The last attempt to write a shorter post didn't end so well, but I'm determined to make posting more consistent and therefore more sustainable this year, so here I go again.
I watched Zelig a little over a week ago, and I think it may be one of Woody Allen's best films. I didn't think so when I first saw it, but I feel somewhat convinced upon further reflection.
I say it's one of his best because it stands out among his films as something different from almost everything else he's done (that I've seen, which is ten films in their entirety). It is proof that he's a talented director who could probably pull off anything he wanted to do if he decided to. That he's stuck with a particular style for several years at a time speaks more to his preference than his ability.
Zelig is an excellent film, and if it's not the first mockumentary, it's got to be pretty close. The humor is distinctly Allenesque, but the presentation of the story makes it drier and more subtle. More to my taste, too, perhaps. I'm entertained by a slight wink and nod as much as a good prat fall, but I think I respect the former more. You have to weave subtle humor more into the fabric of your story and give it less of the spotlight. But by doing so, you challenge your viewers more. Zelig is indeed challenging. You need to be patient with it, but your patience pays off.
I'm even more impressed to see that he made the film in between Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, two films that represent what I like to think of as his neurotic, self-obsessed period. You can see him playing with similar ideas in Zelig, but the constraints of the documentary format naturally rein in those impulses. And that Allen had the discipline to honor those constraints is noteworthy indeed.
I was also tickled that it took place in the 1920's. It makes a film like Midnight in Paris (there it is again!) more meaningful, because you understand better how much of himself he's invested in the time period. MiP comes across more as a loving tribute to the characters and culture of the twenties using a silly little time-travel story as a vehicle for it, than the other way around.
My favorite part (there were many I liked very much) is the scene where Zelig shows up, after having been gone a while, as a Nazi in Germany, sitting behind the Fuhrer himself. A Jew wrote this into his movie. That is very impressive to me. Not to mention very funny, when Zelig interrupts Hitler's Polish joke.