Ozymandias Melancholia: The Nature of Parody in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories
Siegal, Mark, Literature/Film Quarterly
Few filmmakers have combined a serious concern for the human condition with comic form quite like Woody Allen has. Some fine artists like Charlie Chaplin have combined broad comedy and sentimentality to underscore humanistic messages, while others like Preston Sturgess have produced savage satires of contemporary life. Allen, however, is essentially a parodist, and parodists, except for the very best, tend toward the trivial. As Gerald Mast points out, parody is not an imitation of human action, but an imitation of an imitation, and therefore essentially a commentary about art's representation of reality.1 Parodists like Mel Brooks are usually satisfied with making light of the darker film genres. However, fora "serious" parodist like Woody Allen, parody can be a tool to stretch artistic forms to their logical (or illogical) limits in order to test the extent of their viability. Most of Allen's early film and fiction is parody, and, as Maurice Yacowar notes, "Allen's penchant for parody has both technical and philosophical implications."2
Allen's parody is rooted in his need to conceptualize and to assign value and meaning to life as well as in his self-consciousness of the Umitations of any human attempt to do so. Most serious works of art involve attempts to organize conceptions of reality, but the unavoidable artificiality and fallibility of any merely human conception renders such attempts absurd. Allen seems to acknowledge that such attempts are necessary, but he is concerned with both the difficulty of that task and the follies that occur when people begin to mistake their own limited conceptions for life itself. Allen's repeated insistence off-screen that he is not the neurotic he characterizes on-screen may seem suspicious considering that, since Annie Hall, he has often portrayed comic writers with more than a few biographic parallels to their creator. Stardust Memories is the ultimate example of this paradox. However, both the neuroses of Allen's screen characters and their resemblance to him are basic functions of his parodie vision. Allen's primary artistic focus has become the attempts of the individual to adjust to contemporary social conditions and mores. Because the individual's egocentric conceptualization of reality is both unavoidable and dangerously limited, Allen examines what he knows most immediately- his own experiential reality, a reality that has been filtered through the fewest possible layers of ordering and falsifying structure. At the same time, Allen serves notice of the limitations of the conclusions he is able to draw from his examination. Most often the apparently neurotic behavior of Allen's characters is a reflection of the artist's psychologically and philosophically healthy self-doubt projected as self -parody.
While Allen's works are at least implicitly epistemological, it is perhaps more important that he parodies classic materials as a means of assessing their value and significance for contemporary life, affirming certain aspects of those works while criticizing others. His recent film, Stardust Memories, is a parody of Frederico Fellini's 8½, often presenting humorous imitations of many of that well-known work's key images. However, at the same time, Stardust Memories both underscores many of Fellini's main points and examines the aesthetic differences between the two artists. In Stardust Memories, Allen's sidekick is asked if a scene in a recent film is a tribute to another filmmaker's work. He replies, "A tribute? No, we just stole it outright." Stardust Memories is not simply a tribute to 8½, nor is it a rip-off. Rather it is a constructive parody, an exaggerated criticism of some of Fellini's concepts and an adaptation of others to suit Allen's own beliefs and situation. While both Fellini and Allen are concerned with the conflicting relationships between social reality and personal desires and fantasies, and between the needs of the artist and his social responsibility, Allen is ultimately able to reconcile these tensions while Fellini merely accepts them as paradoxical. …