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It Came From the Cultosphere: Woody Allen’s Time-Tripping ‘Zelig’

If ever a movie has transcended the passage of time, that movie is ‘Zelig,’ Woody Allen’s 1983 comedy. Released one year before ‘This Is Spinal Tap,’ the other great fake documentary of the early 1980s, ‘Zelig’ manages to paint a completely convincing portrait of the 1920s and 1930s years before computer-generated imagery pretty much even existed.

In fact, Allen’s relatively low-tech film is arguably the most believable, most visually adept mock-documentary ever made. Somehow, using a combination of blue screens, actual footage, dead-on recreations and antique equipment and techniques, Allen and company convince us that, once upon a time, there really was a man named Leonard Zelig who somehow changed his appearance to mimic the people around him.

I don’t mean to dwell on the technical aspects of ‘Zelig,’ because it’s much more than just a special effects wonder. But those effects are what makes it possible to slip so effortlessly into the movie’s fictional past. When we see Zelig being serenaded by Fanny Brice or standing by Babe Ruth in batting practice, or disrupting a Nazi rally by waving at his girlfriend, you’d swear it really happened.

The illusion of being an actual documentary is enhanced by the modern-day segments, which feature actual big-name intellectuals like Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow weighing in on the sociological implications of Zelig’s life and popularity. The fact that they seem to be taking the whole thing seriously means we do too.

That’s not to say ‘Zelig’ isn’t funny. It’s full of the sort of deadpan, absurdist humor that Allen excels at. After a scandalous period where Leonard “became” dozens of different people and caused chaos all over the map, he makes several apologies, including this one: “And to the, to the gentleman who’s appendix I took out, I … I’m, I don’t know what to say, if it’s any consolation I … I may still have it somewhere around the house.”

And, Woody being Woody, there’s this bit from the narrator: “To the Ku Klux Klan, Zelig, a Jew who could turn himself into a Negro and an Indian, he was a triple threat.”

Even better, though, are the various songs, toys and other artifacts of Leonard Zelig’s long-ago popularity. The tunes — ‘Leonard the Lizard,’ ‘Reptile Eyes,’ ‘You May Be Six People, but I Love You’ — are both catchy and authentic-sounding, and the toys glimpsed in various faux film clips are period-perfect. (I actually saw some of the props themselves years ago at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria and, unlike most props, they looked real even in person.)

We also glimpse clips from ‘The Changing Man,’ the fictionalized account of Zelig’s life supposedly released by Warner Bros. in the mid-’30s. Like everything else in the film, it’s a pitch-perfect recreation of movie studio slickness, and makes Leonard’s unbelievable story oddly, well, believable.

But, like most Woody Allen movies, there’s a serious point behind all the smart silliness. Leonard’s relationship with the doctor who discovered him (Mia Farrow), is genuinely touching and played straight. And near the end, when Zelig goes missing, he’s finally spotted in a newsreel shot in Nazi Germany. As one of those intellectual talking heads points out, that’s where a desperation to conform ultimately leads.

It ends on a funny note, with Hitler getting mad about a joke he couldn’t tell and Zelig flying upside down over the Atlantic, but the serious undertone sticks in your head past the closing credits.

‘Zelig’ hit theaters in 1983, followed by ‘Broadway Danny Rose,’ ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo,’ ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ and ‘Radio Days.’ It was arguably Allen’s strongest period, and it all started with a forgotten guy nicknamed Leonard the Lizard.

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