woody from the character he’s playing; it’s convenient for them to assume Woody means everything that he, in character, says and does. This comedy — yes, folks, it is a comedy — was viewed at the time as a “horrible betrayal” (Pauline Kael) of Allen’s fan base as well as a whiny case of the celebrity blues. It is a fairly brutal and stylized account of the miseries of a famous comedian/director, who is trying to do something different, but his grabby fans and uncomprehending studio bosses won’t let him.

Actually, I doubt how much of this movie — starring Allen as Sandy Bates, a director invited to a film-geek retreat for a retrospective of his work — is strictly autobiographical. Allen, at the time, had carte blanche at United Artists. They gave him the money to make Interiors; they did everything in their power to woo him away from moving to Orion (a move that turned out to be abandoning one soon-to-sink ship for another). I think this movie is Allen’s worst-case-scenario version of a director like him who faces challenges that Allen didn’t.

Seen in that light, the movie can be enjoyed for its funhouse-mirror take on dweeby fans (I understand that Allen exaggerates a little here, but not by much) and its depiction of the solipsistic Sandy Bates, who simply cannot be intended as a likable character like Alvy Singer, a schlumpy Everyman who made good. Viewed in context with the rest of Allen’s work, Sandy and his story make up just one portrait among many; viewed back in 1980, the film could be (and was) taken as Woody’s “fuck you” to anyone who ever watched, critiqued, or loved any of his movies. Perhaps Allen got singed by the heat of the critical reaction — it would be seven years before this formerly quite personal filmmaker made another remotely autobiographical movie.

Melvin and Howard

September 19, 1980

Melvin and Howard is one of the finest movies of the ’80s, or of any decade. It’s the true story of Melvin Dummar (Paul LeMat), a dreamer and aspiring songwriter who picked up a scraggly bum (Jason Robards) while tooling along a desert highway one night. The bum turned out to be Howard Hughes — Robards, making the most of his limited screen time, has a quiet triumph when he intones, with utter conviction, “I’m Howard Hughes” — and Melvin became an overnight celebrity when he came forward with a will that apparently left him $176 million of Hughes’ estate.

The will was rejected by a jury, and Melvin went back to pumping gas. But Melvin and Howard is only peripherally about that will. Mostly, it’s interested in the various stages of Melvin’s life, from his first marriage to the aftermath of all the controversy. Above all, it’s a sympathetic treatment of everything naïve and hopeful in the loser-dreamers of America: evidence suggests that Melvin falsified the will, but we come away from the movie not caring much, because he’s presented as such a gentle and good man. (The film isn’t finally about what really happened to Melvin; it’s about the idea of such a thing happening to somebody like him.)

Melvin and Howard has some great, reverberant moments. There’s Melvin cajoling Hughes into singing — first his own song, then “Bye Bye Blackbird.” There’s Melvin watching his first wife (Mary Steenburgen in a justifiably Oscar-winning performance) perform on a TV game show, his expression one of pure love and admiration even as the crowd boos her — the scene rivals in emotional impact the moment in Citizen Kane when Charles Foster Kane manically, defiantly applauds his talentless wife when no one else does.

Paul LeMat, however, is neither defiant nor manic — he’s a kind-hearted good ol’ boy who accepts anything that rolls his way. (It’s a crime that his career went more or less nowhere after this film.) And director Jonathan Demme, one of our most easygoing and affectionate filmmakers, respects Melvin’s hands-in-pockets outlook. Demme settles down in the living room and enjoys the company of the characters. It’s easy to forget that the man who made The Silence of the Lambs used to be a laid-back master of relaxed character observation. Melvin and Howard links to the later thriller in an odd way: The central character’s life is changed by a brief encounter with a notorious man, played by a great actor in a bare minimum of screen time yet haunting the entire film with his presence. Demme’s frequent cinematographer Tak Fujimoto knocks us out right off the bat with a magnificent shot of Hughes riding his motorcycle across a lonely stretch of desert. The whole movie spins off of that joie-de-vivre shot.

The key to Melvin and Howard comes at the end, when Melvin admits he knew he wouldn’t get the inheritance but doesn’t mind, because, in his words, “Howard Hughes sang Melvin Dummar’s song — ‘Santa’s Souped-Up Sleigh.'” He did indeed — or, if he didn’t, the movie makes you believe he did.

Return of the Secaucus 7

September 5, 1980

When The Big Chill came out, many critics seemed to forget that John Sayles (making his directorial debut) was there first with a lower-wattage, less pretentious, and better-written (if not always better-acted) study of a group of former college radicals dealing with adult life ten years later. The title refers to the group’s name for itself after they got busted in Secaucus, New Jersey. The reunion takes place at the small New Hampshire house of unmarried couple Mike (Bruce MacDonald) and Katie (Maggie Renzi). Others in the group include drug counselor Jeff (Mark Arnott), who’s just broken up with actress Maura (Karen Trott); aspiring country singer J.T. (Adam Lafevre); political aide Irene (Jean Passanante), who drags along new boyfriend Chip (Gordon Clapp); med-school nurse Frances (Maggie Cousineau); mechanic Ron (David Strathairn), who never left town; and Howie (Sayles himself), the only one to have started a family.  The film is sometimes awkward, no doubt due to the necessity for minimal camera set-ups (the budget was $60,000), and a few of the performances are amateurish — including, oddly enough, David Strathairn, who would later unlearn the De Niro mannerisms he relies on too heavily here. But mostly this is the sort of small-scale, sharply observed character drama Sayles’ admirers know and love.