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.

Review: This is Spinal Tap (1984)

thisisspinal1Director Rob Reiner makes an appearance in his own film as documentarian Marty Di Bergi. It’s tongue in cheek, but no one seems to have told Spinal Tap or anyone else in the film for that matter. For all intent and purposes, they are a real band with a real camera crew following their every move. The lines between fiction and reality are very easily blurred, because Spinal Tap seems more legitimate than some bands that come together, with one original album attached to the film and two subsequent albums that followed. That’s the funny part, or maybe it’s sad, depending on how you see it. It mocks, it parodies, and it attempts for the overly-dramatic, and yet it doesn’t fall too far from the actual music industry.

This mockumentary, rockumentary, or whatever you want to call it, follows Spinal Tap during their not-so-long-awaited tour in the States. Their trajectory mirrors all the great rock bands of their day and age. Right now they’re in the Zeppelin or Aerosmith stage, but led by their two founding members David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), they started a skiffle band back in Mother England. It was a humble beginning, with numerous arbitrary name changes, a hippy phase (much like the Beatles), and finally the genesis of their big-haired, hard rock 1980s persona. After all, their amps go up to eleven, one higher than the typical amplifier. They’ve cranked things up to new levels, but it doesn’t help that they’re album Smell the Glove is getting some negative backlash for its cover art.

What follows is a less than promising tour with failed autograph signings and malfunctioning props onstage. All the while, the immature musical nucleus of the band Nigel and David begin fighting. It feels very Lennon/McCartney and their Yoko Ono is David’s girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick). When their original manager quits in a huff, Jeanine steps in and things keep on going downhill. Bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) just seems like he’s along for the ride, and their most recent drummer is just happy he hasn’t met the unfortunate fate of spontaneous combusting like his predecessors. No one seems to care about the keyboardist Viv. Ain’t it the truth.

Then, the fateful day comes when the band splits up, or at least Nigel finally leaves having had enough of it all. But as they play second-bill to a puppet show at an amusement park in lovely Stockton, California, the boys realize they need Nigel back. Although the U.S. wasn’t too welcoming to them, they look to have a bright future in Japan with popular hits like “Sex Farm” “Big Bottom” and “Stonehenge.” They’re very popular over there, and of course, their amps still go up to eleven.

4/5 Stars

This is Spinal Tap (1984)


I have to say there were parts of this rockumentary that were very enjoyable. For every rock fan it salutes every group from the Beatles, Led Zepplin, and onward. Rob Reiner gives it a seemingly realistic feel, going so far as casting himself as the interviewer Marty DiBergi. As far as the band goes, Spinal Tap probably could be passed off as a real band as well, with real songs, album covers, and instrumentation. I think that makes the film so funny because we are seemingly the only ones who realize how silly they are. In their rock world amps that go up to 11 make sense and their everyday interactions are not even a bit funny. They didn’t mean them to be but for the audiences watching this epic failure of a U.S. tour unfold, we cannot help but smile at Spinal Tap. There was quite a lot of strong language but I thought the concept of the film was clever and there were some decently funny moments such as Stonehenge.
4/5 Stars

Take the Money and Run (1969)

Woody Allen made this mockumentary about an inept bank robber before it was cool or at least before everyone else was doing it. Whether he is trying to escape San Quentin using a bar of soap, playing the cello, having trouble explaining his hold up in a bank, or escaping with members of a chain gang, this film has genuinely funny moments. The narration is an important touch, there are pretend interviews, and of course Woody Allen playing the inept Virgil as he seemingly plays all his roles. Janet Margolin is funny opposite Allen simply for the fact that she is so beautiful, and he is, well, Virgil Starkwell, the world’s most inept, conniving, lying, yet lovable criminal. This is certainly is not Allen’s best film and the editing probably could have been better, but he was just getting started after all. It seemed like this film had some similarities (although more comedic) to Bonnie and Clyde and Cool Hand Luke.
                                                                             3.5/5 Stars