THE FILM 4/5
“The Ku Klux Klan, who saw Zelig as a Jew that could turn himself into a Negro and an Indian, saw him as a triple threat.”
Zelig (1983) is writer-director-star Woody Allen’s utterly idiosyncratic take on a very serious subject – personal identity – hilariously told via the mutable character of “the chameleon man,” Leonard Zelig (Allen). In technically exquisite documentary style, we are given this tragically amusing fellow, who can’t help taking on the characteristics of those around him, and who thus becomes a strange sort of celebrity, himself. Co-starring Mia Farrow, and featuring deadpan interviews with the likes of Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, and Bruno Bettelheim–plus extraordinary archival footage offering glimpses of everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Adolf Hitler.
To a certain degree, we all wish we could be different people. We wish we could be taller, shorter, thinner. We wish we possessed talents we weren’t born with. We wish we loved, romantically, the people who loved us already. We wish we could change the things about us which make us feel unable to co-exist and “fit in” with our immediate environment. So if we could, how far would we go? Would we begin and end with our physical attributes we don’t mind appealing? Or would we go beyond and start tweaking our personality? Why not be stronger, braver, more assertive? And why stop there? Why not defy the law of physics and walk up the friggin’ wall?
As far as concepts go, Zelig is the most creative and out-there concept in Woody Allen’s filmography. Sort of a precursor to Forrest Gump (novel, 1986; film, 1994), Allen’s title character, similarly, ends up in the background of some of the most historic events in world history, be it Babe Ruth’s famous “point and hit” moment of 1932, or Hitler’s 1933 speech to the Third Reich. Regarded, first, as a curiosity and then a phenomenon, Leonard Zelig becomes the most famous person on earth simply for not having his own identity. As he adopts the physical attributes of those closest to him, and even purports to absorb their knowledge, Zelig comes into prominence, essentially, for being kind of a fake. Dances are named in his honor (known as “The Chameleon”). The Zelig phenomenon explodes across the world, affecting things from the inevitable to the not so inevitable. And smartly, Allen recognizes that there are two steps to all phenomena: the infatuation, and later, the rebellion. Leonard Zelig goes from national curiosity to public enemy number one. This uncanny ability he possesses transforms from celebrated to denigrated–and very, very sue-worthy.
There are signature Woody Allen moments throughout, which more than include his unique brand of humor:
I run into a Synagogue. I ask the Rabbi the meaning of life. He tells me the meaning of life… But, he tells it to me in Hebrew. I don’t understand Hebrew. Then he wants to charge me six hundred dollars for Hebrew lessons.
But there are, also, the moments of unexpected and appreciable philosophy that, otherwise, would make his films come off as fairly empty:
I love baseball. You know, it doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just very beautiful to watch.
These are things that Allen has managed to do with nearly all of his films–at least the successful ones. As absurd as some of his concepts have proven, and as far away from reality as they can get, the human experience never diminishes. By now his nervous demeanor has come to define him–it’s one thing to see a comedian make jokes, but it’s another to see a comedian make jokes whose nervous disposition suggests he’s not in on the very joke he’s making. They say there’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy, and no one has been able to base such a prolific career on that notion than Woody Allen.
THE PICTURE 4/5
Zelig is one of those untraditional films that challenges your expectations of a traditional high-definition image. Zelig was created to look like a mostly black and white documentary, utilizing ’40s- and ’50s-era stock footage cribbed from multiple sources. In some instances, Allen super-imposes himself within, which works in some instances but not so well in others. (The Babe Ruth bit is amusing, but the trick reveals itself the more the scene unfolds.) As such, a high-definition presentation has one job: not to present something in ultra crystal-clear clarity and make something look like it were shot yesterday, but to take an image and present it as best as it possibly could be, straddling that fine line between HD and artificial enhancement. Twilight Time’s presentation does the latter. Mostly black and white, and consisting of grainy, weathered footage, there’s not much cause for vivid colors or intricate textures, but the image on hand is still a solid one. It displays a reasonable amount of stability (except where it’s not supposed to) and the resolution is so sharp in spots that it can occasionally render an illusion as a bit more…obvious. Given the source image, Zelig probably couldn’t look much better–not even with a 4K transfer.
THE SOUND 3.5/5
Well, okay, less showy is the audio presentation, available in its original 1.0 mono track. Zelig isn’t the kind of film that calls for a very immersive audio experience, however, in keeping with its vintage documentary design. As usual in a Woody Allen film, the most important thing–the dialogue–is clean, clear, and well presented. Environmental ambience is barely relied on, though Allen does fall back on his usual Dixieland jazz-style of musical score, from source pieces as well as compositions by composer Dick Hyman. Everything sounds fine and is presented without issue.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 1/5
Collectors of Woody Allen films should be neither surprised nor disappointed by the lack of special features on this release. He’s the type of artist who lets the film speak for itself, and himself, and he’s never been fond of making sure his releases, new or old, contain many–or any–special features.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
— Isolated musical score
— Theatrical trailer
STUDIO: Orion Pictures/MGM
DISTRIBUTOR: Twilight Time (limited to 3,000 units)
THEATRICAL DATE: July 15, 1983
VIDEO STREET DATE: July 12, 2016
VIDEO: MPEG-4 AVC; 1080p; 1.85:1
AUDIO: English 1.0 DTS-HD MA; German 1.0 DTS-HD MA
SUBTITLES: English SDH
RUN TIME: 79 mins
DVD COPY: N/A
DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: N/A
As is typical of most filmmakers, the further you go back into their oeuvre, the more interesting titles you’ll begin to find. Made toward the end of his more unusual and experimental period (which includes What’s Up, Tiger Lily?), Zelig is one of those rare comedies (but not rare for Allen) that’s both incredibly odd, quirky, amusing, but hinting at something far more philosophical than you might expect from a film whose biggest gag comes from your title character awkwardly waving to one face in a sea of thousands as he sits behind Adolf Hitler. Zelig demands more than one viewing to fully appreciate its eccentricity and retain all the on-screen gags, so we’re lucky that Twilight Time has given it a new home with their fine blu-ray release.
Twilight Time are a boutique distributor who specialize in limited editions of culturally significant films from the world’s finest filmmakers. Founded by and comprised of “collectors and lifelong movie buffs,” Twilight Time’s catalogue of releases are specifically chosen to represent the films that, though beloved, would likely not be released by their own studios: “If we didn’t put them out, it is likely that they wouldn’t come out. And we are going to try to put them out … [with] the best picture and sound that we can.”