| Dir: Woody Allen
“I have an interesting case of treating two sets of Siamese twins with split personalities. I’m getting paid by eight people.”
Allen’s foray in the mockumentary style began with Take the Money and Run. Zelig is an entertaining journey back to his “early funny ones”, but it also demonstrates the upward artistic journey that the filmmaker has taken since his first attempt at this style of work. Not one of the 72 minutes is wasted, unlike much of his early work which ran out of comedic steam in the final third. But Zelig doesn’t even coast on its many comedic accomplishments, with a joke about a rabbi and the meaning of life and Hebrew lessons being a highlight. It’s refined, progressive, very clever and complexly pathos driven work. While his first attempt was a half-hearted go at a mere narrative framework for his jokes, this is a meticulously realised period documentary with a subject that actually warrants one.
This subject is Leonard Zelig, an international celebrity and phenomenon of the 20s who could transform himself physically based on those in his company. He becomes Chinese, black, a psychiatrist, a baseball player, a Scottish highlander, a Native American, obese, a pilot, Greek and – in the films most magnificent distillation of the conformist disorder – a Nazi. How did he develop this manifestation? Doctors differ on explanations ranging from physiological to neurological to brain tumors to eating Mexican food. One doctor, Mia Farrow’s sweet and tenacious Eudora Fletcher, is able to reveal the underlying truth. Zelig adopts the assimilation capabilities of human chameleon as a defence mechanism against the minefield of social situational anxiety.
Although his condition is largely treated by Allen as comedic material, it also speaks to much deeper feelings on individuality both universally and specifically on the fascist Jewish experience. A desire for acceptance, to better oneself through the qualities of others, to belong, to simply be liked. These aren’t the traits of a freak or someone lacking integrity, but those of you and I who conform to societal pressures daily. It’s Allen expertly communicating our own neuroses through an unconventional, outlandish and trailblazing narrative.
Zelig garnered cinematographer Gordon Willis his only Oscar nomination for his work with Allen, a shocking and shameful fact. He and Susan E. Morse do superb job of capturing the feel of the Jazz age and the natural effect of filmed material in that era. The editing and post-production was huge with the use of old equipment, scratching the negatives, flicker-mattes and hand aging newsreel footage to place Allen into real historic photographs and footage – creating some hilarious sight gags. All before the invention of CGI technology that makes the job so much more effortless now. Willis commented that he had “never worked so hard at making something difficult look so simple”. It’s quite right that much of the films acclaim has been directed at its ‘special effects’.
If Manhattan is Woody’s love letter to his hometown, this is his love letter to psychoanalysis; a past time he has partaken in the much of his life. As a film with the working title of Identity Crisis and its Relationship to Personality Disorder suggests it would be. Psychoanalysis, or more specifically his therapist Eudora, is what saves and cures Zelig in the end. That he captures a touching romance within the boundaries of the film is a brilliant cherry on top of a masterful film.
Part of Woody Wednesday. Second viewing.