Zelig (1983)

In my attempts at self-education, and knowing full-well my mild obsession with Woody Allen, I’ve decided to have a secondary offshoot to some of the most iconic films of all time: a Woody offshoot. Welcome to the Woody Allen Earning My Stripes as a Cinephile! … It’s a working title.

I’ve seen a comfortable chunk of Woody Allen’s films so far. Of the 47 titles he’s directed in his long career, I’ve seen 18. I’ve only actively disliked one of those (*ahem*ShadowsandFog*ahem*). Zelig (1983) is a film I’d heard much about, namely from my former editor at the McMaster Silhouette. I’d only ever heard its praises, and yet I had not seen it.

Allen’s use of the found footage/faux-documentary style is really something to marvel at. The stock footage was expertly manipulated, so much so that I wasn’t unnerved by the use of stock footage to begin with. Normally such gimmicks simply crawl under my skin and nestle there. Maybe I’m biased by my love for Allen, who knows.

What stands out to me most prominently, and I actively blame Adam Nayman and his lecture series for this, is how Allen has both literally and figuratively placed himself at the very core of the film. Not only does he take on the lead role (as was his trend early in his career) but so much of the story reflects his state of mind at the time.

After a certain point in his career (the exact point of which is currently escaping me) he stopped going to therapy, allowing the production of his films to serve as therapeutic release instead.That trend is evident in most, if not all of his films. It’s not the type of thing you need to strain yourself to see: if you have a basic knowledge of Allen’s life, you’ll see it. Zelig is no exception. The psychology behind the film is best summed up in a few very telling lines from the film.

While attempting to sway Zelig (Allen) out of his state of mimic-induced denial, Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) assumes the role of the patient, rather than the physician.

I want so badly to be liked, to be like other people so that I don’t stand out. […] My whole life’s been a lie, I’ve been posing as one thing after another.”

At the start of Allen’s career he’d focused primarily on comedic films and stand-up, establishing himself as a deft hand in that style. However, a clearly intelligent and intellectually promising individual, he needed to be taken more seriously. His body of work as a result became so broad by Zelig that one might choose to think of him as a chameleon. In ten years he went from Bananas (1971) through Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1978), Interiors (1979), and Stardust Memories (1980), before reaching Zelig. some of his most critically acclaimed and substantial work is therefore condensed in the six years directly preceding this film.

Combining that with the recurring theme in many of his films of the Nebbish desperate for acceptance, but constantly biting the hand that feeds, and it’s no wonder he’s making a film simultaneously critical of the industry, while attempting to put himself at the very heart of it. He’s critical of the nature of celebrity, though when he’s not in the public eye he tries to attract its attention.

The structure of the film itself illustrates his own self-image. When compared with one of his later films of a similar styleSweet and Lowdown (1999), you can see his shift in focus. Here he’s putting himself in the center of the three-ring circus that is the media: he’s the chameleon filmmaker who can’t seem to get a moment’s privacy to live his life, still doing tricks for treats. Comparatively with Lowdown he takes to the sidelines, positioning himself as the wizened expert, the bringer of knowledge and wisdom. He was very insecure in his earlier days, in spite of his facade of intellectual superiority.

In another telling quote, Irving Howe sums up much of Allen’s motivation as an auteur let alone Zelig’s motivation as a “person” and character:

When I think about it, it seems to me that his story reflected a lot of the Jewish experience in America. The great urge to push in and to find ones place and then to assimilate into the culture. I mean he wanted to assimilate like crazy!

In Stig Björkman’s biographical interview Woody Allen on Woody Allen you clearly see Allen’s North American Jewish guilt explained. Even in Dianne Keaton’s biography Then Again she mentions it. Now, that would be to take this quote very literally, which you can. He was alive during the war, but he was safe and sound in North America. He didn’t lose any family in the war, and his parents never suffered in the war. He is one of a few Jews in North America who was not directly impacted by the Holocaust. This had a huge impact on his life, and on his self-image, especially relating to other Jews. It’s almost like survivors guilt. In a sick twisted way, he wasn’t a member of a club he so desperately wanted to pledge. Now, I recognize how that reads, and don’t mistake me for suggesting one should not be grateful they didn’t lose anyone in the Holocaust. My grandfather survived the work camps in Siberia, and I grew up seeing his tattoo: it was almost a right of passage to be Jewish and know a survivor. In this way, and this way alone, Allen was sort of left out of the loop. It’s interesting, then, that he should position himself alongside Hitler near the film’s conclusion: a very telling choice.

Beyond the quote’s literal implications, it also manages to showcase his desire to belong. He constantly demonstrates a desire to assimilate into the “culture” of the media, while looking down his nose at it. He wants to assimilate like crazy, there’s no denying that, not even for a moment. “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member” is, of course, his most famous paraphrased quote illustrating this very point. When you combine his self-loathing and self-deprecating humor with the truth behind its facade, you wind up with a man desperately eager to be accepted, but constantly trying to appear too cool for school.

In my mind Zelig is more telling in its subtext than it is a brilliant piece of cinema. Again, maybe I’m biased (you’ve ruined me, Nayman! RUINED ME!! ps. thanks for that, it’s awesome.) It’s an interestingly made film, that serves as an enlightening peek into the innermost thoughts of a strange, sad, confused, and brilliant little man.

This post was originally published on my tumblr on February 2, 2012.