Friday, March 1, 2013

Woody Allen | Zelig

the ultimate conformist
by Douglas Messerli

Woody Allen (writer and director) Zelig / 1983
One of  Woody Allen’s most likeable and fascinating films, Zelig presents, in documentary style, the story of Leonard Zelig (Allen), a man who gradually begins to develop a strange malady of becoming one with the people around him: turning Black among Negro jazz players, turning Chinese in Chinatown, becoming a gangster among mafia folk, etc. Even talking to fat men makes him fat. Attending the opera he becomes Pagliacci; attending a baseball game he is suddenly seen in a baseball uniform waiting to bat. By itself this clever “device” might become tiresome, but director Allen envelopes this “Zelig phenomenon” within a broader tale of a doctor and patient relationship and, most important, weaves his narrative in language attributed to writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, singers such as Fanny Brice, and current celebrity commentators such as Bruno Bettelheim, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Bricktop, Irving Howe and others who comment, in color, on this fictional black-and-white being as if he were an historical fact.

    Beyond this, is Allen’s a fascinating psychological metaphor about the desire for assimilation, which, in part, has been the desire of nearly all immigrant groups, particularly to Jewish immigrants who had been so shunned, hated, and forced to leave their previous homelands. The central desire of Zelig, “to be liked,” (he was hated by his father and mother, they hated by their neighbors, etc.) is the wish of many, from bullied children to alienated adults—in short nearly everyone. Allen, accordingly, creates in Zelig a kind of exaggerated folk hero, a figure who not only, like a chameleon, blends in with his background, but actually becomes those with whom he associates.

      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

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