Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s "Zelig" - the perfect example of a Mockumentary

Blog
Ruzhica Kiprijanovska
27/02/2020

A blog entry written by Ruzhica Kiprijanovska, Sanne Graumans, Daniel Obubo, Nine van Steen, Idhuna Pastoor, Eren Kalecik, Annika Platz

 

Mockumentary VS Docudrama

What is a mockumentary and what is the difference between a mockumentary and a docudrama? A mockumentary is a fictional documentary which mimics a real documentary, or even the whole genre of documentaries. A mockumentary strives to entertain its audience by making fun of any topic of choice, but still doing this in the form of a documentary which brings the possibility of actually informing people about something. There are three “degrees” of a mockumentary: a parody, a critique, and a deconstruction. The mockumentary is a close relative to the docudrama. Both mockumentaries and docudramas belong to the genre of documentaries, both developed from the original documentary, and “both forms have distinctively televisual as well as cinematic roots and branches” (Lipkin, Paget & Roscoe, 2006). Moreover, both mockumentaries and docudramas are completely fictional, and “films fitting into these categories [-] perform the useful function of ventilating issues of concern in current affairs and drawing attention to the nature of media representation” (Lipkin, Paget & Roscoe, 2006). Both use the non-fiction techniques and the realist aesthetic of a documentary in their own benefiting way.

But besides those similarities between mockumentaries and docudramas, there are many differences between both forms of a documentary, which clearly show how the two are not the same at all. Although both are fictional and mimic a real documentary, they do this in a completely different way and with different functions. A mockumentary mixes the form of a documentary with humor and critique, while a docudrama mixes the form of a documentary with drama – it uses true stories to make a dramatic movie, and the form of a documentary to make it more authentic. The functions of docudramas are to re-tell historic events to just review them or even to celebrate them, to “re-present the careers of significant [-] figures” (Lipkin, Paget & Roscoe, 2006) and to generally “portray issues of concern to [-] communities, in order to provoke discussion about them” (Lipkin, Paget & Roscoe, 2006). On the contrary, the main function of mockumentaries is to “develop a relationship with a knowing audience who through being in on the joke can appreciate both the humor and the inherent critical reflexivity” (Lipkin, Paget & Roscoe, 2006). This also shows how the mockumentary talks more directly to its audience, as it wants its audience to “participate in the [mockumentaries] inherent playfulness” (Lipkin, Paget & Roscoe, 2006).

 

"Zelig" by Woody Allen

In the mockumentary drama Zelig, we see Woody Allen’s as Leonard Zelig, a little 1920s Jewish guy with a chameleon disorder – he is able to (unwittingly) resemble anyone’s characteristics from the personalities around him. He could change his appearance, his skills, and abilities to match the people around him. 

Starring Mia Farrow as Dr. Eudora Fletcher, who is a psychiatrist who wants to help Zelig with his disorder. She discovers that he seeks approval so strongly he is able to change psychically to fit in with those around him. Under her care, he was given the nickname the ‘Chameleon Man’. He wanted to be universally liked and she tries to cure him of this. For a short period of time, he can act normal, but when his illness returns, he tries to fit in one more time. The Chameleon man became more popular and he even became a celebrity. Which for him was not always working out in a good way. In this mockumentary they are using spoof, real news footage and interviews, the mockumentary dives into the psychiatric issues, legal issues but it also focuses on Zelig's relationship with his psychiatrist – who later became lovers. 

 

What Zelig teaches us about likeability and fame

When asked why he assumes the characteristics of the people he is surrounded with, Zelig says that it is safe to be like the others. When Eudora asks ‘You want to be safe?’, Zelig answers with ‘I want to be liked’. (Allen, 1983). This idea of wanting to be liked and willing to conform grew out of Allen’s observation that people will pretend to have all kinds of knowledge or agree with their friends, just to please them. Allen said: 

‘It’s that need to be liked, which on the most basic levels leads you to say you liked a particular film or show, or read ‘Moby-Dick’ - when you didn’t - just to keep the people around you pacified. I thought that desire not to make waves, carried to an extreme, could have traumatic consequences. It could lead to a conformist mentality and, ultimately, fascism.’ (Kakutani, 1983).

Allen even admitted that he suffers from loss of identity no more or less than anyone else, acknowledging that he once wrote: ‘His one regret in life is that he is not someone else’. (Kakutani, 1983).  

Throughout the movie, we see how Zelig develops his own identity (in the public eye). He goes from saying that he is a nobody to giving a public statement saying ‘Kids, you got to be yourself. You know you can’t act like anybody else just because you think they have all the answers.’ (Allen, 1983). This development reflects Allen’s own discovery of identity and cinematic voice. When Allen started doing stand-up, he would lean and learn from other comedians he looked up to. ‘When you have such a response to other people’s work, it can creep into your bone marrow’, Allen said. (Kakutani, 1983). 

Zelig also shows us how the public - with their opinions - can construct you both as their idol or as a misfit. Besides his identity disorder being a daily news headline, Zelig becomes an attraction and his ‘talent’ to conform gets commercialized. The movie emphasizes Allen’s belief that ‘fame and artistic achievement do not save someone from the slings and arrows of life; they don’t provide solace if you’re in search of some existential meaning’. (Kakutani, 1983). Zelig, trying to find his own identity while being in the public eye, finds the public opinion constantly changing. At first, he is loved, with people wishing they could be like Zelig, while others see him as a symbol of iniquity: believing that Zelig personifies the capitalist man - ‘the exploitation of workers by deception’. (Allen, 1983). 

