Thursday, October 7, 2010

Zelig (1983) Woody Allen, Mia Farrow

Genre: Comedy
Woody Allen's mock documentary fellows the course of a fictitious Jazz Age celebrity named Leonard Zelig. The film seamlessly blends old footage of the 1920's and early 30's and uses special effects and photo-shopping techniques to put Zelig (Allen) in the center of many historic events.

The film is an essay on the pitfalls of conformity. To some degree, especially young people, the need to "fit in" is common enough, and probably has its roots in the desire to be part of a lager group or tribe for survival. Most of us grow away from this tendency. For others, it becomes a lifelong path.

Taken to its logical extreme, however, it can lead someone to a loss of identity, or, as this film later shows, a journey into toxic mass movements like fascism. When economics in a nation are unhinged and troubled, these pressures are naturally greater.

Both this film and director Bernardo Bertolucci's hard-hitting drama "The Conformist" (1970) have similar themes.

Both films draw similar conclusions--that early events in a individual life can lead him into a state of total societal immersion. Both characters turn to the ruthless power of European fascism as a solution to their feelings of personal inadequacy. Bertolucci's character, Marcello, lives out a life of a middle-class father and husband, and also enslavement to Mussolini's spy network. This leads him to a crisis: to become a betrayer of those who trusted him in the past and their murderer, all in the name of scotching dissent against "Il Duce." But does he even care about politics , or is something deeper at work here?

Leonard Zelig chooses total conformity to remake himself from a Jewish/American New Yorker into a storm-trooper in Nazi Germany.
In Allen's movie, there is a ray of hope: a conformist can find a safe haven from extremism through psychiatric care, and, eventually, romance. (This is an American movie comedy after all, and for all of Allen's protests, he follows the rules of the genre. Mia Farrow plays his psychiatrist and just like a good studio director from the era he grow up in, they come together in the end. )

"Zelig" is a lighter comedy for Allen, at least until Hitler enters as a supporting character. But this still is a rare film that is both funny and makes a strong point about how our personalities are shaped by those around us.


  1. Interesting, Doug. I haven't heard of this. Woody Allen certainly has a way of putting something over to look like a full blown documentary.

    Zelig has discovered something we'd all find useful at times and that's to take on the personality of those close to us, although it understandably could backfire.:-)

  2. This one has passed by me un-noticed I'm afraid. Have to look out for it.

  3. I am not a big fan of Woody Allen. The only film I liked of his was Sleeper.

  4. Yes, Cassandra, I find when I resaw this recently it really does give you the sense of a real person being profiled. The film is only about 85 minutes long and, while not as funny as some of his films, is nevertheless satisfying.

    I know I sometimes catch myself using different words and slightly different behavior depending on who I'm with and the occasion I'm at. This built-in assimulation (for some of us at least) could be embarassing if inadvertently taken too far.

  5. Like a lot of Wooody Allen's comedies, it's out there but a little hard to find unles you are near a big videostore. But I think this one holds up rather well. Of course, I love a well-done historical documentary anyway, which is up my alley.

  6. Tell you the truth, Stephen, "Sleeper" is still my personal favorite Woody Allen movie. The first time I saw it in a theater I snuck back in to see it again! This was the first and last tme I ever did that.

  7. This is was made back when Mia still talked to him. Not one of my favorites.

  8. Because of Mia being in it? Or because of Mr. Allen's later shady personal conduct?

  9. Well, in that case, I'm glad you didn't come across, Hitler or Pol Pot, although Charlie Chaplin may have been fun!:-)

  10. Yes, Cassandra, a guy with my personality has to chose ones friends carefully--never sit down for a meal opposite an escaped war criminal in Buenos Aries, my Great-Uncle Rolf used to say, unless he's picking up the check.

    How great it would be to even approach the talents of a guy like Chaplin. Several actors from the Silent Film era of course tried to imitate him in his early days, some quite good on the "tramp" character up to a point I gather, but they were passing fads; Charlie was without peer.