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Posts Tagged ‘Zelig’

My DVD rental supplier seems to be stuck firmly in Woody Allen mode (perhaps it would help if I topped up my list with films by people other than him and Jason Statham) and this week they have sent me his 1983 movie Zelig. This was one of the very first Allen movies I saw back in the 80s, preceded only by Sleeper, I think, and so I had little conception of what a ‘Woody Allen movie’ was. Viewing it again now, though, it’s easy to get a much stronger sense of what an odd beast this film is.

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Zelig retains the familiar Allen font and a soundtrack making use of classic standards – but much of the music consists of specially-written pastiches, which is a clue to the kind of film it really is. These days it’d be called a mockumentary, but I’m not even sure that word existed thirty years ago. Set in the late 20s and early 30s, it purports to be the story of Jazz Age celebrity Leonard Zelig.

Zelig rises to prominence for unusual reasons, to say the least. Following a troubled childhood, Zelig seems to be living a normal, if undistinguished life as a clerk in New York City in the late 1920s, until his disappearance prompts a police search. He is discovered working in a Chinese laundry, which is a little surprising, but not nearly as much as the fact that he also appears to have become Chinese. Removed from the laundry and taken to hospital, he rapidly transforms into a Caucasian man and adopts the mannerisms and demeanour of a doctor. In short, he is a human chameleon, automatically changing his appearance and personality to blend into any social milieu.

Zelig’s rise to fame leads to his exploitation by unsympathetic members of his own family, but he ultimately finds himself in the care of psychiatrist Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow in the period material, Ellen Garrison in the present-day sequences). Fletcher believes that Zelig’s condition is simply the expression of a deep-seated desire to conform, and that by reinforcing his own sense of self he can be ‘cured’. A deeper bond also begins to form between the two, but the path of true love never runs smooth – especially when half the couple has dozens of other identities in their past…

Even in a body of work as sizeable and diverse as Woody Allen’s, Zelig is still a bit of a standout – at first sight, at least. 1983 was early days in terms of the development of the mockumentary as a major narrative form in its own right, but this film nails it in virtually every respect – there is a deadpan voiceover, talking-head present day interviewees intercut with faked period footage, artfully adjusted period materials, and so on. Apparently Allen used original cameras from the 20s to film a lot of Zelig, and artificially aged the negative (adding scratches and so on) to add to its authenticity. The film’s attention to detail throughout is painstaking, and even the sequences in which Allen is inserted into newsreel footage alongside historical figures like Babe Ruth and (inevitably) Hitler are impressively done.

The film’s premise is just too outrageous for anyone to mistake this for a genuine documentary, of course – the fact that Allen’s well-known face keeps popping up doesn’t help much either. A review of the film from many years ago was pretty much on the money when it said Zelig was ‘more hypnotic to watch than actually funny’, but Allen still can’t resist throwing in some off-the-wall visual gags and cracking one-liners, even though his presence in the film as an actor is quite limited. The film’s nostalgia for the Jazz Age is also, with the benefit of hindsight, something of a running theme in Allen’s filmography.

Nor is it much of a surprise, given this is 80s-vintage Allen, to find Mia Farrow present as Zelig’s love interest, although her presence is even less than Allen’s. It’s the format of Zelig which is the star, in many ways – it’s certainly not the story, which is a slight thing and largely explains the brevity of the film (only about 75 minutes).

The odd thing about Zelig, a light comic fantasy if ever there was one, is that it is oddly susceptible to serious interpretation, for all that this would probably make Allen quail. On a personal level, some have argued that Zelig is an exaggerated fictionalised version of the perennially self-effacing Allen. Certainly some of the film’s comments on the appeal of conformity have an inarguable truth to them. One might even push the boat out and suggest the film is making a more general point about assimilation – but here I think we are in danger of breaking a butterfly on a wheel. It’s quite hard to pin down exactly what kind of film Zelig is, beyond the simple fact that it’s a mockumentary, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s a very accomplished and watchable one.

 

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