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MGM Studios DVD presents
"He was, of course, very amusing, but at the same time touched a nerve in people, perhaps in a way in which they prefer not to be touched."
"Wanting to be liked, he distorted himself above all measure." ˝ F. Scott Fitzgerald, as quoted by the narrator
Zelig is an extraordinary feat of cinematic necromancy that defies its imitators with the single stroke of genius that is Woody Allen. Brilliantly conceived, skillfully executed and ticklingly funny from beginning to end, this faux-documentary is an entertaining mosaic of the fad-happy 1920s and 30s, and one man's impact on his times.
Everyman Leonard Zelig is literally capable of being any and every man, a human vessel who embodies our sociological urge to conform. He comes to the attention of the public through the media when he is "sighted" at affluent social gatherings, appearing to some as one man and moments later, as another. His metamorphosis is material; he physically takes on the ethnic characteristics or manifests the weight proportions of those around him, complete with spontaneous facial hair and costume. The gimmick-crazed public makes him an instant celebrity, and his popularity soars through merchandising tie-ins. A cavalcade of dances, songs and games are created around his phenomenon.
"I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women." ˝ Leonard Zelig, as a psychiatrist
Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Farrow) is certain he is the victim of a psychological malady and takes charge of his case when he is brought to Manhattan Hospital for evaluation. Though Zelig slips away to Europe for awhile, Fletcher eventually gets him back in her custody and uses early hypnotherapy techniques to breakthrough to the "real" man inside. In the course of the film, our homme de caoutchouc is celebrated, exploited, lionized, demonized and all-but-forgottenˇthe trials of fame in a sensation-hungry world.
The beauty of this film is the nearly seamless integration of Allen, Farrow and other contemporary figures into a myriad of vintageˇand vintage-likeˇphotgraphs, film clips and newsreels that serve as "documentation" of Zelig's bizarre disorder, as well as the rise and fall of his notoriety. Interspersed with color footage depicting topical interviews of real-life notables such as Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow and other figures, as well as actors playing various characters "later in life," the end result is a montage that assists in the suspension of disbelief: if this human chameleon was someone less recognizable than Allen himself, we might forget at times the improbable manifestations of Zelig's neuroses.
The comedy here ebbs and flows; it is difficult to carry this premise for very long before the situation wears thin, but then our shapeshifting protagonist finds himself in new circumstances and humor prevails. While there is relatively little live action footage, Allen commits his character to every scene through facial expressions, poses and postures. His body language in the "breakthrough" scene is so comical and real that we suffer his discomfort with him.
"He is finally an individual, a human being. He no longer gives up his own identity to be a safe and invisible part of his surroundings." - narrator
Leonard Zelig desires assimilation and achieves his goal in miraculous ways. Then, through the new science of psychiatry, he is transformed, finally, into his own man. The achievements of Zelig the movie are equally wondrous when we realize it was created without digital effects or computer-assisted graphics that later retreads like Forrest Gump would use to full advantage. There are so many clever devices employed to set the characters in their time that on repeated viewing, it might become a game to locate them.
While one recognizes seeds sown in his early spoof, What's Up, Tiger Lily?, this is a film truly unlike any other, and earns its place in the pantheon of "must see" Woody Allen.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Presented in anamorphic widescreen, Zelig plays as an "authentic" documentary with contemporary footage distressed to match its archival counterparts. Free of any obvious digital enhancements, the black & white transfer sports excellent contrast and the few color segments are perfect in their imperfections, as they should be.
Gordon Willis, who used vintage equipment and techniques to re-create the epoch, should have cinched the Best Cinematography Oscar® for which he was nominated (another Allen regular, Sven Nyvist, grabbed it for Fanny and Alexander).
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby mono track is as the image, purposefully marred to convey the sense of age and wear. I believe this is why there are no French or Spanish tracks available, as has most often been the case with all three of MGM's Woody Allen Collectionsˇit is not just a matter of dubbing with this closely-crafted track. Dialogue and music never compete.
Original songs by Dick Hyman, including Leonard the Lizard and the Changing Man Concerto are a true test of skill in capturing the sound of the period as we have come to know it today. An amazingly diverse soundtrack with great special effects that should have been noticed on the award circuit that year.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
The unique, original trailer is offered in 1.85:1 and is remarkable in its sly simplicity. One- and two-word quotes from a variety of critics appear one by one, following the font styles used in the poster (and cover) art, with just a 5-second clip from the feature at the end. In a shrewd switch, a handful of words tell more than a barrage of image edits could about this quirky film.
The rule of sixteen chapter stops is just about accurate for this 79-minute film. A single-fold booklet with production notes is included.
Extras Grade: D+
"I want to be liked." ˝ Leonard Zelig, in a hypnotic trance
In Zelig, Allen warns that there is more danger than safety in the conformity we seek. One could point to how close Leonard Zelig's psyche seems to echo Allen's own; one can imagine the young redhead wanting to fit in and finally finding his own voice later in life, ultimately secure enough in his sense of self to risk all. But this folly is all-too-human, and it may be best to seek ourselves in this universal message.
Zelig is a treasure of technical achievement and the most subtle slapstick comedy imaginable. Enthusiastically recommended.
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