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Zelig (1983)

by on 2012/08/27

“It is safe to be like the others. I want to be liked.”

* * * * *

Screw you, Forest Gump. Zelig kicks you square in your cross-country marathon-running ass.

Ok, perhaps I’m being a little harsh. I’ll admit, Mr. Gump, you have your place in the film collections those who enjoy both Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan playing developmentally challenged people in love (apologies again to Janeane Garofalo for the bad paraphrase).

Sure, Zelig came well before the Hallmark Card, sad puppy eyes and treacle-sweet box of chocolates Forest Gump offering. Both films broke new visual effects ground by convincingly inserting the Zelig and Forest Gump characters into historical footage.

But while Zelig is an incisive commentary on the mass conformity, newsreel-fuelled hysteria and marketing machinery of 1920-30s America, Forest Gump plum weren’t no more than a tear-jerkin’ cartoon.

Zelig, played by Woody Allen, is a human chameleon –  a person who literally changes both his manner and his physical appearance when exposed to different types of people. Placed in a group of morbidly obese men, Zelig morphs and swells. Introduced to a throng of dialoguing Rabbis, he sprouts a full beard and is gradually clad in full, sober Orthodox garb. He becomes fluent in Mandarin in Chinatown, and so on.

With black-and-white historical footage intercut with modern-day, documentary-style interviews, this film is a stinging commentary on the essential human need to be accepted; the pretension of the psychiatric and medical professions; mass fads and news-of-the-day furor; and deep-seated family dysfunction.

Mia Farrow plays the dour psychiatry upstart Dr. Eudora Nesbitt Fletcher, a doctor assigned to get the the bottom of the mental mystery poised by Zelig. Moments with the actors are spliced with brilliant cinéma vérité moments with (wo)men on the street interviews about the phenom and sensation Zelig.

These streeters are filled with subtle and not-so-subtle jokes: “He was the guy who smashed my car up. It was brand new. Then he backed-up over my mother’s wrist. She’s elderly… and uses her wrist a lot.”

There are also the ‘White Room Sessions’ where Zelig is psychoanalyzed under hypnosis, and reveals the origins of his dysfunction. “My brother beat me. My sister beat my brother. My father beat my sister and my brother and me. My mother beat my father and my sister and me and my brother. The neighbors beat our family. The people down the block beat the neighbors and our family.”

The funny and the smart is further ratcheted up by modern-day intellectuals like activist writer Susan Sontag, Freudian scholar Bruno Bettelheim and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow weighing in on the historical significance of Zelig.

In Zelig, Mr. Allen turns in a visually ground-breaking, whip-smart satire, as carefully and painstakingly constructed as the piece of footage of Woody and Hitler sharing a stage. And it also made me think of all the Zeligs I’ve met in my time, people aping the crowd in a desperate bid to be liked.

* * * * *

79 minutes

Rated PG for pounds Gump

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  1. A Goth’s Month in Review: August 2012 « Geek vs Goth

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