Zelig Film Analysis Essay
The Films of Woody Allen: Critical Essays
Edited by Charles L. P. Silet. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press. 2006. 358 pp., illus. Hardcover: $65.00 and Paperback: $35.00.
Unlike many previous books on Woody Allen, Charles L.P. Silet's anthology does not exhibit any overt political or philosophical agenda. Editor Silet is clearly an admirer of Allen, describing him as "one of America's most innovative and productive modern cinema directors," but he eschews a narrow, focused reading of Allen's expansive oeuvre in favor of a more "broad-ranging inquiry" into his work. Silet's only stated purpose "is to present a selection of (several) critical articles that have never before been collected together," many published in now hard-to-find sources. Some of the sources are not only difficult to access, but are also unlikely to occupy space on the typical cinephile's nightstand: The Journal of Value Inquiry anyone?
Silet's "broad-ranging" approach can also be described as eclectic, and this eclecticism leads to some intriguing and idiosyncratic choices. The tastiest chapter is Ronald D. Leblanc's "Love and Death and Food," an analysis of Allen's use of gastronomy as an esthetic and philosophical device in one of his best films. According to Leblanc, the numerous mentions of food and drink in Love and Death do not just provide the opportunity for easy punch lines ("Boy, this army cooking will get you every time") but also situates Allen firmly in the tradition of carnivalized literature as described by Mikhail Bakhtin. For Bakhtin, the carnival represented collectivity, and food and drink was used in carnivalized literature to represent the freedom and earthiness of popular folk culture. Similarly, Allen deflates his own pretensions by using food to "remind us… of immediate physical sensations and instinctual urges" while we're also noshing on existential crises and abstract philosophical discussions about love and death: "I'm talking about murder, she's talking about blintzes!"
Another gem in the collection is Leonard Quart's essay on "Woody Allen's New York" (originally published in Cineaste). Quart provides a brief history of Hollywood's treatment of the Big Apple, from the romantic, sentimentalized New York (usually Brooklyn) of the 1930's-1950's to the increasingly dysfunctional and traumatized city of the 1960's and 1970's, epitomized by the pit of Calvinist depravity depicted in Taxi Driver. For Quart, Allen provides the "most powerful antidote in films" to this nightmare vision of New York peddled by Hollywood. Allen's New York (usually Manhattan) is not just background, but also a character, and becomes "a city of infinite promise, possibility, and grandeur" rather than one of despair and urban decay. Unfortunately, Allen's laudable redemption project has done nothing to dissuade the big studios from cashing in on urban paranoia in recent decades.
As you would expect, the majority of authors in the volume adopt a strongly positive stance towards Allen's work. One notable exception is Bert Cardullo's withering assessment of Interiors, Allen's first "serious" film. For Cardullo, Interiors is an unmitigated failure, not just an imitation of Ingmar Bergman, but a hopelessly superficial one as well; worse yet, it's a superficial imitation of an already superficial vision. Cardullo pulls no punches: "Interiors is an embarrassing episode in Woody Allen's career" and it "represents a feeble attempt to escape from his authentic self." Strong words indeed, though some critics might say he is still being too kind.
Cardullo's note of dissent provides a welcome and necessary counterbalance to the book's unabashedly pro-Allen stance, but as the sole witness for the prosecution it hardly begins to reflect the degree to which Allen's cinema has divided critics. Further skewing matters, several enthusiastic writers can't resist the urge to take potshots at clueless, Woody-hating critics (Dave Kehr isn't mentioned by name, but we can guess) who just don't understand the unassailable genius of the director of September. Both Louis Giannetti and Paul Lewis upbraid critics for misunderstanding Stardust Memories. Giannetti makes a valid point when he notes that many critics conflated Allen with his character Sandy: "Woody is real. Sandy is fiction. It's surprising how many confuse the two." But Lewis (in his otherwise insightful analysis of the relation of humor and pain in the film) resorts to the most overused and least persuasive defense articulated in the volume, suggesting that Stardust 's relatively poor reception was due to "Allen's refusal to do what was expected."
Diane Snow echoes this argument when she compares the critical reception of Interiors and Hannah and Her Sisters. Snow claims that the films "say the same thing" but that Interiors was poorly received because it was the first time Allen violated expectations by making a serious movie, while Hannah received greater plaudits because, by 1986, critics were better prepared for a dramatic Allen film. Snow's argument is unconvincing; just because the movies "say the same thing" doesn't mean they are of equal quality. Even her basic premise is flawed. Interiors received its share of scathing reviews, but, by Snow's own admission, many critics also placed it in their year end top ten lists. The film also garnered five Oscar nominations (to seven for Hannah), including Best Director and Best Screenplay for Allen (and you thought Crash's win was one of the Academy's biggest blunders.)
