“Wanting only to be liked, he distorted himself beyond measure…” – Patrick Horgan as The Narrator
I’m a HUGE fan of 1970s Woody Allen. Starting with Bananas in 1971 and finishing up with Manhattan in 1979, he made some of the funniest, most poignant films of that decade or any other. After that, though, I think the quality of his work slipped. Love and Death is easily one of my favorite comedies, maybe even number one. It’s hilarious, and the more Russian literature you know, the better it gets. Conversely, if you aren’t close to tears when Alvy tries to get his new girlfriend to recreate an earlier date he’d had with Annie Hall, your heart must be made of stone. Beginning with Stardust Memories in 1980, Woody seemed to have lost the spark his earlier works had. There are occasional flashes of the brilliance of his youth, but nothing is as good as the earlier stuff. Zelig tries with mixed results.
This is a mockumentary, a term I don’t much care for, but considering there’s no good substitute, I’ll go with it. Utilizing a mix newsreel footage from the 1920s and 30s and contemporary interviews with critics like Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow, and psychologist Bruno Bettleheim, Allen tells the fictional story of Leonard Zelig, a human chameleon who wants so desperately to fit in that he actually changes his physical appearance to match that of the people he’s around. When meeting with a group of Hasids, he almost instantly grows Pay’ot. When he’s around a group of black servants, his skin darkens, his hair gets curly, and his nose changes shape. His speech patterns change in these situations as well, adopting an aristocratic tone when he’s around the wealthy and using more slang when surrounded by the less-advantaged. Allen uses a blue-screen to add Leonard into many of the vintage newsreels, much in the same way that Robert Zemeckis would do with Forrest Gump years later. The effect here is more subtle though, as it eschews the CGI and voiceovers, and I think it’s all the better for it. Leonard eventually gains the interest of psychologist Dr. Eudora Nesbitt Fletcher (Mia Farrow), who’s determined to get to the bottom of his odd ability. They, of course, eventually fall in love, and her acceptance of him puts an end to his shape-shifting ways. But not for long.
Upon its release, Zelig was well received by critics and currently holds a coveted 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but also reacted to it on a much deeper level. Even though I don’t have the ability to change my appearance on a moment’s notice, I do find myself changing my mannerisms depending who I’m interacting with. My wife always jokes that after talking to my dad, I sound just like him for the next hour or two. I was born and raised in Maryland, and having moved to Missouri fifteen years ago, I guess I’ve picked up a bit of a Midwestern drawl. It doesn’t take more than a minute or two talking to my family back East, though, to get me talking faster. It would be humorous if I didn’t think of it as revealing something about the way my brain is wired. I readily admit that I follow the ‘Good Little Electron Theory of Interpersonal Relations’. That is to say, I always try to follow the path of least resistance. I don’t need everyone around me to get along, but I’m much more at ease when they do, and if that means I sometimes take the blame for things that aren’t my fault in order to defuse a situation, I will. Part of being able to put people at ease around me, though, means talking and acting like they do so as not to be seen as an obvious outsider. Part of me sees this as a coping mechanism from my youth. We moved around quite a bit, and I always seemed to be starting a new school every few years. It helped to be able to fit in quickly. I wonder, though, if it hasn’t led to my lacking a well-defined self. In my quest to be a member of whatever group I’m surrounded by, what do I really stand for? Who is the real me? I was hoping Leonard Zelig might be able to provide me with some insight. Unfortunately, he was not.