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  • America & World Jewry
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    Remembrance
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  • zelighomeimage.jpg

    Directed by: Woody Allen Rating: TV-PG
    Release Date: 1983 Running Time: 80 mins.
    Language: English Genre: Mocumentary
    More Info: wikipedia Category: Feature Film


    One of Woody Allen’s favorite films, Zelig is a mockumentary take on the comic disasters that accompany one man’s supernatural attempts to fit in. Taking the desire to be liked by others to a new level, the film explores the importance of that trusty advice to “just be yourself,” while offering a comedic gem whose technological achievement was years ahead of its time.

    “You have to be your own person and make your own moral choices, even when they do require real courage,” Leonard Zelig tells a crowd of admirers. “Otherwise, you’re like a robot or a lizard.” It is one lizard in particular, the chameleon, which shares a symbolic bond with Zelig’s master mimic.

    The meek and unassuming Zelig possesses the uncanny ability to take on the personality traits, and even the appearance, of those whose presence he shares. Allen uses this device to brilliant comic effect, but for his protagonist, this strange talent is no gift. Instead, it is the result of a self-esteem so amazingly low that its possessor has turned conforming into a kind of super power gone awry. Zelig can’t shut it off. Discovered by the wider world, Zelig and his condition become the sensation of Jazz-age America.

    More than just a classic comedy, Zelig is a filmic landmark. Allen presents his plot in the form of a fictional documentary, complete with talking head interviews, archival footage and songs. In this way, Zelig provided the model for the mockumentary genre that has become so popular with the likes of Christopher Guest and other contemporary filmmakers. But the film’s real accomplishment is the way Allen seamlessly edits himself and his cast in alongside historical figures of the 1920’s and 30’s, through the meticulous use of groundbreaking, pre-digital techniques. Newsreels and home movies, some archival and some made to look so, show Zelig doing everything from disrupting famous speeches by the Pope and Hitler to partying with Charlie Chaplin and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    In classic Freudian style, Zelig’s love interest is his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher, played by Allen’s real-life romantic partner at the time, Mia Farrow. Fletcher’s intrepid concern for Zelig’s well being separates her from a world that only wants to exploit him. She cares about Zelig as a man rather than as a circus oddity. Allen uses the film’s unorthodox storytelling format to creatively document his characters’ growing affection for each other. In trying to isolate the source of Zelig’s condition, Dr. Fletcher brings her patient to a country house armed with hidden cameras and microphones to record her tactics. We see their interactions through the grainy texture and muted audio of the resulting footage. Under hypnosis, Zelig confesses that he loves her, but not her cooking — his first step on the road to self-expression.

    Apart from the value it places on individuality, Zelig is also a metaphor for the Jewish experience. “When I think about it,” comments writer Irving Howe in the film, “it seems to me that (Zelig’s) story reflected a lot of the Jewish experience in America. The great urge to push in and to find one’s place, and then to assimilate into the culture. I mean, he wanted to assimilate like crazy.”

    In fact, when Zelig later has a breakdown and relapses into his old chameleon ways, Allen’s now-amnesiac Jewish protagonist joins the world’s ultimate group of destructive conformists, the Nazi party. But when Allen unleashes Zelig into film of a Nuremberg Rally, he creates comic mayhem by deciding to stand out from the crowd and declare his love for Dr. Fletcher. Love, then, is what solidifies Zelig’s individuality, cures him of his affliction, and saves him from becoming a Fascist.

    Whether you take it as a skewering of celebrity or an examination of modern society’s demands on its citizens, Zelig is a thought-provoking film that’s also side-splittingly funny. Finding himself at the center of a press conference celebrating his exploits, the ever-humble Zelig doesn’t gloat but instead shows Allen’s characteristic self-deprecating wit. Standing before the massive crowd he says, “It shows exactly what you can do if you’re a total psychotic.”





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