A bold complex experiment, a polished, effective comedy and a brilliant, thrilling, fascinating, staggering achievement.  A mockumentary before the term existed, this movie shatters the boundaries of what mainstream entertainers should be capable of delivering to the public.  It’s hard to imagine another filmmaker of Woody Allen’s generation (Clint Eastwood, Francis Coppola, even Martin Scorsese) getting anywhere close to the daring, peculiarity and audacity of this project (appropriate enough for a movie the theme of which is people refusing to do what others expect of them).

I’ve seen this movie a dozen times and have made a mockumentary of my own and with the exception of exactly two shots, I haven’t got the slightest clue as to how Woody Allen pulled this thing off.  I wish someone would write a book about the movie and its development from concept to script to shooting and into editing.  Were all the plot elements in place when the picture went before the cameras, how did the documentary aspect of the project come into focus as the post-production went on, how much of the footage had to be created and how much was lucky finds?

With technical fireworks as dazzling as this, it’s easy to overlook how great the acting is in this movie.  Special note goes to the actor playing the elderly modern-day Mia Farrow, who has almost as much screen-time as Farrow herself and whose every remembrance is given just the right spin of humility, self-aware humor and grace.

Everything is utterly convincing, even when it’s absurdly comic.  In a time when mockumentaries are common (one is currently a smash boxoffice hit) and look increasingly unconvincing (Borat is funny as hell but is unconvincing as a documentary — why on earth would some of its events be filmed?), it’s truly impressive to see one where everything from extensive, elaborate production design to precise, detailed extras casting to the grain and scratches on the fake old film is exactly right.

The movie I’m working on, The Bentfootes, contains less authentic detail than any given five minutes of Zelig, a fact I can live with only when I consider that our budget is probably less than the money spent in any given five minutes of the two years it took to shoot and edit Zelig.  To watch this movie as a filmmaker is to feel one’s feet turn to clay.
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13 Responses to “Zelig”
  1. dougo says:

    Hey, mostly unrelated, but, have you read Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate? He quotes a couple lines from Woody Allen’s character in AntZ (page 244).

  2. kornleaf says:

    what an amazing movie
    “i just wish that i had read moby dick”

  3. urbaniak says:

    As I recall from the film’s publicity at the time it came out, the woman who played the old Mia Farrow was a nonactor.

    • Todd says:

      It is indeed her only credit, which makes the achievement that much more impressive.

      On the other hand, for The Bentfootes we used a number of nonactors for interview segments and I am consistently surprised at the level of realism, complexity and spontaneity we got out of their interviews, none of which ever required a second take.

  4. craigjclark says:

    This is most definitely one of my favorite Woody Allen films of all time. It’s consistently surprising and packs a lot into its 79-minute running time. Curiously enough, it’s one of the titles sticking out of my Woody Allen Collection box sets (along with Love and Death), which means I’m planning on rewatching it myself in the near future. I’ll probably have more to say about it then.

  5. mr_noy says:

    I love this movie. I think this is one of Allen’s best films and technically his most audacious, especially since it was made before the advent of CG.

    The only film I can compare it to is Peter Jackson’s Forgetten Silver which also paints a credible portrait of a fictional historical figure. If it weren’t for the fact that Allen and Farrow are so recognizable and that Zelig’s gift is so fantastical you might almost believe it’s a real documentary. I think the masterstroke is when Allen uses ‘footage’ from the Hollywood biopic of Zelig, adding yet another layer of false reality.

    It also contains what has to be one of my favorite lines in any movie, when an interviewee speaks of how Zelig broke his mother’s arm.

    “She’s elderly. And uses her arm a lot.”

    • Todd says:

      The line is even better than you remember; it’s the mother’s wrist that got run over.

      The thing that blew me away this time was all the period graphics and toys that were made for the movie. The sheet music, toys, tchotchkes, newspaper headlines, advertisements, everything looks absolutely perfect.

      • mr_noy says:

        You’re right, it was her wrist. Why that makes it funnier I don’t exactly know, but it just does!

        Don’t forget the totally convincing ‘period’ songs about Zelig. I haven’t seen this movie in years but who can forget “Chameleon Day?” Alas, if only Cole Porter could have found a word to rhyme with Zelig.

        • Todd says:

          “Wrist” is funnier because it contains a “t.” It would be funnier if she broke her pubis or her ankle, because a “t” is funny but a “p” or a “k” is funnier still. It would be funniest of all if she broke her coccyx, but then people would be spending the next 2 seconds trying to remember what the coccyx is. “Wrist” works because it’s easily identifiable without thought, and yet one is left wondering how exactly she got her wrist run over by Zelig’s car. If her ankle had been run over it would be both more logical and more tragic; an elderly person really would use her ankles a lot and miss one if it was damaged. “Wrist” just kind of hangs out there in space and makes one wonder more about the speaker, his mother and how the hell they got into their encounter with Zelig (was the mother helping him change his tire when he drove off?) than about Zelig’s carelessness.

          There are indeed several utterly convincing recordings made for Zelig, “Chameleon Days” scoring the most points for having Betty Boop herself, Mae Questel, record the vocal.

          • craigjclark says:

            And, of course, he cast her as his overbearing mother in Oedipus Wrecks — and had no idea that they had worked together before until somebody else pointing it out!