12 July 2008

The Incredible Changing Man

There are some things in life I just don't get – and likely never will.  Many of these things relate to films.  For example: How did Roger Ebert pick Crash as the best film of  2004 and how did it win the best picture Oscar?

As a Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie of the Week from 1983, it would have been pretty good. But as a major motion picture in the 21st century it was just past mediocre. Crash was well intentioned but the story was preposterous.

I also don't get how Woody Allen's Zelig (1983) is not a more revered film. In its execution alone Zelig is brilliant. No pseudo documentary has ever been better, and yes, I'm considering the marvelous works of Christopher Guest.

Allen stars as Leonard Zelig, the incredible changing man, a human chameleon who takes the form of others around him. The story is told in documentary form as if people of the present were looking back on the story of Zelig, who achieved international celebrity in the '20s and '30s before fading into obscurity.

The melding of Allen and other actors, most notably Mia Farrow, into actual film footage from the '20s and '30s is remarkable. To have Allen and other actors appear to be in footage shot 50 years previous would be a technological feat today, never mind in '83.

You could easily fool many people into supposing this was a true story – if that they could get past the fact that a man can become suddenly obese merely by chatting with obese people or become Chinese when with Chinese, or speak French with Frenchmen, or even become one himself when around African Americans.  It sounds silly, I know, but seeing is believing.  It's all done so seamlessly and with such earnestness that a person would not have to be too young or gullible to "buy it."

Perhaps the  best real tip off is that this is not the real deal is that Zelig is played for laughs. The supposed filmed sessions between Zelig and his love interest/psychiatrist (Farrow) include Zelig reeling off several Allenesque one-liners.

Many real life notables appear in the film to comment on the Zelig phenomenon, including Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow and former Jazz Age restaurateur, Bricktop. Others appear in archival footage, sometimes with Zelig edited into the action. They include Lou Gerhig, Adolph Hitler, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charlie Chaplin.

Zelig is an interesting slice of culture from the '20s and '30s. The narration by Patrick Horgan is perfect (Horgan's name is probably unfamiliar to you but his voice is instantly recognizable to baby boomers).

But Zelig is more than a good time.  It is a parable for the desire many people have to fit in at any cost.  Zelig is a man who is pathological in his desire to be like others.  In given situations we all want to fit in to one extent or another. Sometimes we'll go along with any trend or opinion just to avoid being an outcast.  In this sense,  Zelig is very much a metaphor for fascism particularly, I think, as it existed in Nazi Germany.  It is also a commentary about celebrity in modern culture.  See how quickly the famous can raise and fall and how they can be exploited before their star dims. But Zelig is also a love story, and an important one as it shows how the positive love of one can override the negative false love of many.

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the Zelig's theatrical release.  It is yet to achieve the reverence it so rightly deserves.

I don't get it.

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