Thursday, January 06, 2011

#24: Zelig

It's a common Woody Allen criticism that most of his storylines border on themes of failed and illicit relationships or largely often portray facets of love and death- themes that Woody has acknowledged as being really close to him. While it a valid point, the prolific writer-director who has made a movie every single year since 1969, has also made a few movies with his trademark style, that are completely unique in themselves in terms of the technique of story-telling that has been employed. Films like What's up Tiger Lily, Stardust Memories and The Purple Rose of Cairo are some glittering examples from his repertoire in this regard.

Zelig perhaps surpasses all of them purely from the point of view of the technique of film-making involved. It tells us the story of Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen), a man who tends to transform his personality and looks to those whom he meets, in a matter of minutes. It is a physical disorder than stems from his dire need of approval from people who surround him. Dr. Fletcher (Mia Farrow) while treating him from this disorder ends up falling for the innocent Zelig. In a story that brings the 1920s to life, the movie is shot in black and white with copious amounts of stock footage that lends the movie an authentic documentary look and feel complete with the deep baritone voice of a narrator. While the movie has numerous comic twists, it doesn't use much dialogues between the characters to move the story forward. Instead it's the twists themselves coupled with Zelig's effortless appearances with the mighty and elite of the late 1920s that provide the laughs.

The highlight of the movie is the newsreel footage that Woody Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Manhattan) put to use that includes people like Charlie Chaplin, Hitler, Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh among others. Since, more often than not, Zelig is seen rubbing shoulders with them, it took the duo a lot of time to complete the special effects on the movie. During the time, Willis (who was nominated for an Oscar his work) worked for the special effects to weave the present day characters into the old footage, Woody Allen managed to film two more movies. It is said in the absence of present day digital technology, the film would often be crumpled with hand or stomped on to make it look more authentic.

Sometimes a film elevates itself because of the craft involved in the film-making process of it. Zelig ordinarily would've been just an amusing watch if not for such craft that went into the making of it. It's probably not Woody Allen's best work but it surely must count as one of the gems in his illustrious filmography because of the labour of it all. Watch it in peace because when you see a scrawny Woody Allen awaiting his turn in a baseball match while Babe Ruth is swinging his bat, you need to soak in that priceless moment for eternity.

Rating: 7.8/10

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