Friday, February 10, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.8: Woody Allen's Zelig

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next, 1983’Zelig.

Grade: 86 (A-)
Woody Allen’s Zelig is, in a way, a trip back to the beginning. The film is a mockumentary, not completely unlike Allen’s first proper film, 1969’s Take the Money and Run. It is a delightfully silly film that shares much in common with his “early, funny” pictures like Bananas and Sleeper. It is a return to the jazz era New York Allen holds in such high reverence, and to the Depression  where Allen spent his first few years of his life. Zelig, however, is also whole new beast of a movie, a virtuoso technical achievement that manages to be at once astonishing and also sweet and delicate. Allen spent years crafting what turned out to be a 79 minute film, but what a film it is.
1920s, New York: a strange man has been seen hobnobbing with many of the greats of the era. F. Scott Fitzgerald has seen him, Babe Ruth has played ball with him, and America has taken notice of the curious little man. His name is Leonard Zelig (Allen), and he has a rare disorder: he takes on the appearance and opinions of whomever he comes into contact with, be they fat, French, Italian, black, Asian. When doctors come to study him, he begins to act like a doctor himself. No one can agree to the cause of his ailment. Is it glandular? Neurological? Did he eat bad Mexican food? Only Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) finds the heart of the matter: that Zelig’s pathological need to be accepted and loved is so strong that he takes on the appearance of anyone and everyone he meets. Fletcher takes Zelig in as her patient…and falls madly in love with him.
It sounds amusing enough, but Zelig is a more ambitious mockumentary than Take the Money and Run: rather than shooting the film as a conventional movie, Allen took stock footage from the 1920s and 1930s and, with the help of master cinematographer Gordon Willis, blended himself, Farrow, and others nearly seamlessly into the picture. Allen’s Zelig appears in photos and on film with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herbert Hoover, Pope Pius XI, and others. It’s a remarkable technical achievement that took Allen, Willis, and others years to perfect (Allen rushed A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in order to do something while they experimented, and he shot his next film, Broadway Danny Rose, while working on Zelig’s post-production). The result speaks for itself. The highly innovative technique later used by Robert Zemeckis for his (wildly overrated) Oscar-winner Forrest Gump (although it should be said that Allen wisely decided not to force lip movements and interactions between the real people and Zelig, where Zemeckis did to unintentionally creepy effect in his film).
The comparisons with Forrest Gump are apt, what with both Allen and Zemeckis exploring the eras that helped shape their lives, all to the music they grew up loving (Allen’s use of old-time jazz records is terrific).  In Zelig’s case, however, it’s in service of more than just empty, misty-eyed nostalgia and glib self-congratulation. Both Gump and Zelig are ciphers, but where Gump was a hollow shell for viewers to project themselves onto, Zelig’s “emptiness” is the joke. Zelig is “the ultimate conformist”, a man whose experiences have shaped him into a creature without identity, a human chameleon. When with high class, he speaks in a sophisticate accent and praises the Republicans; when with their workers, he becomes coarse and praises the Democrats (as he’s cured, he sticks with the latter). Zelig is such a conformist that at one point, while on the run, he gets swept up in the Nazi movement…despite the fact that he’s Jewish.
What’s the point of all this? Allen uses Zelig as a window into the Jewish experience. Allen had explored his Jewish identity in Annie Hall brilliantly, but here, he looks at another aspect of Jewish life: assimilation. In previous efforts such as Sleeper and Bananas, he couldn’t help but stand out. Zelig, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to fit in. His upbringing was harsh (when Anti-Semites picked on him, his parents sided with them), and he constantly felt out of place at school and in social events for enjoying baseball rather than sitting down to read Moby Dick. Now, he’ll go to extremes to fit in. With this, Allen explores both his roots and the nature of conformity with elegance and grace (it’s unfortunate one of the “documentary’s” fake talking heads tips his hand by calling Zelig’s life the Jewish experience).
Allen’s handling of psychoanalysis and therapy is terrific as well. Allen’s films often dealt with his crippling neuroses and need for therapy, and sometimes his films seemed to serve as therapy. Here, Allen depicts the rigor of tests and experiments needed to figure out what exactly is wrong with this Zelig guy. None of them seem to get it right; there’s a good chance Zelig knows more than him (at one point he impersonates a psychiatrist and argues that he and Freud worked together until they disagreed that penis envy could only apply to females). There’s only one person who understands that his problem is an emotional and mental disorder rather than a physical one, and she turns out to be the love of his life. Woody Allen’s warmest films often discovered that no matter how hard life is, the bright spots, like love, could make it all worth. This is no exception, and Farrow shows great intelligence and sweetness in a role far more deserving of her talents than her previous Allen collaboration (honestly, let’s just pretend Midsummer never happened).
None of this would work, however, if the film didn’t also work as a comedy. Fortunately, Allen finds a way to sneak his wonderfully witty sense of humor into the documentary, from Zelig’s Allen-like one-liners (delivered here less self-consciously than usual) to great Woody lines by way of the talking heads and the “documentary” narrator. A few examples:
“I’m treating two sets of Siamese twins with split personalities. I’m getting paid by eight people”-Zelig, thinking he is a psychiatrist
“The Ku Klux Klan, who saw Zelig as a Jew that could turn himself into a Negro and an Indian, saw him as a triple threat”- The Narrator
“He married me up at the First Church of Harlem. He told me he was the brother of Duke Ellington”-One of Zelig’s wives
The America of the Roaring Twenties is fascinated by Zelig, and they follow his every move. Several songs are written about him, and he even gets a movie based on his life. Yet whenever America tires of him, they completely forget him. For his time, he was as famous as Charles Lindbergh, but at the time of the “documentary’s” release, he has fallen into obscurity. It’s a wonderful look at the short term memory of America, and how something that seems so important at one point can be lost to the ashes of time (another area covered, not nearly as well, in Forrest Gump).
Zelig is a short but sweet slice of jazz era nostalgia that lovingly paints a picture of a time that meant a great deal to Allen, all while exploring the director’s favorite territory. It is the first proper pairing of Allen with Mia Farrow, his love and muse for a decade’s worth of great work (let’s ignore the sad end for the time being). In the interest of making this paragraph long enough and highlighting my dislike of a certain undeserving Best Picture winner, it is a smarter, wittier, funnier, and more audacious version of Forrest Gump. Above all else, though, it is a warm, funny, moving, and often poignant film that kicked off a three-film run of wonderfully nostalgic films that continued with Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo.


  1. Even at this late date you should edit this review. Whereas it says it's "unfortunate" Allen didn't have one of the "talking heads," link Zelig's life to the Jewish experience, in fact Allen has Irving Howe specifically do so, and in some depth. This is an error serious enough to discredit an otherwise intelligent review.

  2. Whoops: what I was actually saying is that it's a shame they went and spelled that out for the audience when the film is strong enough not to need it. I'll edit that though, thanks.