Thursday, 19 April 2012

Let Me Introduce You to My Favourite Woody Allen Movie: It's Zelig (1983)

'Zelig's ad campaign didn't give much away  about the film

I've always been a big Woody Allen fan. I mean, who isn't? When I was nineteen years old, I attended a Woody Allen festival that started at 11pm on a Saturday night and ended at 6am the next morning, when his back catalogue consisted of Take the Money and Run, What's Up Tiger Lily, Sleeper and Love and Death which were made when he was a struggling actor, writer and comedian.  At the time, Annie Hall and Manhattan were merely a twinkle in Woody's horn-rimmed glasses, as he may have only been dreaming about the great things ahead. His so-called early 'comedy' phase, which even I am too young to remember -- consisted of writing gags for other people, and doing stand-up comedy in person in his beloved New York for very little money, and even less recognition.  But even geniuses have to start somewhere. I consider Zelig to be an almost perfect movie. It's a showcase for everything that I've always loved about movies directed by Woody Allen.  From the success of 'Annie Hall' in 1976 to the scandale that broke in 1992 over the break-up with wife (or was it girlfriend?) Mia Farrow, it's not an exaggeration to state that Woody had his hard-core fans (like me) eating out of the the palm of his hand. Those days are sadly a thing of the past, and I sometimes ask myself: 'why don't you wait with the same anticipation for a new Woody Allen film when the director's name on the marquee used to mean something -- at least before 'Reservoir Dogs' and Quentin Tarantino?'  And sadly, for me, the answer is, 'because, dearheart, in the words of Proust, 'you're not as young as you used to be.' And for once, Proust is right. Check out the opening scene:

I think that the best description of 'Zelig' is that it's a mockumentary. Yes, you did read that correctly. It's a documentary about an individual who never actually existed. It's a mockumentary made at  a time when they still had their 'mock'. So to speak. I would further venture to suggest that "Zelig" was made before the advent of political correctness, when you could make fun of politicians and other public figures, without the fear of being arrested, and other such inconsequential activities which are frowned upon today, but were considered freedom of speech by those of us who indulged in such things. But I don't want to turn this into a bully pulpit against political correctness, as it would draw attention to myself and away from the film, and frankly, I don't think I could deal with that kind of competition. What was I saying again? Ah, yes: 'Zelig' is a mockumentary, which may not in itself be a harbinger of hilarity, but believe me, it's a pretty good start.

Spoilers coming so watch out!
Sight gags abound in this allegory of the chameleon man Zelig.
'Zelig' is the story of a seemingly inconsequential 'little' man, who, if he doesn't change the course of history, makes a darn good attempt at it. The problem is Leonard Zelig has a medical condition, in which he physically changes to accommodate the people to whom he is in communication with. Therefore, if he is within reasonable distance of a Dixieland jazz band, he turns black and starts to play the trumpet. If he is with a group of overweight men, he becomes overweight himself. If he's eating in a Chinese restaurant, he becomes Chinese along with the rest of the Chinese. He is eventually hospitalised and falls under the supervision of Dr Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a bright, young doctor who is appalled at the thought that Zelig may be turned into a circus freak and/or exploited by any number of shady Jewish relatives.

Happier times for Woody and Mia. As well as the audience. 

Dr Fletcher is unable to keep Zelig at the hospital two times, once when he is kidnapped by a sister and her husband and made to perform for money, and twice, when he absconds from an impossible maelstrom of scandal and fraud in which everyone from the Catholic Legion of Decency to the Ku Klux Klan are asking for his head on a plate. Zelig and Dr Fletcher fall in love, and escape from Nazi Germany in an aeroplane. Dr. Fletcher is an aviatrix but passes out from fright, and Zelig, who's never flown a plane before, takes over the controls to get them to safety. He is promptly given the keys to the city of New York, with the immortal line, 'it just goes to show you what you can do when you're a complete psychotic'. All of this is interspersed with priceless commentary, set in the present day of real-life intellectuals like Irving Howe and Susan Sontag  attempting to define the phenomenon that was 'Leonard Zelig' that took place in the twenties and Depression-era thirties in America.

This ability to change at will, causes Zelig a great deal of conflict, because he wants to be an individual who is not at the whim of others, and what arises is an amazingly deft satire about how many of us are willing to bend over backwards in order to conform, to either keep the peace, or  to please others. I've read some recent reviews online that  paint 'Zelig' the movie as a vivid recreation of the Jewish experience in America where, as Irving Howe puts it, 'the Jews were assimilating all over the place'.  I think what he means is that in general, European immigrants were just grateful to have a second chance in America, and they would do anything in order to be accepted into the mainstream, even at the cost of their traditions and formerly, firmly-held religious beliefs. All of this sounds terribly pompous considering 'Zelig's' modest aspirations as a comedy. It is that, but so much more, with its allegorical considerations and its hilarious presentation of human nature as an irrational construct at the behest of social and political forces.
Zelig transmogrifies into a Frenchman in the company of other Frenchmen

With brilliant footage shot by Gordon Willis showing Zelig bonding with Charlie Chaplin and Marion Davies at San Simeon, chatting with Presidents Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge and being serenaded by legendary twenties performer Fanny Brice, 'Zelig' is also a major technical achievement of the days before digital technology. The entire concept is executed brilliantly, from the emergence of Zelig from the obscurity of the New York ghetto, to his fame as a celebrity, simply for not doing much in particular, and if anything, not actually being 'anybody' at all, which I could point out, is something that was the particular bugaboo of the intellectual elite of thirty years ago,  which has now sadly come true. We are living in the era of 'Fabulous Nobodies', and nobody seems to care, and if you do, you're accused of being an elitist and a snob who doesn't understand the 'real' people, whoever, and wherever they may be, or where they come from.

Meeting the two dullest Presidents of all time, Coolidge and Hoover

The performances in 'Zelig' are all marvellous, from the smallest bits to the leading roles and I think the most brilliant performers are the interviewees in the present day, who have to make the audience believe that they existed before and still exist, despite the fact that they -- well, never did exist. The performers who play respectively, the elder Paul Duguay, and Dr Eudora Fletcher are outstanding and only add more to the wonderful pleasures of this intriguing and hilarious film. I advise everybody I know not to just walk, but run, to watch 'Zelig'.

Anyone who hasn't seen it yet, affords my deepest sympathy, and I hope will get well soon.

NOTE; For my review of 'Hannah and her Sisters' kindly click here. Thank you.

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