Zelig

Brian Webster

Those with an interest in the technical aspects of filmmaking will have a field day with Zelig. Using exactly the opposite approach of his later imitators, writer/ director Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis sought to blend new and old movie footage – not through modern tricks, but through good old fashioned backward clock-turning. This is a movie that is set in the first half of the 20th century, and it depends on actual archival footage of the era blended seamlessly with newly-shot footage. Did Allen turn to computer tricks to achieve this? No. That would neither be Allen’s style, nor was it particularly feasible in the early 1980s, when Zelig was made. Instead, the filmmakers hauled out old 1920s equipment and filmed using that. And then they intentionally damaged the negatives to give the film an aged quality. The result? A fabulously integrated collection of newsreel, other old film, still photographs and newly-shot film. If you think that Forrest Gump was the first movie to make liberal use of an actor inserted in the middle of film showing a real event, then you’ve not watched Allen standing in the batter’s box awaiting his chance to hit while Babe Ruth goes up to bat, or sitting in the background while Adolph Hitler delivers a speech.

The technical tricks make for some hilarious scenes, but Zelig is much more than stunt photography. It’s also one of Allen’s smartest and most creative films, and its fast moving 79 minutes packs a thematic punch about conformity and the cult of personality.

Allen plays Leonard Zelig, an innocuous little man who shoots to prominence when it’s discovered that he changes to conform to those around him. And it’s not just his attitudes or behaviour that change; his appearance changes as well. Presented as a mock documentary, the film follows the discovery of Zelig – dubbed the ‘human chameleon’ – and his exploits, including his various marriages, treatment by a psychiatrist (Mia Farrow), and even a trip to Germany where he fits in nicely among the Nazi faithful.

The film is smart and witty, never succumbing to the temptation of being heavy- handed. It looks like a documentary, sounds like one, and – except for the presence of Allen and Farrow – could even have less discerning viewers fooled into thinking it was the real thing (which could create a miniature War of the Worlds event, if only Zelig seemed more threatening).

The film is entertaining enough if viewed at the surface level as a mildly humorous mockumentary, but it’s much more than that when you actually start thinking about what Allen is really delving into – the tendency of far too many of us to recast ourselves to fit in with whoever we’re around, our tendency to go along with – and help build momentum for – wildly fickle swings in mass opinion, and the resulting ‘blandification’ of our culture. It’s particularly interesting that Allen chooses to comment on this issue using a medium – film – that has fabulous potential for diversity and creativity, yet is most often packaged as a mass market product with one Zelig-like romantic comedy after another, each coming perilously close to morphing into the one that came before.

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