The Zelig Society
Two weeks from now, you may or may not notice that a guy named Woody Allen will have a new movie in theatres called Café Society and an older title new on Blu-ray called Zelig (1983). Before the latter movie opened 33 years ago this July, the word zelig was defined as a male given name derived from the Germanic meaning “blessed” or the Yiddish meaning “happy.” After the happily blessed, technically audacious and dazzlingly unique comedy gem arrived, the word zelig took on two more definitions: 1) an ordinary person who adapts to fit into any situation and/or imitate anyone they’re near; and 2) someone having a ubiquitous, often inconspicuous presence. They’re all part of the Zelig mystique: Leonard Zelig, the “chameleon man” subject of this compact (78-minute) mock-documentary, is a marvelous starting point which, per Jack Kroll of Newsweek, “allows Woody to satirize all sorts of things, from nostalgia, psychoanalysis and The American Dream to critics, himself and much more….His Zelig is a romantic who desperately wants the supreme cocktail of realism mixed with glory – the Great Gatsby as schlemiel.” Leonard is the centerpiece of a fable constructed from an extraordinary assemblage of newsreel footage, awesome still photos, “expert” historian interviewees and cinematographic wizardry (marking the first time Gordon Willis, who’d already shot The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall and Manhattan at this point, received an Academy Award® nomination). Eleven years later, Forrest Gump would straddle the globe and show up at all manner of historic events courtesy of computer-generated innovations, but Zelig would do so in analog fashion – and no less amazingly. Just as Jesse Eisenberg’s Bobby in Café Society tries to navigate the slippery slope of celebrity fascination and personal advancement in the contrasting swank and swinging environs of New York and Hollywood, Leonard Zelig wanders his own singular maze of conformist compulsion in order to achieve the same goal as Bobby: being loved for himself. “Allen is sometimes taken for granted, and Zelig is a case in point,” David Evanier wrote in Woody: The Biography. “The film alone would have established any other director-writer as a filmmaker of the first rank. But in Allen’s case, it is quickly submerged in the flood of his output, future and past fllms, that come at us with such speed that it is difficult to digest them and place them in proper perspective.” But those who consider Zelig (also starring Mia Farrow as Zelig’s miracle-worker psychologist and outfitted with a captivating collage score of docu-flavored music and popular standards by Dick Hyman) just a shiny bauble and not a pantheon masterwork with autobiographical undertones and acute social impact should really look again and look closely, just as The New Republic’s Stanley Kauffman (whom Evanier called “one of Allen’s toughest critics”) did when he wrote: “The skill is so clever as to approach brilliance. I ignore dozens of gifted artists and technicians when I single out Santo Loquasto for costume designs that combine accuracy with slyness. Allen, as a director, shows a keen eye for the way people looked, and thought they looked in the period: the way they glanced at cameras, posed themselves for photographs, or invented ‘business’ for newsreels. Behind all this is not only a careful study of period materials, which many directors have done, but a sensitivity to cultural change. Allen, looking back from the present, perceives that this moment is a point of transition from the film camera as an ornament of civilization to a central component of consciousness.” Twilight Time invites you to put down your cell phones and go chameleon with Zelig on hi-def Blu-ray July 12. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday June 29.