Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983)

This smart imitation of the documentaries of specialized History oriented channels has everything of the clever comedies of Woody Allen and the content of his more introspective psychological dramas. With his constant obsession for Freud, Religion, Politics, and social issues Allen continues his streak following Stardust Memories and A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy. Portrayed by Allen himself, Leonard Zelig is a character who appeared many times in the news of the 1920’s. His ability to adapt to the world and people around him makes him fit with everyone and everywhere. It doesn’t take long before he is discovered and following the buzz of the 1920’s on psychoanalysis Zelig gets under the “microscopes“ of the Scientifics. Specifically, Dr. Eudora Fletcher a young psychiatrist who wants to help Zelig and use the cure to get some recognition from her peers.

The effects of camouflage of Allen into faux-archived images and real archives is efficient. With the use of cameras, lighting, and scratches on the film, and the use of the dramatic music of the documentaries the illusion is almost-perfect. The insertion of Allen along President Wilson, Adolf Hitler, Babe Ruth, and many more historical figures with the technology of blue screen reused more than a decade later by Robert Zemeckis’ crew in Forrest Gump is as convincing as the later film. Here stops the comparison between the two pictures, Gump is more on the nostalgic, conservatism, and sensible side of the road while Allen exploits absurd situations, satire, and psychological references.

One of the most interesting facets of Zelig, the movie and the character, is how it represents the conformism and our constant will to be liked and appreciated by the people around us. Zelig, the chameleon man, transforms himself to fit to the group he lives in. Adapting the appearance and the ideology of the people surrounding him. His body and personality is malleable. The comment of the film is even more realistic when Zelig is seen with the SS representing the most important movement of fitting into the masses and forming a common nation leaded by only one head that decides everything for the group. This is an interesting critique on totalitarianism and the contemporary societies. In a lower scale than the National-Socialists and in a much much lesser extremist way, the American nation represents the volition to blend its population together even if it’s one of the most mixed bags of human diversity. There is a will to take every Man on the same level.  But we, as a society, like that everyone thinks like us. It is a modern world illness that our society conditions us to react in this way. The weight of the majority, its influence on us is more subtle than we would ever thought. I mentioned the American society because Leonard Zelig is an American in this movie. Yet, it represents a modern-day disease or observation more than a simple exercise of designation. Allen scratch the surface of a problem that the individuality of capitalism is contradicted by the majority of democracy. Just like every good recipe, it takes a good balance between the right tastes and textures.

Allen’s director of photography, Gordon Willis, does an outstanding job with the shooting of false-real archival footage for the set-up of the story in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The mix between his footage and the original archives is hardly noticeable.

The enjoyment of Zelig works on two levels. First, it is a fun satire of the 1920’s that isn’t really that much distant from us. The choice of format, documentary, is surprisingly entertaining and lets the writer-director some leash on the traditional filmmaking and storytelling. On a lesser note, it reminds the cinematic prowess of the storytelling of Annie Hall and the mastery of every trick of filmmaking. Even if Zelig is lesser than the aforementioned masterpiece, it is still a very entertaining and yet smart movie.

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