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Friday, March 1, 2013
Woody Allen | Zelig
the ultimate conformistby Douglas Messerli
Woody Allen (writer and director) Zelig / 1983
Such a figure is naturally loveable, by both the audience and the psychiatrist attempting to cure him, played beautifully by Mia Farrow. Indeed, in Allen’s fiction the whole nation temporarily embraces Zelig, the movie’s composer and choreographer creating wonderfully authentic songs and dances of the late 1920s and 1930s in celebration of this human chameleon. Showering him with unconditional love, Farrow’s character finally discovers the man behind his transformational mania, while in the same moment figures from his past, some of whom he has married or hurt through his various pretenses, turn the morally aghast country against him.
Allen further darkens his tale, as Zelig, discovered in Germany, is seen in deep regression, having become a Nazi attending one of Hitler’s rallies. Not so very different than the central character, Marcello Clerici, in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Zelig—in his need to blend in, to be seen as “normal,” even when normality actually becomes abnormal—is, as Bettelheim muses, “the ultimate conformist.” So does Allen’s seemingly comic mockumentary become something far more profound and, in its metaphoric ripples, represents a substantial statement about desire and power.
The director—long before the computer technologies which make such transformations far easier—has also created a marvel of cinematic magic, cooking up a sense of reality for his imaginary movie by inserting Allen’s image into various historical photographs and old film clips. Using, at times, the very cameras of older eras, at other times scratching and crinkling their film, Allen and his crew wondrously recreate a believable world that further legitimizes the sincere sounding observations and assessments of his contemporary celebrity intellectuals.
Because in Zelig Allen takes his art so seriously, at film’s end we see the work less as a comic gesture than as a kind of reality, despite the implausibility of events, that could have existed and has more seeming “reality” behind it than many more emotionally manipulative documentaries. So while Allen’s work is certainly an “imaginary” movie, a movie that is more about its creation than what it ultimately represents, it is, in some respects, utterly believable. Zelig may not exist in a single individual, but certainly exists in our communal consciousness and hearts.
March 1, 2013