In 1969, as the account goes, someone came up to Isaac Asimov after the Apollo 11 moon landing and asked what science-fiction writers were going to write about now?
This is the sort of attitude which genuine science-fiction fans have to contend with on a fairly regular basis. Somehow . . . and probably because of extremely lazy people . . . the science-fiction genre became saddled with the responsibility of foretelling the future as well as being occupied with little more than space travel. Ask someone if they’re a science-fiction fan. If their reply is: “Sure! I’ve seen every “Star Wars” and “Transformers” film”, then put them aside. You don’t want to take them into battle against the Midianites.
I don’t want to spend the majority of this column raking over the definition of science-fiction. But a true and genuine fan will easily recognize that there’s more to the genre than rockets and robots. The foundation of every SF tale . . . whether it be E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “Galactic Patrol” or Thomas Disch’s “Camp Concentration” . . . is the idea of Speculation; of taking the one step beyond (which, interestingly enough, became the title of a television anthology series in the late 1950s).
Woody Allen’s 1983 film “Zelig” is one such step beyond.
The film is a rather Lewis Carroll type look at America from the 1920s on to the days before the outbreak of World War II; an assemblage of archival footage and commentary which digs deeply into all the right places and, rather than dealing with dates and events, focuses on the people and attitudes.
The audience is seeing all this through the eyes of Leonard Zelig (Allen). He provides the science-fiction element of the story: a human being possessing the ability to transform his appearance so that he effectively blends in with his surroundings, not only at the visual level, but at the social one as well. This allows Zelig to serve as the Alice wandering through the Wonderland of the times; his talent enabling him to enter any door and survive on any level of society. Here, Allen gives us a portrayal of a total non-entity: a man whose only identity consists of whatever he absorbs from his surroundings. A null space in the film for the audience to step in and see the world he’s exploring and, at the same time, a mirror of the times. Perhaps the most ego-free of all Allen’s characters, Zelig ultimately becomes the most fascinating.
Filmed during Allen’s “Mia Farrow period”, the movie also stars Farrow as Dr. Eudora Fletcher: a rather mousy psychiatrist who becomes fascinated by Zelig’s case and, in her attempt to help him develop an identity of his own, ultimately develops feelings for him. With this we leave Wonderland behind and reassemble the myth of Galatea, with Farrow’s character in the role of Pygmalion (among other thing, you people get something of a classical education with these pieces of mine. Enjoy). “Zelig” is a “mockumentary”, brilliantly filmed in as close as possible to the actual conditions of filmmaking technology during the 1920s and 30s, so Farrow tends to be captured quite a bit in black-and-white stills. The result is a physical performance which starts out as deadly sullen, but carries a sparkle just beneath the surface, a sparkle which needs only a touch of affection to brighten the screen. It becomes one of Farrow’s most attractive roles, and with it she builds an interesting character of the “modern woman” of the 1920s who is, in so many ways, as much in need of an identity as Zelig.
The majority of the story involves Dr. Fletcher’s therapy work with Zelig (filmed through the auspices of “Martin Geist” . . . played by Sol Lomita). In trying to make a name for herself through such a project, Farrow’s Dr. Fletcher steps into the same shoes as “The Elephant Man’s” Dr. Frederick Treves, or Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein. In all three cases it will not be the creation that causes trouble, but the reaction of the surrounding world. Fletcher succeeds in her quest to build a genuine character in Zelig, but the world at large only sees the creature who can change form at will, and its the sense of immediate celebrity that soon overshadows the man Fletcher tries to bring to fruition.
Whew! Pretty heavy stuff here, pumpkins. But we all knew where this was heading when we saw I was going to talk about a Woody Allen film. One can’t go into, say, “Annie Hall” or “Manhattan” and simply describe the experience with “chuckle chuckle”.
And there are humorous moments in “Zelig”. Through a clever use of newsreel footage and bluescreen technology (still new and radical when the movie was made), the audience smiles at the various ways Leonard Zelig tries to insert himself into society. And there’s a sort of sweetly humorous angle in the growing relationship between Zelig and Fletcher. This is artfully mixed in with the music of the times, as well as providing glimpses of celebrities from the period (e.g. Jimmy Walker, James Cagney, Marie Dressler, Fanny Brice and others. Those who believe the notion of “celebrity” began with Madonna are firmly directed to watch this movie). The only jarring moment in the humor (and, to my eyes, a shtick which almost upset the whole apple cart) involves a scene near the end where an airplane is flown upside down. Compared to the overall mood of the movie it was like a vicious scream in a room of coy whispers and was, for this correspondent, wholly unnecessary. Especially seeing as how Allen and his production crew (including cinematographer Gordon Willis) took every possible pain to make “Zelig” as much of an “honest” documentary as possible . . . even to the extent of providing commentary from such people as Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow. As with the best film satirists, Allen knew that the best way to skewer a subject was to treat it with as much familiarity and reverence as possible. “Zelig” is not only a snapshot into the America of a century ago, but a look into how Fame is a genuine monster that can destroy as much as it can elevate. Desiring to get his point across, Allen dresses it in as much respectability as possible.
The level of effort lavished upon “Zelig” results in as excellent an example of science-fiction as one might wish for. The genre is not necessarily anchored in space travel or in trying to determine the future of mankind, but it does carry a strong vein of holding up a reflection of ourselves in something of a distorted mirror. The alien . . . the computer intelligence . . . the inhuman Outsider . . . all of these common elements of science-fiction serve as a means to point a finger at something which the author wishes to bring to light. Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry both made considerable careers out of using science-fiction in such a manner, as did Voltaire and Swift. Allen himself used the genre to poke a finger into the soft underbelly of modern society in his earlier “Sleeper”. And with “Zelig” he does so again. In the fight to achieve Identity a man learns that sometimes the world prefers Novelty . . . even if that Novelty comes from what is essentially a walking blank slate. Allen put Leonard Zelig on the same shelf as the Frankenstein Monster and the Elephant Man, stirring in a little bit of Galatea for good measure. In using such a creature Allen provided the most illuminating of lights to shine on an era which, in some ways, carries attitudes similar to what we have today. In this Allen expertly demonstrated the purpose of science-fiction.