Zelig (1983) and Gordon Willis’s Mimicry of Classical Hollywood

Zeligposter.jpgI never thought I’d be saying this about a Woody Allen film, but it feels more like a technical marvel than purely a testament to story or dialogue. Although The Purple Rose of Cairo did something similarly compelling, Zelig is literally a film relying on a look that is authentic to a time period. Allen even goes so far as using old-fashioned cameras, lenses, and techniques to try and get them as close to classic filmmaking as possible.

Preceding the cutting-edge footage in Forrest Gump, we have Woody Allen as his alter ego, Leonard Zelig, being inserted in all sorts of images. It’s spliced together in such a seamless way we wonder if some scenes were simply chosen because they featured a lookalike of Allen to fit with the rest of the film.

Shot as an obvious mockumentary, which could be likened to Citizen Kane‘s News Marches On segment, one might concede Zelig is humorous in a similar vein. It’s not like Take The Money and Run (1969), Sleeper (1973), or even Annie Hall (1977), each offering genuinely zany and laugh-out-loud gags.

By playing something so ludicrously out of left field, completely straight, Allen has his comedy. He goes to the furthest extreme to make this feel like a real Ken Burns-esque documentary complete with talking heads giving their dry, poorly lit commentary from the present. They lend this credence, this seemingly real-world ethos, to something so utterly ridiculous. This juxtaposition gets at the humor precisely.

The story itself isn’t much of anything at all, loosely tied together over the course of an hour. Zelig (Woody Allen) is a generally non-descript Jewish man (Allen’s usual archetype) with a curious tendency brought on by an undying need for approval.

Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) is intent on helping him and confirming her findings that he is indeed suffering from a chameleon-like disorder, causing him to transform his appearance to assimilate with whoever he’s with. It could be politically, socially occupationally, even racially, as he is found speaking Chinese and frequenting an African-American jazz club in two separate instances.

In the good doctor’s presence, he conveniently thinks he’s also a psychologist trying to do therapy with her, even having a fine approximation of the vocational jargon. But this is just a cursory sign to a much deeper-seated issue.

It turns out he’s unwittingly duped tons of people with wives married, babies delivered, and all sorts of other feats and accomplishments undertaken in different lives. He’s the most interesting man in the world who consequently has no idea about any of his accomplishments.

The laundry list of real-life icons is too delightful to pass over from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bobby Jones, and the list keeps on going and going. William Randolph Hearts himself (a Kane archetype) and his mistress Marion Davies show up along with Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Carole Lombard, Marie Dressler and a host of others I failed to mention. You get the idea. It’s among the ranks of all these folks, Zelig was able to take on his chameleon-like personality and win their friendship.

It also occurred to me that Allen always makes his admiration for Ingmar Bergman fairly obvious. Like the other director’s films, which are always inhabited by interesting female characters, Allen settled on his own muses in Dianne Keaton and Mia Farrow. Farrow in this picture, captured completely in black and white, even gives a striking visual approximation of Liv Ullmann in Persona. I’m not sure, but it seems too close not to be an obvious nod, albeit with a typical Allen twist. The added punchline is that Farrow’s character ultimately falls for her highly neurotic patient. It’s of little surprise.

Like many of the New York-based auteur’s work, Zelig doesn’t leave me with any nuggets I want to hold onto. Conceptually, it’s somewhat arresting and the execution is phenomenal. I can understand with all the credits to his name why Gordon Willis might have considered this to be one of the most difficult he ever undertook.

If I were the director of photography, I would want to pull my hair out too. But his work and attention to authenticity is probably the greatest takeaway from Zelig. Modern films pale in comparison when it comes to mimicking the past. There’s little to no contest. If nothing else, Zelig stands as the crown jewel of Classical Hollywood mimesis.

3.5/5 Stars

Note from September 2018: I did not address the allegations to Allen in this review, but I must acknowledge they now linger over any film of his we watch, especially those seen in retrospect. It’s a topic I do not know enough about, and I do not feel privy to the conversation, so I will leave it to others at the moment.

Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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“How many times is a man so taken with a woman that he walks off the screen just to get her?”

This line spoken by one of Jeff Daniels’ characters is really the key to opening up the fantasy that is Purple Rose of Cairo. Here is a film where Woody Allen most blatantly gets to parade his love for the movies and it revolves around the Depression, a love story, and a movie theater. Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a woman who gets by working in a diner with a bum of a husband (Danny Aiello) who beats her more than he loves her. Her one getaway is the escapist thrills derived from the weekly romances and melodramas found at the local theater. She’s one of the most faithful attendees making it out to the movies religiously and she goes back out into the world reciting all that she has seen to anyone who is willing to listen.

And there is a bit of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. here as well. It’s not as inventive visually but several scenes that include the firing off of dialogue between the screen and reality work to great effect.  That’s something Keaton could not do in a silent picture, have his movie characters and audience members interact so directly.

It’s striking that the scenes that have been constructed as “film” really do look like films of old. There’s an attention to the craft rather than the shoddy caricature of grainy black and white that we’re often accustomed to. Even the striking resemblance of Edward Hermann to Edward Everett Horton as well as the makeup work complete with black eyeshadow lends itself to the whole charade.

And Purple Rose of Cairo is literally about a man coming off the silver screen to interact with one of his viewers — one of the people who is devoted to him — and he loves her. The woman is, of course, Cecilia, and the man off the celluloid is Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels the first time around) a man who was written as a supporting character, an archaeologist.

