May 23, 2011

On the most recent “Tonight Show” anniversary program, they showed a clip of Woody Allen, circa 1965, doing a monologue while seated between Johnny and Ed. The story was funny, but the Woodman himself bore little resemblance to the lovable neurotic that we know so well today. He was bubbly. He was giggly. He was even touching Johnny. In fact, he almost looked like one of the boys. He was quite unlike himself.

I started thinking about that clip while watching Allen’s newest movie, Zelig, which is about a man who became famous during the 1920s because of his bizarre physical capabilities. Leonard Zelig (also known as “Chameleon Man” and “The Lizard”), it seems, would physically and mentally adapt himself to whatever person or group of people he was around; so, when he would chew the fat with a group of obese folks, he would suddenly sprout extra tonnage, and when confronted with a Chinese gentleman, would assume the look and posture of an Oriental. When Zelig’s gift was discovered, he was exploited and abused, although he eventually found help from a caring woman doctor. It turns out that, after an unhappy childhood, Zelig was so desperate to be liked by others that he would literally make himself like them.

Allen plays Zelig, and any autobiographical similarities between the two are probably not coincidental—especially remembering that Carson clip. But, thankfully, Allen is not in a whining or self-pitying mode; the unattractive self-righteousness of Stardust Memories has been banished in favor of a sweeter, more winsome tone. To a certain extent, this is partially due to the fact that Woody shuts up during most of Zelig. This is by necessity; the film purports to be a documentary reconstruction of Zelig’s life, through the use of newsreels and stills. Thus, a narrator does most of the talking for the movie, and Allen is relieved of the temptation to speechify. Instead, the way people move in front of, or look into, the camera, carries the load of Zelig‘s wistful message.

I’m not knocking on Woody, but let me give an example of one of these moments when he says too much. At one point in Zelig, Leonard is describing his love of baseball, and we hear his voice saying something like, “I love baseball—it’s so beautiful, so graceful.” Now, baseball is beautiful and graceful, but—we know that. I winced when I heard it; Allen nudges us here as though we were being let in on some great secret. There is a much greater (and much more graceful) love of baseball communicated through a shot early in the film, of a perfectly self-possessed Zelig standing in the batter’s box behind Babe Ruth, waiting to bat after the Bambino. Allen’s figure has been matted in so that he exists in an old newsreel of the real Ruth, and this moment—even with a static camera and shaky processing—transmits an almost ecstatic feel for the game. It’s funny, too.

To give Woody his due, let me laud a sequence in which he is very good indeed: under hypnosis (and under the eye of a documentary camera supposedly recording the scene), Zelig woozily declares his love for his doctor, Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow): “I love you…but I hate your pancakes…I want to be with you, take care of you…no more pancakes….” This paraphrasing does a disservice to the well-played rhythms of the scene, but you can see how Allen has struck a nice balance between the expression of Zelig’s long-buried—or at least disguised—emotions, and the unconscious surfacing of some practical considerations. Those pancakes keep the scene honest, and they transform the moment into something very meaningful.

The technical accomplishment of Zelig—the painstaking care with which the film combines stock footage, glossy pseudo-Hollywood filmmaking (in clips from the 1935 bioflick, The Changing Man), some beautifully restored stills (in one, Zelig looks almost presidential, standing between Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover), and the “documentary” motion-picture footage, is quite impressive—Zelig is a lot of fun to watch. Allen’s great cinematographer, Gordon Willis, is surely responsible for much of the film’s brilliant look. The is-it-real-or-is-it-fake appearance of the movie is exactly the appropriate treatment of the chameleon Zelig. That’s an important conceptualization on Allen’s part, and more evidence—after some odd misfires—that he may be continuing to learn as a film director; that, like Leonard Zelig, he is a Changing Man, in the best sense of those words.

First published in The Informer, September 1983

Woody Allen’s got a new movie out, Midnight in Paris, so we might as well take the hint to visit a few titles from his clockwork run in the 1980s. I haven’t seen the movie in a long time, so I can only guess that the technical business of blending newsreel footage and old photographs with newly-shot images much look quaint in this age of easy photoshopping, but it was considered quite impressive in its time. It would be cool if Allen were to make a movie like this now, something truly offbeat in its conception and format; at this working rate, he’s due.