Sunday, March 26, 2017


SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I’m again using the discussion of a movie at my film class at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute as the basis for an analysis. This 1983 pseudo-documentary from Woody Allen, notable for cinematographer Gordon Willis’ technical wizardry in creating fake footage of the 1920’s, is also a funny and thoughtful examination of human insecurity and desire for approval. It also explores the nature of celebrity while taking satirical swipes at the medical profession and journalists.
The word “zelig” in Yiddish means a blessed or dearly departed soul. Zelig (Allen) has the ability to change his physical appearance to mimic the men with whom he comes in contact (not women – maybe that was too much of a metamorphosis for Allen to attempt). However, psychologically, he does take on the professions of those in close proximity, male or female.  This changeability could be considered a “blessed” ability, but it also is a curse, because in order to transform into other people, Zelig has to kill (the “departed soul” part of his name) his own personality to become them.

We learn about his background which lays the foundation for why Zelig wants to hide behind other facades. His family was always negative toward him which contributed to a lack of self-esteem. The film’s narrator humorously emphasizes this rejection by saying that his parents joined with anti-Semites to criticize him. His father was an actor, so he has a family history of wanting to disappear into playing the role of another. We again have a funny depiction to drive home the point with his father performing in a Hassidic version of Shakespeare, the actors sporting beards, hats and the other adornments of their faith, thus showing at the same time a desire to blend into another role and the difficulty of shedding orthodox cultural identity.
Zelig, like most people, wants to feel safe and to be liked by others. So, his chameleon quality is an exaggerated desire to fit in, so he will be accepted by those around him who cannot judge his true nature. It is the obliteration of the individual to blend in with the group. Later, it is shown that this trait can be dangerous as Zelig goes to Nazi rallies in Germany. A lack of individuality makes one vulnerable to being imprinted with the belief system of a monstrous dictator.
Zelig’s malleable nature first attracts attention at an extravagant party where he adopts a refined Boston accent and fits in well with the Republican elite in attendance. He then joins the kitchen servants, and turns into a working-class Democrat. It is interesting that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was supposed to be in attendance at this party, writes about Zelig’s transforming ability. Fitzgerald’s most famous book is The Great Gatsby. The title of the novel sounds like a carnival act, a pretend entertainment, which points to what Zelig will become when his brother-in-law and sister make him into a sideshow attraction to exploit him. Also, the character of Gatsby abandons his mundane background, changes his name, and invents a phony persona based on what America sees as indicators of success and acceptance – fame and fortune. Zelig, too, is a person who erases his ordinary roots to fit in and be accepted by those around him. (The end of the film ends with Fitzgerald, which emphasizes the connection between Zelig and Gatsby).

The fake documentary look provides what purports to be an alternate, factual historical record. The use of real well-known people, such as Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow, contributing their talking-head commentaries, provides an ironic contrast by seeming to make valid the fantastic possibility that a man can change from Caucasian to African American or Asian American, or can bloat himself into becoming hundreds of pounds heavier just by standing next to other men. Allen placed the story in “The Roaring Twenties.” It is an appropriate setting for his movie. This period was also known as “The Gilded Age,” which connotates a covering over a lesser metal – not genuine all the way through, just as is Zelig, and in essence, any type of fame, which does not get to the person behind the headlines. It was also when the media became important, feeding the hunger for heroes and role models like Charles Lindberg. It took place after the disillusionment of WWI, when there was a reassessment of what to identify with. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and others were physically alienated, becoming expatriates, and were mentally adrift. Gertrude Stein called them “all a lost generation.” So, at this time many people were reassessing what they believed in, and in a sense, who they were.
Allen satirizes the medical profession, showing how its members resort to all sorts of tests to explain Zelig’s ability, trying to find fact in what is really a fiction. (Isn’t this what the belief in “fake news” amounts to?) One doctor says Zelig got this way by eating Mexican food. Another says he has a brain tumor, but offers no evidence. This physician is so inept, he fails to diagnose his own brain tumor, and dies.

Allen also targets the press. Journalists are supposed to print the truth, but newspapermen in an interview say they would exaggerate and alter stories to get and keep the fickle public’s interest. But, they could tell Zelig’s tale as is, because it is so unbelievable, they don’t have to exaggerate the facts to make it palatable. The thrust here is that the media rarely provide a straightforward story. This critique of journalism includes the reporting of scandals about celebrities (which Allen will eventually have to deal with), as is what happens to Zelig when it is discovered he has many wives whom he married while assuming various personalities. The public is also culpable because they want to identify with and get close to celebrities, while at the same time hoping to bring them down out of envy. And, their attention span is fleeting, always wanting a new fad to excite them as they drop disposable interests.
The irony of Zelig’s story is that he becomes famous because of his ability while not wanting to stand out as himself. But, he also wants to be liked, so he seeks out famous people, and becomes a celebrity impressionist. The movie contains scenes where Zelig is with Hitler, the Pope, Babe Ruth, and later with movie stars, whom he morphs into. As with selfies, and earlier with autographs, people want some form of decreasing degree of separation that links them to famous people, thus connecting them to celebrities, indulging their wish for acceptance through a vicarious connection. Other people latch onto Zelig’s fame by selling merchandise and cashing in on the chameleon lizard motif. Some write songs, to which people dance, mimicking a lizard, identifying with Zelig, as they disappear into the crowd, losing themselves, like Zelig, as they merge into a singular mass identity while participating in the fad of the moment.
Because Zelig shows no signs of individual uniqueness, his sanity comes into question. A psychiatrist, Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), takes him on as a patient. In her presence, he assumes the identity of a mental health physician. One of his funniest lines is when he says, “I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt it should be limited to women.” She eventually hypnotizes him and discovers his yearning to be liked and accepted is at the root of his malady. The real person, Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, in an interview sums up how Zelig is just an extension of us all when he says, “Now I myself felt that his feelings were really not all that different from the normal, what one would call the well-adjusted, normal person, only carried to an extreme degree, to an extreme extent. I myself felt that one could really think of him as the ultimate conformist.” Perhaps Zelig represents what most of us need, to fit in, to feel safe in society, hiding our insecurities, but also desiring adoration if others could only see our uniqueness and special nature.

But, Fletcher has a breakthrough, and Zelig finds his individuality. There is more irony in the fact that Fletcher, just like Zelig, becomes famous by her association with another, in this case Zelig, who is a celebrity himself at this point. But, here is where Allen makes a sly comment about human nature, similar to what is suggested in Rebel Without a Cause. Zelig becomes so opinionated and self-righteous, he turns into an anti-social being, always at odds with others. So, the point here is one must sacrifice some individuality, and submit to some conformity, in order to be compatible with society. Zelig relapses, but Fletcher rescues him in Germany. They fall happily in love. There is a reverse Pygmalion aspect to their relationship as she falls in love with her creation, too, but here, she deconstructs the artifice to reveal the true person inside Zelig.
Allen also is making a statement about filmmaking in this movie. Motion pictures are openly fictitious, except for documentaries. This is a “mockumentary” so it appears to be genuine. When Zelig is being recorded at the sessions with Fletcher, he looks right at the camera and says he is being recorded. But, of course, Allen, the actor, is also being recorded in his own motion picture, so he calls to the attention of the audience that they are seeing a movie, and he breaks the fourth wall by doing so. There is a movie within the movie called “The Changing Man.” We, as an audience are looking at a movie that has as its subject a made-up figure (Zelig) who is supposed to be real, and of which there is a fictional version of him in another movie (like Zelig himself) pretending to mimic something real. Works of art are not facts, but fictions, which illuminate the true reality hidden within their subjects.

The next film is Equus.

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