Zelig (1983)

Director: Woody Allen

As I daresay you’ve noticed, it’s been quiet here for a while; having one of those periods again where finding the inclination to watch stuff is proving difficult for some reason (think I might leave the Laurel & Hardy box for another time when I’m in the right mood). Anyway, doing a bit of random channel-surfing earlier this evening, I discovered ABC2 were running this (it wasn’t listed in the paper guide), so I decided to try breaking the drought… plus Woody Allen is one of those filmmakers I know I should probably try to see more stuff by, so why not take the opportunity. What a delightful opportunity, too… I kind of knew what the film was about, the titular “human chameleon”, but I don’t think I realised it actually took on the “mockumentary” form, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the film to actually follow its premise through to its logical conclusion. Leonard Zelig, the human chameleon, wants so desperately to be liked by other people that he actually takes on their characteristics; in the presence of Chicago gangsters he becomes a Chicago gangster, among East Coast socialites he becomes one of them, among their kitchen staff he becomes one of them too, and among a group of black jazz musicians… yeah, Woody actually goes there. HOLY SHIT, that must’ve taken some nerve even in the 80s; needless to say it made for a number of “fucking hell” moments three decades later. Plus, in those pre-digital days, inserting Woody and Mia into the original period newsreel footage was actually a major technological achievement, difficult enough that Woody had time to make two other films while the effects work on this one was carried out. So it’s notable for that too. But the really important thing is that it’s often screamingly funny; Allen nails the form precisely (right down to the narrator), and Zelig’s own story offers quite some food for thought. One of the film’s “talking heads” opines that Zelig’s desire to fit in with everyone around him reflects so much of the Jewish experience of the early 20th century, and then later we see him in Nazi Germany because fascism offers him the most logical way of letting himself be subsumed in the mass. Quite remarkable stuff, glad I discovered it was on…

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