Throughout the movie, Zelig gets seen as a symbol, criminal and hero. It fits with what Allen said about contemporary society: they tend ‘to worship the artists, when, in fact, real values have to do with qualities like being able to give and courage’. (Kakutani, 1983). In the end, the narrator has it right when he says: ‘Zelig’s own existence is a nonexistence. (...) He who only wanted to fit in, to belong to go unseen by his enemies and be loved neither fits in nor belongs, is supervised by enemies, and remains uncared for.’ (Allen, 1983).

 

The making of the movie

In his mockumentary, Woody Allen seamlessly weds black and white newsreel footage with the fascinating story allowing Zelig to perfectly fit in the appropriate historical moment. He also managed to recreate the roaring twenties with breathtaking authenticity by using special lenses to give an old style to the movie, mixing his own footage with the real documentaries including music and dances.

In the newsreel footage, amongst other actors, Allen included himself as well using bluescreen technology. The cinematographer of the movie used many other techniques to bring us the real essence of the story, such as locating some antique film cameras used during the eras depicted in the film and even going to the extent of damaging the negatives in order to create crinkles and scratches. This gave the movie a perfect vintage vibe. The virtually seamless blending of old and new footage was achieved almost a decade before digital filmmaking technology made such techniques.

The film has cameo appearances by real academia figures for a comic effect. This contrasts the vintage black-and-white footage since these people appear in color segments as themselves, commenting in the present time as if the Zelig phenomenon had actually occurred in the past. Technically, “Zelig” is a cinematic masterpiece that portrays the mashup of skills from the cinematographer, the editor, and the production designer.

 

The role of truth in the movie

Zelig plays along with the thin veil of truth and fiction. Woody Allen thins this veil with impeccable use of cinematographic and musical stylistics to set a tone of realism. 

To the lay-man viewing this mockumentary without context, one could easily be fooled to thinking the events played out are in fact truth. This is evidence of a mockumentary doing its work to create its own reality where the happenings are in fact true within its setting and most of all very believable.

Cinematography 

Woody Allen muddies the waters by downgrading the quality of his (then) modern filming technology to fit something documented in the twenties to thirties in the United States. The contrast between then scenes and now scenes creates an illusion of credibility as the audience is convinced that the individuals interviewed did in fact experience these events. 

Woody Allen incorporated the new technique of superimposing films on older reels to insert characters into environments they were not originally in. This is done impressibly especially in the scene starring Zelig attending a Nazi rally. True images of Hitler delivering a speech in the foreground are imposed with a confused Zelig in the background with precise detail as to be believed as real. Truth in this mockumentary is bent and rightfully so as it only enhances the narrative to the audience. 

Music

The soundtrack to Zelig is a mixture of real music pieces and others composed specifically for the mockumentary. However, they are composed in a fashion to (much like Zelig) mimic musical stylistics of the time. The track ‘Aint We Got Fun’ by Richard Whitting side by side with the mimic track ‘Chameleon Days' by Dick Hyman borrows similar musical themes from the pacing, pitching of vocals and sound quality. These tracks are purposefully meant to evoke a period long gone by creating such stark resemblances. This creates an allure of realism, audiences are forced to think about where the line between truth and fiction is drawn from a cinematographic and musical point of view. The audience is in constant pursuit of deciphering truth between a myriad of fictitious events due to the professionalism used in the production of this mockumentary. 

 

The role of fiction in the movie

The movie ‘Zelig’ is a mockumentary. A mockumentary is a type of movie depicting fictional events but presented as a documentary. The events occurring in ‘Zelig’, thus Leonard Zelig unwittingly taking on the characteristics of strong personalities around him, out of his desire to fit in and be liked, are fictional and makes the role of fiction a central role in the movie. The events occurring are fictional, because the main character of the movie, Leonard Zelig, has an ability that cannot occur in actual real life. An exemplary scene in which Zelig adapts himself to the people surrounding him is when he meets two rabbis. As soon as he shakes the hands of the men, he can talk along with them as a true rabbi but he also starts to physically look like a rabbi. This last feature cannot happen in real life and is thus fictional.

The way this is displayed in ‘Zelig’, thus Leonard Zelig’s adaptable personality is exaggerated and makes the events in the movie fictional. His ability to transform his appearance to that of the people who surround him, can be linked to the desire people experience in real life to be liked and wanted, and thus adapt themselves to the people around them. However, the movie contains an important reality effect that makes the fictional events in ‘Zelig’ look more realistic. This reality effect is the interviewing of the people many years later after being in touch with Leonard Zelig during the 1920s.  

 

Questions

  • What were your expectations before watching the movie? 
  • Do you think that Zelig 1983 is a good example of mockumentary drama? Why?
  • How could you define the mockumentary?

 

References

Allen, W. (1983). Zelig. Orion Pictures, Warner Bros. 

Canby, V. (1983, July 15). FILM: 'ZELIG,' WOODY ALLEN'S STORY ABOUT A 'CHAMELEON MAN'.

Steven N. Lipkin, Derek Paget and Jane Roscoe. “Docudrama and Mock-Documentary: Defining Terms, Proposing Canons.” Docufictions. Essays on the Intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking. Jefferson and London: McFarland and Company, 2006. 11-26

Kakutani, M. (1983). How Woody Allen’s Zelig was born in anxiety and grew into comedy. The New York Times.