Monday, January 5, 2009

Curious Case of the Human Chameleon

Imagine a man who can transform himself into anyone who is around him. For instance, if he is near a Chinese, he will start developing oriental features – he will walk, talk, behave, and even look like a Chinese. If he is in the company of intellectuals, he will talk like an intellectual on any damn subject; even referring to specialized papers on the subject, may or may not be written by him. Not only that. He can also transform himself physically; say, if he is around obese people, he will start growing fatter just like that. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine such a creature.

Zelig is Woody Allen’s vision of one such man, set in 20s and 30s. The film presents us the fictional story of Leonard Zelig in an unusual mockumentary-like structure with interviews and footages. Through interviews, prominent literary figures like Susan Sontag, Irvin Howe and Saul Bellow give their opinions on the life and times of Zelig. Side by side, we see black-and-white worn-out footages of Zelig’s metamorphosis, a notice of his ability by the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, and an attempt to study and cure him by a certain Dr. Eudora Fletcher (played by Mia Farrow). As the film proceeds, America gets fond of Zelig and makes him a public icon. Dr. Fletcher discovers that Zelig’s rare feat is a result of isolation and unhappy childhood. An urge to be accepted by the people around him is so acute that he transforms himself into anyone who is around him so that he can be liked. The psychological sessions turn slowly into romance and till the story reaches its conclusion, we see Zelig standing near Pope Pius XI in the Vatican, escaping the Nazis by flying a plane upside down across the Atlantic (setting a record, indeed!) , and being destroyed by the same media that made him a hero. Zelig is at once a comedy, a love story, and a commentary on American popular culture. Technically the film is remarkable, mainly for the blending of actors into the newsreel footages. Shots are taken through antique lenses to give a vintage feel.

Woody Allen is a delighting story-teller: he can make you laugh, and at the same time can emotionally move you. The metamorphosis of Zelig also indicates the lack of personality. He has no “self". The film is not a total fantasy; it can also make one think: aren’t we all like Zelig? Trying in our own funny ways to be accepted by the society, trying not to divulge from the social norms, assuming gestures and accents that are not our own, keeping abreast with corporate goals, and after a fast-paced life when we retreat to a slow place and are left with all the time in the world to think, we realize that we have never known a person who recides deep inside: the “real me”!

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