Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Zelig

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Zelig

Zelig is a marvellous non sequitur, much like its hero. Well, that's not true exactly - the film has a message of sorts ("be yourself," squarely enunciated by the titular protagonist before he falls off the wagon and begins chameleon-ing again). But just as Leonard Zelig the man becomes a fad for his relatively purposeless ability to transform, Zelig the movie is too busy creating a lovingly thorough pastiche of the documentary form (and paying parodic but affectionate tribute to the 20s and 30s) to be "about" much other than itself. Resultingly, the movie is enjoyable but slight - Woody in the minor key - which is not such a bad thing, after all. At the same time, Zelig is, unlike some of Allen's other slight work (and most of his work has been, at best, slight since his 70s zenith) remarkably clever and sophisticated.


Without the benefit of Gumpesque CGI, Allen - assisted in no small measure by the master cinematographer Gordon Willis - inserts himself into various historical tableaux. There he is sitting behind Hitler, waiting for an at-bat during Yankees spring training, parading through New York like a nebbish Lindbergh. Some of this is achieved through trick photography or superimposition, while other moments - photographs, newsreels, home movies - are recreations. I've heard the technique criticized, but really it's very impressive. How often do we see supposed newsreel or historic footage which strikes a false note? Remember the "news" clips from Pearl Harbor? (If not, I forgive you.)

We can all instantly recognize the phoniness of the narrator's voice, straining to sound like those effortless old-school announcers. The tinniness of the sound design is all wrong - it feels forced, fake. The scratches and grain on old footage are often limply emulated; the mixing and matching of footage (authentic newsreel spliced in with period recreations) only serves to highlight that elusive, authentic aura held by the real deal. It's as if the filmmakers believe that by simply dressing up a bunch of extras and desaturating the clip, the footage will look "old". Yet where so many other movies miss the mark, Zelig gets it right.

Again, Willis must deserve an immense amount of credit. Allen has often waved away any knowledge of cinematography, but in his heyday he gave his DP (usually Willis) plenty of room to experiment and, more importantly, a framework within which this experimentation could flourish and become something more than an mildly interesting dead end. Here, Willis meticulously summons up the quality of scratchy old black-and-white, early talking films. These create a nice contrast with his "modern-day" interviews, which Allen directs perfectly - luminaries like Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag pontificate on the significance of Zelig with seemingly extemporaneous enthusiasm, not a trace of ham in their "performance."

If Zelig has a weak link it is - ironically - the humor. There are brief moments of stand-up material - Zelig tells his shrink he's late for a instructional class on masturbation - which make you laugh (a relief, as much of the movie is to be admired rather than thoroughly enjoyed) but which also take you out of the meticulously created experience just a bit. The tone is more whimsical than uproarious, and may be closest in mood to the much later Sweet and Lowdown, which also stages interviews vis a vis a fictional figure (though this time, they punctuate a narrative feature, rather than a mockumentary), and also takes place in a kind of sweetly re-imagined Depression-era America.

Perhaps I have been a bit too harsh on Zelig by beginning on the note that it's slight. It's also an astounding and illuminating piece of formal work, and an absolute essential for those of us who enjoy pondering the medium and especially its transformation over the years. Within Zelig there are clips from an ostensible feature film about Allen's character; for the most part, they don't quite nail studio filmmaking to the same extent that the rest of the movie nails documentary footage. But there's one moment where the stunt pays off big-time - when Zelig is rescued by his analyst/lover (now there's an Allen conceit for you) from his stint as a stormtrooper in Hitler's Germany.

In the "Hollywood" version of this incident, the camera gives us a Citizen Kane-esque hall, filled with soldiers and lit ominously. We get close-ups of Leonard realizing what's going on and a close-up of his lover calling to him. But when Allen shows us the "real" incident it's a delightful sleight-of-hand. Since we're ostensibly watching newsreel footage, the focus of the composition is not Zelig, but Hitler, and for a little while we even have trouble spotting the very-out-of-place Jew in the lineup behind the ranting dictator. We never see Mia Farrow's character at all - of course! Why would a German documentarian turn the camera on the crowd to focus on some historical footnote?

This is the genius of Zelig - just as its hero slips into multiple personae depending on his surroundings, so Willis' camera and Allen's mise en scene shifts purpose and technique depending on the formal viewpoint being emulated. And just as it becomes impossible to tell Zelig from his companions - be they Chinese immigrants, Long Island society types, or dancing rabbis - so it becomes increasingly, and pleasingly, difficult to distinguish the filmmakers' ingenious artifice from that which they are paying tribute to.

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