“I love baseball. You know, it doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just very beautiful to watch.” Thus Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) indicates his peculiarly American identity. And just so, Allen’s weirdly elegant 1983 mock documentary, Zelig, goes on to trace his peculiarly American story. The fiction of Zelig concerns his capacity to transform physically to match whoever stands near him. The condition, he tells his psychiatrist, Dr. Eudora Nesbitt Fletcher (Mia Farrow), is a function of his desire to fit in, to feel safe, and it makes him a sensation during the 1920s—just when movie images were also transforming, into a means of mass communication, a means to shape community experience, and to grant consumers visions of how they might best conform.
Screening at Stranger Than Fiction on 14 February (and followed by a Q&A with short film director Dana O’Keefe), Allen’s movie shows this “chameleon disorder” in clever dissolves, as Zelig turns “Chinese,” obese, or Native American, or looks and like a doctor in a three-piece suit or a Hassidic Jew (narrator Patrick Horgan asserts, “The Ku Klux Klan, who saw Zelig as a Jew that could turn himself into a Negro and an Indian, saw him as a triple threat”). As the transforming imagery runs its course, the movie lingers in your memory, as a study of how identity emerges out of need (perceived or actual), and further, how need emerges out of experience (perceived or actual). And so it’s not just a story about Zelig or even “society,” but of the making of that story, the ways that documentary shapes its subjects and vice versa.