Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Twenty

Top5080s20

#20 — Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983)
Most comedies posing as documentaries cheat. Much as I love many of them, I’m aware that the nonfiction form they’re employing is just a means towards easing the storytelling and the character development, or even simply to disguise the thinness of the plot. There’s always plenty of material in them that cameras would likely not be privy to or at least scenes that stand out as unlikely inclusions in a true documentary. That’s fair enough, but abandoning the conceit when its convenient also seems like a missed opportunity, if only because it lets a bit of the verisimilitude of the movie slip away. The comedic orchestration is always apparent, which can create a bit of a distancing from the material onscreen. Besides, any movie that can multitask effectively enough to tell a fascinating story while also offering a pitch-perfect parody of an entire section of cinema is clearly doing something special. Those last two words make for a splendidly accurate description of Woody Allen’s Zelig.

The film relates the sad, strange tale of Leonard Zelig, an unassuming man who became a bit of a sensation in the 1920s and 1930s when his unique affliction came to light. Zelig was a sort of chameleon, picking up the attributes–physical and otherwise–of people he came into contact with. If he stood near Hasidic Jews for a few minutes, for instance, he’d gradually but quickly grow a full beard and wind up unwittingly adopting their mannerisms. He was like one of those people who helplessly picks up another person’s accent in an extended conversation, but with pronounced physical changes as well. Beyond the comic potential with such a scenario, Zelig stands in for anyone who subsumes their own personality out of a desire for greater acceptance. In effect, it’s about the endless pliability of identity years before that become the trending theme for self-consciously arty cinema. Allen is certainly not immune from fits of pretension, but there’s no evidence of it here. Despite the potentially weighty ideas in the film, Zelig is light and sprightly.

The movie is also blissfully inventive. Adhering to his concept, Allen assembles the film as if he had to rely entirely on a combination of archival footage and modern-day interviews with observers and historians. This completely changes the dynamic of what he presents and how he presents it, perhaps most evident in the vast of array of Zelig-related merchandise he dreams up to demonstrate the faddish popularity that the man stirs up, including oddball tribute songs and transforming toys. Every detail from Zelig’s bygone past that Allen offers up is entirely plausible–the archival footage largely centers on publicity events and sessions with his therapist that are being filmed for documentation purposes–and it’s all the funnier for that firm grounding in the history it purports to relay. Zelig arguably reaches its conceptual apogee when Allen presents footage from a fabricated Hollywood film about Leonard Zelig called The Changing Man to show how it reconceived a critical moment in his life. Allen essentially comments on the fakery of cinematic fiction with his own imagined creation, simultaneously satirizes both documentaries and old Hollywood in the process. There’s another layers to outfit an entire planet.

Allen wanted the footage of Zelig to look old and worn, a desire that sometimes necessitated cinematographer Gordon Willis stomping on the film negatives in a bathtub. It’s a novel solution and one that is fully indicative of both the commitment and the ingenuity of the whole work. The film is devilishly funny, but it also demonstrates Allen’s devoted focus on the filmmaking beyond the jokes. Even if he downplays his contributions to cinema, Allen has the inspiration of a true artist. Sometimes he’s also workmanlike, a guy just doing his job by going to the set and mounting a production. When the artistry takes over, though, a real treasure can emerge. That, too, is a fine designation to hang upon Zelig.