Interiors and Stardust Memories
Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival
The sound is the protest of live flesh being stripped from bone; a violent ripping as the electrical tape is pulled from its roll. Against the Envelope White windowsills and Mushroom colored doorframes, its aggressively black presence is an affront. Once it is smoothed tightly along the seams of the room, the knobs on the stove are turned to open and the hissing fills our ears. Eve, family matriarch, wearing a severe black dress and with a part in the center of her hair so straight it might have been drawn with a ruler, takes a seat on one of the unornamented settees in champagne velvet. She looks around, surveying the pale cream walls, the few framed paintings (gray and white colorfields all), and the lone white vase with nothing in it. Satisfied with her handiwork—both in having turned this apartment into a showplace, and now in having rendered it an impermeable gas chamber—she lifts her feet up off the floor and reclines, ready to die. Her corpse will be much like her apartment: a cold and unforgiving rebuke to those who have betrayed her. More truthfully, however, it is Eve’s wish to be saved (O it is a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found).
The symbolism of it is as subtle as a blackjack to the base of the skull. See the rooms of a strangled spirit! A dwelling, certainly, but not a home (pace, Mr. Bacharach). Such rigidity, such chilly perfectionism will reap naught but sorrow for all who enter. Look no further than those whack-job daughters: Diane Keaton a self-absorbed, chain-smoking windbag; Mary Beth Hurt crippled into inaction by feelings of inadequacy. No wonder E. G. Marshall wanted out of that marriage. Look around you and don’t make the same mistake! Beware this House of Horrors!
Dr. Caligari’s decorator has a lot to answer for, as I recall. External environment as visual shorthand for internal goings-on was an old device even back in 1978 when Woody Allen used it here in Interiors. (Interiors. Hmmm. Inteeeeriiiiiooooorrrrs. The stuff that dwells inside. Get it? Oy.) But Eve’s apartment has always struck me as worth noting because it may very well be the last time that this particular set of visual cues—a lack of adornment and a punitively spare and unyielding adherence to things being ordered just so along with a startling dearth of books, all rendered in a palette whose apogee of color excitement is oatmeal (Yahoo!)—was a semaphore for a soul dangerously on the outs with itself.
We all know that baseness might lie like a coat of varnish upon the hard surfaces of the black leather-and-chrome couches and coke-dusted glass coffee tables of murderous Yuppie scum. And evil still nestles itself in the folds of the severed ear on that emerald lawn in front of the chintz-and-gingham suburban house where the festering lies and rot are ready to crack open at the first pair of rose petal-extruding nymphet breasts that come down the pike. But the largely uninterrupted surfaces of an apartment like Eve’s, which once served as an indictment of an atrophied consciousness, are now just the default trappings of almost every shelter magazine, the Calvin Klein home collection and the Design Within Reach catalog. It is Maureen Stapleton’s red dress, back then meant to be a vibrant manifestation of the Life Force, that would now be considered vulgar. Not for the first time, Woody Allen got it right and the rest of the world got it wrong. And I say this while still not liking Interiors very much at all. The pretentiousness, the narcotized affect, is as chilly as an Alex Katz painting, with a similar goyische naches, anti-Semitic-by-omission Easthampton Waspiness obtaining to it all. Many of Allen’s more serious films have an almost foreign language feel. Interiors, for example seems like it was dubbed into English from the original Thorzine.
“Mother was always cleaning,” says a smoking Diane Keaton. Mary Beth Hurt, speaking to Eve, talks of feeling “rage” towards her. These are just two of the psychoanalytical bombshells of the movie. It’s like watching children clomp around in the grown-ups’ clothing. (Martin Sherman, the histrionic writer of Bent as well as last year’s execrable Being Julia, I think it was called, wrote a movie about a decade back called Alive and Kicking wherein a gay psychiatrist falls in love with a ballet dancer. At one point the shrink calls his lover on his behavior, telling him “now you’re taking out your anger on me.” This prompts the dancer to scream back, “Oh spare me your psychological mumbo-jumbo!” Taking your anger out on someone? Such impenetrable jargon! Ah well, there’ll always be an England…) But as stultifying as it can be at times, Interiors does boast a remarkable performance by Geraldine Page as Eve. Even at his most mannered, Woody Allen remains one of the greatest ever writer/directors for women.
Anyway, blah blah blah (as I once taught my adult English students in Tokyo to say. I also taught them the conversational suffixes, “You can’t miss it,” when giving directions, and the rhetorical interrogative, “or what?” as in “So, are we on a date, or what?”). I’ve written about the whole crock of aesthetic austerity already, in my last book (Buy my damn book people, available everywhere at a very reasonable paperback price. Please. The pipes in my bathroom, now in their irretrievably rusty seventh decade, are in direst need of replacing).
Interiors received its fair share of critical drubbing when it was released, but more than mere bad reviews, it also marked the first—emphatically not the last—time that the public experienced its disappointment in Allen as something approaching a personal betrayal. How dare he not be funny (or more correctly, How dare he be quite this unfunny?) Stardust Memories was, in some ways, a response to the response. It begins with Allen’s character Sandy Bates trapped on a train he is desperately trying to exit. Across the tracks is another railroad car filled with beautiful revelers—including a young Sharon Stone—while Sandy’s third class carriage is filled with an assortment of freaks and meeskeits. He claws at the windows in an effort to escape. Groucho’s aphorism meets our grim history: I would never want to be trapped on a train that would have me as a passenger.
Allen got a shellacking for Stardust Memories, too. Charges of “contempt for his audience,” if I remember correctly. Not entirely fair. It’s an amazingly beautiful film. If Allen indulges in a parade of faces made up and shot in ways that render them almost Arbus-like at times, it’s nothing that Fellini didn’t do all the time. It’s a truism that performers are often shy, or loathe themselves (and by consequent extension, those foolish enough to love them). There’s a moment in The Entertainer when Laurence Olivier gets an appreciative rise out of his audience and his gaze is one of utter disdain that they have so thoroughly bought what he was selling. Sandy is actually exceedingly long-suffering in the face of the constant intrusion, and he is downright Talmudically noble when he runs into an old classmate who drives a cab and feels like a chump at their difference in social station. Look, Allen tells him, I told the jokes. Society overvalues humor. It’s just dumb luck. It’s a lovely, lovely, smart movie. Extraordinary to see him pull off something like this after the rehearsal that was the film that preceded it.
I could have devoted the entire post to Charlotte Rampling’s face, with those beryl eyes and an upper lip that looks like she’s simultaneously pushing it out and eating it from the inside. She stands in for Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy as the thing that makes life worth living. “I guess I’m a little on the beautiful side,” she concedes in the understatement of the century. It is a wonder of geometry (the face, not the understatement).
The blog is almost over. Only two more days and I am getting worried. What will I do with my days?