That in itself might be enough to play with but Allen takes his story a step further so it’s not simply about this unlikely romance of worlds colliding. But it gets even more intriguing when the famed actor who plays Tom in “real life,” the man Gil Sheppard (Jeff Daniels again) crosses paths with Cecilia. At first, he’s interested in her because she has a way to assist him in his predicament since she knows his unruly alter ego. However, over time it turns into a certain amount of awe because she is devoted to his characters and by a certain amount of transference, him as well. The question that is then raised rather obviously is, do you take the perfectly constructed fantasy man or do you go with reality? That which is right in front of you, both living and breathing and fully human.

It’s also a commentary on the rigid conventions that storytellers are often forced to adhere to. Aside from “art-house,” there can be little to no films with people talking or dealing with philosophical issues. That’s too mundane. Of course, Allen is notably one who matches his comedic delivery with his own philosophical quibblings. And this film is light but it still raises some of the questions he is often preoccupied with. Whether or not he comes to a satisfying conclusion is for only the viewer to decide, and if the film itself is any indication they are the ones who must decide. The viewer, in this case, has great agency. They are the focal point of this film, again, in the literal sense.

As is Woody Allen’s penchant, the film opens with an old standard, in this case, the crooning voice of Fred Astaire knocking off a few bars of “Cheek to Cheek.” And the story ends with Astaire & Rogers dancing the night away. While Purple Rose of Cairo cannot quite top Top Hat, it’s a bittersweet dose of 30s nostalgia all the same. It shows once more that Woody Allen truly does love movies with a passion. That’s one thing that’s difficult to take away from him, but it does beg the question, can movies really be your be all, end all?

Some of the implications are rather troubling as we leave Cecilia completely immersed in a film, her real life completely ripped to shreds without a marriage or a job or really anything else. But she has a movie. Except movies can only go so far in how they emulate reality. They cannot replace it or perfectly replicate what is real. They can only help us understand it better. That is why, while movies can and should be entertainment at times, they should not only be pure escapism. Because the reality is that life is still right outside our door. We cannot get rid of it or lose sight of our role in it — both in good times and bad.

We are probably all just as messed up as the next person and perhaps little better than Woody Allen in some ways, still, if we don’t simply love movies but hope to glean a little from them about life then we are better off. They cannot be the ultimate thing in life but they can direct us towards the important things.

3.5/5 Stars

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemarys_baby_posterFrom the haunting opening notes of a lullaby to the otherworldly aerial shot floating over New York, Rosemary’s Baby is undeniably a stunning Hollywood debut for Roman Polanski.

What follows is a tale weighed down by impending doom and paranoia. But although the tone is very much suited for Polanski, it’s perhaps even more surprising how faithful his adaptation is to the original source material. Most of the dialogue if not all of it is pulled from the pages of Ira Levin’s work and the Polish auteur even went so far as getting the wallpaper and interiors as close to the novel’s imagery as he could. But that hardly illuminates us to why the film is so beguiling–at least not completely.

In an effort to try and describe the look of the film, the best thing that I can come up with is inscrutably surreal. Some of it is undoubtedly due to the lighting. Partially it’s how the camera moves fluidly through the cinematic space which is mostly comprised of interiors. But nevertheless, it’s absolutely mesmerizing to look at and it pulls you in like the wreckage of a car crash. As much as you don’t want to, your eyes remain transfixed.

Mia Farrow, with her figure gaunt and her hair short, becomes the perfect embodiment of this young wife. The progression she goes through is important. Because she starts out young, bright-eyed and cute. Still, as time progresses she evolves into her iconic image, shadows under her eyes, ruddy and covered in beads of sweat. Her state is no better signified than the moments when she walks through oncoming traffic in a complete psychological daze.

John Cassavetes brings his brand of comical wryness to the role of the husband and struggling actor. But face value gives way to more sinister underpinnings. Old pros like Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, and Ralph Bellamy are given critical parts to play as an overly hospitable old crone and her husband and the aged doctor who are all privy to this deep-seated conspiracy.

You’ll find out soon enough what that means if you watch the film. However, for me what kept coming back to me is that this is, in essence, a subversion of the Christ child narrative with a new “Mother Mary” figure.  And hidden behind this psychological horror show is something, oddly enough, darkly comic. It’s summed up by the scene in the doctor’s office waiting room where Rosemary begins to leaf through Time Magazine. The headline reads bluntly, “Is God Dead?” As a relapsed Catholic surrounded by people who scoff at religion, the world is seemingly devoid of such things. Even the film itself features more profane moments, greater sensuality, and darker themes than any film of the early 60s. Thus, that magazine headline is not too far from the truth

It’s a question that many would have undoubtedly answered in the affirmative in 1968 too, a year fraught with rebellion, unrest, assassinations, and conflict. Polanski himself would even lose his beloved wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Mansion family. Mia Farrow was served divorce papers by Frank Sinatra on set. It surely was a dark time and yet while Rosemary’s Baby is disillusioning, there’s also an absurdity running through it.

However, the bottom line is that it maintains its frightening aspects because so much is left ambiguous. We don’t see the baby. We never fully understand what’s afoot. And we don’t even know what will happen to Rosemary in the end. What choice will she make? What path will she choose? Is this all a cruel nightmare or will she wake up? Can anyone rescue her from her torment? There are no clear-cut conclusions only further and further digressions to be made.  There’s something fascinatingly disturbing about that. It ceases to grow old.

4.5/5 Stars