Friday, January 22, 2021

Zelig (1983)

USA, 79 minutes
Director/writer: Woody Allen
Photography: Gordon Willis
Music: Dick Hyman
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Cast: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Patrick Horgan, John Buckwater, Marvin Chatinover, Stanley Swerdlow, Paul Nevens, Howard Erskine, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow

Zelig is not the world's first mockumentary—given Take the Money and Run, it's not even director and writer Woody Allen's first mockumentary. But with its use of a photo and film manipulation technology that was virtually state-of-the-art for the early '80s, Zelig is a significant inflection point, looking forward to Robert Zemeckis's Forrest Gump tour de force (trite as it may be) as well as to a surge of mockumentaries that accompanied the commercial swelling of legitimate documentaries. This Is Spinal Tap contributed to the momentum the very next year. I've always had mixed feelings about Zelig—I admired the technical ingenuity and general novelty, while at the same time feeling like Allen too often phones in the jokes from about 1958.

In fact, on that "general novelty" point, I hadn't really given the embedded documentary premise itself enough credit. It's fairly insightful and even profound. I finally saw that better when I was reading Chekhov's short story "The Darling," which has much the same premise. Let's call the character trait "impressionable." Or let's call it what today's psychologists call it, "environmental dependency syndrome," "Zelig syndrome," or "Zelig-like syndrome" (per Wikipedia), "a syndrome where the affected individual relies on environmental cues in order to accomplish goals or tasks." Anyone who has ever had to survive office politics (thus, everyone) knows instinctively how this works, adjusting behavior based on what one's superiors and/or peers prefer or demand. We are all a little affected by Zelig syndrome. We are never 100% ourselves in our public lives, only fractions of it, depending on what we know is expected of us. Some of us just have a harder time letting go—let's call that "dissociative." But this simple insight, at its heart, is what makes Zelig almost profound.

It's a remarkably short picture and here is how it proceeds: a pitch-perfect parody of 1930s newsreels tells a historically jumbled story of Leonard Zelig, a man with an exceedingly unusual psychological condition who is treated by a psychiatrist, Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow). Whoever Zelig is around is who he becomes and the conceit is taken to absurd extremes. At one point he leaves his table with a group of professionals in a restaurant, wanders close to the bandstand, and becomes a Black jazz musician sitting in with the combo. He puts on 100 pounds during a conversation with two obese men. It is alarming like contagion but after all it's still just the mincing Woody Allen. The changes are physical and lightning fast, happening at the speed of spit-balling thought.

Leonard Zelig is the Allen nebbish we know so well from before and after, but this is one time when he can make putting his own unlikely middle-aged face all over his movie work. I see some Buster Keaton style here in these various stone visages buried in makeup and costuming. Zelig is almost always instantly recognizable, but sometimes, cleverly, almost not, as in the point where he has become a Nazi and is standing near Hitler (because who else). As with Forrest Gump there's a certain enjoyable audaciousness about where he is inserted. At one point Zelig is seen standing on-deck at Yankee Stadium, followed by shots of newspaper headlines the next day about a mysterious imposter at the ballgame. At other points he is seen with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Calvin Coolidge, and other famous figures of the 1920s and 1930s.

It's some pretty good stuff, but I also find my original complaint still holds. Allen just can't resist inserting dumb gags for cheap laughs which tend to grate one way or another. "I worked with Freud in Vienna," Zelig says at one point. "We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women." OK, that's not bad, but more often it's tired old bits like this, pulling up memories under hypnosis: "I'm 12 years old. I run into a synagogue. I ask the rabbi the meaning of life. He tells me the meaning of life... But he tells it to me in Hebrew. I don't understand Hebrew. Then he wants to charge me $600 for Hebrew lessons." That's just lame, but here he is making fun of abuse, which was starting to become known better as such in the '80s: "My brother beat me. My sister beat my brother. My father beat my sister and my brother and me. My mother beat my father and my sister and me and my brother. The neighbors beat our family. The people down the block beat the neighbors and our family."

In other words, on a certain level, "Forget it, Jake. It's Woody Allen." There is also a preposterous love affair between Zelig and Dr. Fletcher that's rife with more dated gags and wincing as well. If some of that could have been dialed back I think I'd like Zelig more. As it is, I have to give it its due. Patrick Horgan is excellent as a newsreel narrator. Gordon Willis is the DP and it is a masterful job of recreating the look and feel of newsreels. And Zelig syndrome gets its name from this movie for a reason—not so much how realistic or accurate it is, but for the straightforward way it makes this strange quirk of human behavior seem both universal and memorable. As Zelig himself puts it, "I want to be liked."

1 comment:

  1. Zelig, '83, is probably the height of my Allen fandom. Not my favorite of his movies, mind you, but you know what I mean. The thing is he, and his work, haven't aged so well and it's tricky reconciling oneself to that. Interesting discussion of something like that experience.