Although the book's topics are so wide-ranging as to appear nearly random, one of the primary themes that emerges is, in Silet's own words, "Allen's connection to his Jewish background, both religious and cultural." Silet's multidisciplinary approach allows for a diverse array of perspectives on this potentially charged topic. Gary Commins, a vicar and Episcopalian chaplain, locates Allen in a "Jewish tradition which, from its scriptural roots, has poked and prodded the powerful." Allen's frequent preoccupation with theological issues does not make him antireligious, as common perception would have us believe, but only roots him more firmly in this tradition: "Rabbis argue with God. Allen carries on this tradition, but from one step removed. He argues with the idea of God."
Rabbi Mark Bleiweiss, in his essay "Self Deprecation and the Jewish Humor of Woody Allen," defends the director against charges that he rejects Jewish culture. He cites historical studies of Jewish humor, including Sigmund Freud's observation that Jews are always the butt of their own jokes. Jewish self-deprecation is not a rejection of Jewish culture, but a defense mechanism whereby Jews indicate their own flaws first in order to prevent others from doing so and thereby justifying persecution. Therefore, according to Bleiweiss, "Ironically, in many ways, [Allen's] humor reveals his self-affirmation as a Jew." Several other essays touch on the topic as well: both Zelig and Shadows and Fog are held up as films which, in part, express the (secular) Jewish experience.
Maurice Yacowar identifies Annie Hall as the beginning of Woody Allen's "mature period," and the essays focus heavily on this mature period, roughly from Annie Hall (1977) to Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Obviously Silet couldn't cover every film, but his choices communicate an explicit message: Woody Allen is an important filmmaker and a serious artist, even when he makes comedies. As a result, far too much attention is lavished on drab, ponderous films such as Interiors and Zelig, while more lighthearted (and presumably less "mature") fare such as Bananas, Sleeper, and Manhattan Murder Mystery gets shouldered aside. The book touches on Allen's early comedy writings and nightclub routines, but the zany, anarchic stand-up comic is all but swallowed up by the looming shadow of the sanctified auteur. Poor Virgil Starkwell deserves better.
The Films of Woody Allen: Critical Essays is an unusual collection, difficult to categorize because of its eclectic and open-ended overview of Woody Allen's work. Since more than half of the essays chosen were originally published in the 1980's, the book can hardly be called cutting edge, and it lacks any particular focus or even an obvious organizational strategy. In keeping with Leblanc's gastronomic language, however, the volume can be viewed as a sampler platter of tantalizing treats, at least some of which are certain to satisfy the reader's palate. Silet's book isn't groundbreaking, but for sheer variety, it's hard to beat.
Purchase The Films of Woody Allen by clicking here
Christopher Long is a freelance writer in suburban Philadelphia. He also writes reviews for DVDTown.com and DVDBeaver.com.
Copyright © 2007 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXII, No. 2
Released in 1983, Woody Allen's mockumentary drama Zelig was in some quarters regarded as a one-joke technical novelty. But in 2011, it looks like a masterpiece: a brilliant, even passionate historical pastiche, a superbly pregnant meditation on American society and individuality, and an eerie fantasy that will live in your dreams. Most unsettling, somehow, for me, is the still image of Allen reconstituted as a speakeasy gangster, the "tough hombre" remembered by an elderly waiter decades after the event.
Using spoof and real newsreel footage, deadpan modern-day talking-head interviews and some tremendous special effects that hold up triumphantly in this digital age, the movie tells the story of Leonard Zelig, the little 1920s Jewish guy with a "chameleon disorder" enabling him to resemble anyone in whose company he finds himself. Mia Farrow plays the sympathetic psychiatrist with whom he falls in love. Zelig becomes a popular celebrity-phenomenon, who becomes a villain and is then redeemed with some Lindberghian derring-do, piloting a plane to beat the Nazis. The interpretations of Zelig are playfully, pre-emptively rehearsed in the film itself: he is the assimilated Jew, he is melting-pot America, he is all of us, trying desperately hard to fit in.
But 28 years on, you can see more here. Zelig is the mass capitalist: to sell cars or movies, you have to intuit the masses' taste, to be like them, but also rise commandingly above the herd, like Hearst or Chaplin – both featured here. Zelig is a hero when he abandons his chameleonism, but a bigger hero when his disorder kicks back in, convincing him he can fly a plane. There is a kind of triumph in fitting in, in subsuming your identity. How incredible to see Saul Bellow (not exactly known for self-mocking comedy) talking about Zelig's career with a straight face; this movie, though, reminded me more of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. Allen's recent comedy Midnight in Paris was a very decent homage to the jazz age, but it's not in the same league as this outstanding film.