Zelig (1983)


So Woody Allen made a second mockumentary, the first one being Take the Money and Run (1969).  Zelig makes use of old (staged) newsreel footage, specifically targeting a more historical type of documentary where as Take the Money followed a character as the story was unfolding.

Woody Allen plays Leonard Zelig, the human chameleon.  He is a man who just wants to fit in with the people around him, so he actually begins to adopt characteristics of the people he surrounds himself with.  This means his skin color changes, his body size changes and he even begins to adopt other people’s points of view.  In one story he is said to have gone from Republican to Democrat in the span of a few minutes, fervently debating topical political issues.

Whereas Take the Money followed a character from childhood to adulthood and was loosely structured, Zelig is more straightforward plot-wise.  The story could easily just be another romantic comedy, and I guess it is, but it also has a lot of heart.

Leonard’s amazing ability is discovered, and Dr. Fletcher (Mia Farrow) comes along hoping to cure Leonard’s condition once she learns how desperately he wants to fit in.  Leonard is essentially a blank slate with no real thoughts of his own.  This is stated bluntly as we see him silently eating an apple by himself while people mill about around him.  Leonard is a complete conformist, constantly disappearing into other people.

Leonard begins to develop feelings for Dr. Fletcher and this becomes clear to her during one of her hypnosis sessions.  He states very clearly that he hates her cooking but is in love with her.

Her work on him begins to work, but it works too well, and he becomes stubbornly nonconformist, disagreeing with everything and everyone.  Having gone too far to the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Fletcher helps him move towards the center and become his own man.

By now Leonard is world-famous, and everyone knows him even though he hardly knows himself.  But having been cured, he and Dr. Fletcher seem primed to embark on their own adventure and life together.

That’s when the scandals come out of the woodwork.  It turns out Leonard has multiple children with different women, but he doesn’t remember this because when he’s become other people he can’t hold onto the memories he makes.

Leonard runs away and falls into his old ways, becoming the ultimate conformist by  becoming a Nazi.  Dr. Fletcher, however, finds him and helps him remember who he used to be.  Together they escape when Leonard mimics Dr. Fletcher’s piloting ability to pilot a small plane upside down back to America.

So it’s a nice, fairly simple story about the dangers of conforming.  Leonard seems like such an earnest character, and that’s probably because we only ever see him nodding in agreement with the people who surround him.  It seems like such a great quality to fit in with everyone, yet he has no point of view or, as stated, any memory of what he does in those fugue states.

The fact that he becomes so famous would seem to contradict his chameleon nature, but the hoards of people are only strangers to him, like the hoards of fans in Stardust Memories.  They don’t know him, and when the first scandal arises, they are quick to denounce him.  In a way this might be saying that we can only idolize the people we know the least about or about whom we only know one thing.  Example: People love certain athletes because they are known for one thing, which is the sport they play.  But when they begin to challenge our image of them, the image cracks.  Once in a while you’ll see someone use the platform that fame allows them to make a political statement, and many people will disagree with their statement and tell the internet that they should stick to the one thing they do, such as acting.

We like organizing the stuff in our life into little boxes.  That’s the sports box, that’s the political box, that’s the shoe box, that’s the movie star box, that’s the soap box, etc.

So Leonard Zelig is known for one thing, and that one thing is that he doesn’t have a thing, I guess.  He is still a Woody Allen character so he does have neurotic characteristics, and he has a need to fit in, but that’s now why he’s famous.  He has a need to fit in which makes him become a chameleon and that’s why he’s famous.

Oftentimes the thing behind the thing for which someone is known is the most interesting.  Again, I’m reaching for straws here and just typing away in my stream of consciousness manner, but that’s the message I got.

So what else can we take from this film as it relates to Allen’s career?  I want to bring everything back to what it reflects about him, but this just seems to elaborate on ideas brought up in Stardust Memories, mainly the misgivings of fame.  I mean, fame drove Leonard to join the Nazi party.

Well here’s an idea.  Maybe Allen’s critics believed he was too out there, and he’s saying “look, it’s better that than I try to blend in and join a mass movement.”  Or maybe that’s a terrible thesis statement, if you can call it that.  What do I think?  Well you can subscribe to the Matt R. Weekly Newsletter.  Here’s an excerpt from this week’s issue.

“On Monday Matt received a dirty look from a stranger, and he was hungry for a large portion of the day.”

But what do I think Allen is trying to say with Zelig?  Why is it always about me?  Why, if you made a word cloud of things I say in day to day life, would I be the biggest word?

What is Allen thinking?  What germ of an idea led him to make Zelig?  He’s a famous person.  I’m sure his critics weren’t saying he’s too out there or anything.  I believe the criticism most often lobbed at him was that his characters are too neurotic, whiny and they make their own problems.  In other words they don’t deal with real issues.  That’s what he addressed in Stardust Memories and it feels like a complaint most often said about Manhattan.

Well the problem in Zelig is a real problem.  It’s not about Leonard as much as it is about people as a whole.  So that’s what this is, I suppose, and it only took the most egocentric of tangents for me to get there.  It’s not even that big of an idea, it’s pretty straightforward.  So it’s about people and society.

This might be one of his first films that’s not about Woody as much as it is about anyone.  In a way it’s about the distance between fame and anonymity or the closeness between the two.  Fame and anonymity are almost the same, because within fame you are reduced to a symbol, and society doesn’t see the real you.

Up Next: Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)


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