I want to get out while I still can / I want to be like Harry Houdini / Now I’m the Invisible Man.
In Reds, writer-director-producer-actor and all-around polymathic performing pygmy Warren Beatty felt that he could achieve veracity in his untellable, tedious tale of John Reed and his Amazon queen by interrupting the stretched-out people’s polyester saga with “real” personages who knew Jack when. It was all so aboveboard, a cut above mere moviemaking–or at least it was supposed to have been. It wasn’t quite a documentary, though it had certain aspirations, or pretentions, in that direction, just as fictions by E. L. Doctorow try to crawl into the history category. Beatty not only used Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in Reds, but he also appropriated the interview technique from the 1969 Take the Money and Run, or so it seems. At least the near-and-dear in the Allen film had the good taste to wear fake mustaches, noses, and glasses during their interviews with the camera. Allen has now put Beatty into the proper perspective. Just as Reds began snatching up hours of air time on HBO, Zelig appeared. The bathetic high seriousness of rheumy weepers remembering John, dear John, are paralleled by people like Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, and Saul Bellow, who, with the proper mock seriousness, discuss one Leonard Zelig, a man who was committed only to his safety in mass society, which was manifest by his complete blending into any given environment (i.e., his physical appearance changed so that he would be come fat, black, Oriental, etc., depending on the setting). Allenhas regularly punctured overinflated intellects by pointing out that there is a distinct difference between knowledge and hot air (vide Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall); Beatty doesn’t recognize it. John Reed wanted to turn the world on its head; Leonard Zelig wanted the world to leave him alone. Both are ridiculous figures. (Reed, of course, was a real man, whereas Zelig is from Allen’s imagination. But the Academy Award Reed is no more genuine than Zelig.) Another difference between Reds and Zelig is that while Beatty became so carried away with himself (he, naturally, played Reed) that his film is both chronologically and subjectively endless, as if he fancied himself an Eisenstein, Allen knows that brevity is the soul of wit. Unfortunately, always put-upon Woody has a touch of the showboat in him.
In an otherwise unremarkable 1982 film, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, director Carl Reiner had his protagonist, a detective, interact with figures in clips from 1940’s American film noir features. Thus, Steve Martin confronted Humphrey Bogart. It was generally well done: it meshed and few edges showed. Allen does much the same thing in Zelig: Fanny Brice serenades Zelig, and Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover pose with him. Newsreel footage is used instead of movie clips. Zelig, of course, is the typical Allen character, one who makes Chaplin’s Tramp look like a mensch,so the juxtaposition of the nobody with the somebodies is, in itself, amusing. The camera work and the film processing and post processing are the real “stars.” While Zelig is technically more sophisticated than Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, that isn’t particularly remarkable in this post-Tron age.
What is Woody Allen’s point? Certainly Zelig is a “serious” film, especially as compared with Take the Money and Run, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and even Reds. But when the doctored Pathe news shots are ignored and the wonderful blending process is overlooked, there is little to it. The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil (she had 16 personalities) address the problem of some individuals’ responses to mass society, showing that while the title characters are individuals, they are also aberrant with regard to normative living. Zelig is nothing more than a sort of tribute to Peter Sellers. Clouseau invariably cracks the case; Zelig and his doctor (“It’s all in the mind,” she staunchly maintains, puffing away like a figure in an Eve cigarette ad) live happily ever after. Given the real nature of multiple personality disorders, the film, though it may be funny, is not unlike a dirty joke: at base, distasteful. Allen, like Beatty, went too far. Zelig is charged with a paternity suit. Initially, this seems like a barbed comment about one of the dangers of being a celebrity: such put-up jobs happen all the time. But as it turns out, Zelig is the husband of several women and the father of numerous children. He publicly apologizes to a family, explaining that he’d never pretended to be an obstetrician before encountering them and so thought (perhaps with a nod to Tristram Shandy’s Dr. Slop) that ice tongs were a proper birthing instrument. If Zelig is to be taken as something other than a long sight-gag, then it isn’t serious but intellectually sleazy–and perhaps even that adverb is too kind.
This didn’t have to be the case. Had Allen not gone wandering in search of a point–one that he never reaches, any way–and pared the film to no more than 45 or 50 minutes, it would have been a far superior work, both technically (the trick photography does become tiresome) and intellectually (i.e., it would be a devastating indictment of the notion of celebrity or of conformity American-style, in which one can be come what he wishes to be). However, this would result in the problem of classifying it as a “feature film.” Allen obviously wants to be something more than a comedian, to make observations about man’s condition in the final phases of the 20th century; he seems to want to be taken as a sophisticated filmmaker–and he often seems to be on the brink of becoming one. Such a filmmaker goes with whatever length is suited to his concept; a sculptor doesn’t make a statue bigger than life–sized simply so more people can see it. Padding, which is always evident in Zelig, causes its messages to become diffuse–and defused. Certainly commercial considerations play an important role, but those are to be taken care of by the business people, who could undoubtedly come up with various marketing and screening alternatives. For example, multiscreened theaters are proliferating; some of them have 11 or more screens. Given their quantitative requirements, they regularly show films that are a year or more old, and not as a second feature. A perfect pairing for Zelig would be Reds. Zelig could start at a time that would coincide with Reds’ intermission. Zelig would be, properly, packed.
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