Midsummer Comic Depths
Since Wonder Wheel (2017) won’t arrive until December, Woody Allen fans will be denied what has become a customary summertime theatrical release in recent years. So the deprived among us can console ourselves with a pair of transitional Allen projects which burst on the scene this weekend, respectfully, 35 and 34 years ago. The first, the larkish rustic farce A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), was viewed as a lower-wattage underachiever. The second, the stunningly inventive mock-documentary Zelig (1983), reaped huge critical acclaim for its concept and execution and less attention for its detailed philosophical observations about identity. Each has become more fondly embraced over time, and Allen, who has through the years classified his prodigious 50-movie output into those based on “little ideas” and “larger concerns,” maintains a clear-eyed perspective. In the view of Allen biographer/chronicler Eric Lax, “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy was a breather, a whimsical comic turn not very well received. To many people, it seemed like a step backward for him, yet it was actually a steppingstone to what he feels is a good period, and he has affection for it. If he has any reservations about Zelig (1983), his tale of someone who becomes like the person he is talking to, it is that the technical achievement – the inserting of Leonard Zelig into vintage newsreels and fabricated ones that look old, the sound, and making the film seem a decades-old documentary – was so flamboyant that it obscured the points he was trying to make about a man afraid to be himself.” Woody Allen: A Life in Film author Richard Schickel was more expansive: “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy was set in a country house around the turn of the 19th century, and though Woody has always denied the resemblance, you could see that it was, at least in mood and setting, not entirely unlike Smiles of a Summer Night [the 1955 Ingmar Bergman classic that inspired the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler-Harold Prince musical A Little Night Music nearly a decade prior]. On the other hand, it was a typical Allen movie in that everyone present for this weekend was in love not with the partners they rode in with but with someone else in the house party. We did not particularly notice that the film ended on a magical realist note – with Woody’s character, a somewhat impractical inventor, having one of his creations actually work, putting the characters in touch with the unseen world. It is also, I think, a film that seems somewhat better – anyway, jollier – in retrospect than it did when it was released and turned out to be one of Woody’s less successful box-office attractions.”
In approaching the subject of “the superbly – all right, magically – managed” Zelig as “one of the great special effects films in that all the effects are placed in the service of an idea instead of simply serving our desire for sensation,” Schickel, presciently with regard to today’s polarized political environment, notes that “it is the film’s underlying idea that is truly brilliant – the eponymous antihero being a man with no qualities, therefore able to fit in, at will, with the famous. Or with the anonymous. Naturally, he becomes famous for this ability. Equally naturally, he succumbs to Nazism in its early days. Woody says he was completely aware of this film’s political implications. Fascism is a doctrine that appeals to people with no quality, who need some ideology – even (perhaps particularly) a perverse and violent one – to complete themselves, with a ready-made set of ‘ideas’ they can embrace. In the end – and this is one of the factors that make Zelig perhaps the most fascinating of all Woody’s films – Zelig must lose his magical abilities. Nazism is too dangerous for him to toy with. He must return to that reality we are all, alas, trapped within. It is love – Mia Farrow’s psychiatrist spots him at a Nazi rally, and her signals to him from the crowd break through his dream state – that saves him. The two make an improbable escape from Hitler’s Germany, and he settles back into normalcy – happily or not, we cannot be entirely certain. What we can be certain of is that Zelig is a superbly executed comic idea that makes a deft, sobering point about human behavior and the extremes of which it is capable.” Also for certain: whether you approach A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (starring Allen, Farrow, José Ferrer, Julie Hagerty, Tony Roberts and Mary Steenburgen) and Zelig (starring Allen, Farrow and luminaries of the early 20th century) as frothy diversions for a Felix Mendelssohn-scored gambol on the green or something deeper, there’s much more to savor beyond the jokes (and a possible singalong medley of Zelig’s Leonard the Lizard, Chameleon Days, You May Be Six People but I Love You and Doin’ the Chameleon) when you revisit them on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.