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Zelig (Blu-ray Review)

8 Aug, 2016 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Woody Allen, Mia Farrow.

If you were to list the films from the past 40 years whose special effects were at the utmost rim of cutting-edge at the time, the tally would be obviously dominated by ever-ubiquitous supernatural epics geared to teenaged males and all those 45-year-olds who apparently still wish that they were. Yet for all of Zelig’s intentionally dilapidated appearance — the film looks as if James Brown and every one of the Fabulous Flames artfully did a T.A.M.I Show routine on the original negative — my vote-getter for Woody Allen’s most clever achievement would demand easy inclusion. Even today, it’s half-impossible to believe what we’re witnessing on screen from a 1983 release.

Carried to an extent by a one-joke premise that a 79-minute running time keeps from wearing out its welcome, this black-and-white Orion production (originally distributed by Warner Bros. amid the two companies’ early joint deal) deals with a literal human chameleon who manages to insinuate himself into just about every major political and pop culture event between the Jazz Age and the Depression/Third Reich early 1930s. When we say insinuate, we mean insinuate, and when we say chameleon, we mean that as well, especially when it comes to then topical events. With Lou Gehrig at the plate during the Yankees’ spring training, for instance, here’s the otherwise nondescript Leonard Zelig (Woody himself) emerging as a teammate in the batter’s circle background. Other times (in fact, most of the time), Leonard carries his gifts of replication further, undergoing physical (not just occupational) transformations. If you were to plunk him into a room of Frenchmen, he might turn into a literal clone of, say, Michel Simon or maybe Michel Simon’s cousin. Every one of these visual switcheroos elicits an automatic laugh — kind of like the involuntary guffaws any movie of the ’70s still gets whenever it pictures a government office with a framed photo of Richard Nixon on the wall.

Utilizing newsreels and archival footage of the day as a jumping-off point — this is one of the rare movies to feature Tom Mix and Herman Gorring — Zelig is carried even more to an extent by its technological follow-through, whose execution still impresses enough to make us keep reminding ourselves that a good share of those scratches and dropouts and all that dupey-ness of the shoddy newsreel print quality we see had to be created. (And in the pre-digital age.) According to IMDb.com — and if this is true, it’s something I really didn’t know — Allen was able to shoot A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Broadway Danny Rose in the time it took to get Zelig’s effects finished (its release date was sandwiched between those of the other two). Gordon Willis was the cinematographer, and as impossible as it is to believe, Zelig’s was the only Oscar nomination he got until very late-in-the-game The Godfather Part III. And this despite his status as the era’s foremost American cinematographer, thanks to his work for Allen, Francis Coppola and Alan J. Pakula (see also Robert Benton’s Bad Company and Herbert Ross’s Pennies From Heaven in particular). Not long before he died, the Academy give Willis a special career Oscar — no doubt after one of those Alec Guinness/River Kwai “what have we done?” moments. 

Amazingly peppered by psychoanalytical Reds-like interviews of Susan Sontag, Bruno Bettelheim, Saul Bellow and others from the rarefied New York Review of Books screen demographic, the “human” element of the film deals with Zelig’s romance with a woman psychiatrist who has his back (Mia Farrow) — despite her character’s patronization by older male colleagues (back when not too many American movies strayed into office sexual politics). Her patient’s case is a challenge because, due to his nature, Zelig then begins to think he’s a doctor as well, which provides a forum for more of Allen’s high-end shrink humor. Yet this is foremost a movie about the events of a time — a kind of screen equivalent of a coffee table book I used to own and love in the late ’60s and early ’70s: Paul Sann’s Fads, Follies and Delusions of the American People. Except for implying in one scene that Hollywood was addressing Nazi Germany as early as 1935 when it was 1939’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy that provided the actual breakthrough, the brilliance of the period detail easily outstrips most other movies that try to recreate history. Scenarist Allen, of course, does make it clear that any mid-’30s film exposing the Third Reich threat would have had to come from socially conscious Warner Bros. (as did Spy). When I talked to Allen’s then regular editor Susan E. Morse during the release of The Purple Rose of Cairo (which nailed ’30s RKO art deco cosmetics), she told me that there was no movie from this time frame that the Wood-man didn’t know (though she did not call him the Wood-man).

If ever a Blu-ray release beckoned for a how-they-did-it commentary that’s not forthcoming, this is the one, and you can argue about the degree to which a high-def format can enhance a film designed to look worn. Even so, the visual presentation is discernibly more vital than what I re-saw last year on the standard DVD, just as Zelig’s score from the great Dick Hyman (the go-to guy for this kind of specialized project) gets some extra boost. Beyond the welcomely inevitable implementation of some era standards, Hyman’s original songs are in keeping with a movie full of brainy chuckles. These include a couple personal favorites: “Doin’ the Chameleon,” which has a fairly high boop-boop-a-doop quotient, and another that cuts directly to the emotional heart of the movie, “You May Be Six People, But I Love You.”


About the Author: Mike Clark

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