Zelig

Moby Dissimulator: Woody Allen on Fascism, the Herd Instinct, and Nature vs. Nurture

The great dissimulator of the 1940's was Leonard Zelig, a man who was so good at fitting in that he turned up in hundreds of places as different people and had people convinced of all his identities. Woody Allen takes the theme and runs with it, lambasting everything from English literature to freak shows to paternity suits to fascism. Of course, he's Woody Allen, so it's completely over-the-top not-serious; but it's a treatise on the effect of social conditioning, too.

The format: Mockumentary. The story is filmed in black and white to make it look like old newsreel stuff, and there are color sections with old people in ugly homes to affirm points made by the narrator over the black-and-white. So Allen is describing a real phenomenon in an exaggerated way; typical. But the story itself, for all its unlikely portions (such as Zelig's physical transformation into a Chinaman or a Scotsman, or his fathering of hundreds of children under different personalities), makes a serious case for the idea that the way we are raised and the society we live in can seriously affect who we are. Of course, with Zelig, the nurture side actually affects his nature - as in the transformations - and causes him to embrace any life he comes across. And under the heavy hand of his sister, who uses him as a freak attraction, he falls into despair and confusion, as the abused tend to do.

Only with love does Zelig feel affirmed enough to develop his own opinions, and this theme reappears throughout the film as his psychiatrist tries to be the one person who really cares for him. When this love is denied him, Zelig runs away to Nazi Germany, where fascism makes him one of the anonymous horde in an acceptable way. The extreme of the urge to conform (the 'herd instinct') is fascism, and the extreme of human need for companionship results in the urge to conform, so the only way to stop the crushing, identity-killing force of fascism is to value individuals. And more importantly, those fascistic instructors of English who force students to read Moby Dick ought to learn a thing or too from Zelig's psychiatrist, who knew how to provide a loving environment that lent enough strength for opinions and self-actualization to occur.

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