Woody Allen’s Zelig

February 13, 2009

I wrote this in a hurry for one of my class assignments.


Very early in the Manhattan filmmaker’s 1983 mockumentary, Susan Sontag and Irving Howe describe an unprecedented and extremely strange event involving the eponymous Leonard Zelig. Set in Depression-era New York, we watch the antics of Zelig as he literally transmogrifies himself into the personality of his company – from rabbis to baseball players, people of oriental descent to rotund personalities, doctors to professional boxers. With each one, Zelig mingles as naturally as the chameleon camouflages into its surroundings, leading newspaper dailies to brand him with impunity, a “human chameleon” .

His discovery by the police is itself a flaccid event in the grand theme of the film, but leads to the introduction of the one person in Zelig’s world who truly cares for him: the beautiful and intelligent Dr. Eudora Fletcher (played by Mia Farrow, who decades ago played the part of the gullible mother in Polanski’s terrifying Rosemary’s Baby), a psychiatrist who does regular rounds at the local police department. His discovery by the Manhattan hospital leads to a media frenzy and subsequent exploitation of this human anomaly, giving rise to a craze in all popular cultures across America – television, radio, newspapers, dance, jazz, with people from all over the country thrilled and aroused by this strange man.

Howe, in his essay “Mass Society and post-modern fiction” describes passivity as one of the traits of mass society and opinion as having become a commodity in the market. Zelig is just such a microcosmic realization of Howe’s mass society. He is a concentrated blob of unadulterated “mass culture” teeming with derivative personalities. By borrowing the features of the crowd and to gain acceptance into the society, he discards his own identity and individuality. He is passive, always reactive and is never autonomous. He hinges on the half-developed sensibilities of others, and along with their traits, he acquires their quirks and their idiosyncrasies, while filling the void with stereotypical interpretations of his own. He has no opinion of his own, but can be quite loquacious. These “creeper vine” tendencies of Zelig to helplessly rely on others to interpret his world can be considered as a succumbent attitude, and his idea of delegating onto others the interpretation of life, progress, culture and society, is a miniaturist portrayal of Howe’s mass society.

As easy it is to criticize Zelig, he is not wrong to seek society’s acknowledgement. In fact, this was Hannah Arendt’s view on politics – that it is a social structure with little claim on economics, and politicians are essentially “attention-mongers” seeking the nod and respect of the mass. A stateless society strips the individual of his sense of identity and responsibility, belittles him, denies him the satisfaction of commitment and contribution, thus rendering him weak and powerless. Zelig’s early first-hand experience of societal abuse causes him to undergo the psychological transformation in order to please that which is hostile. But the common rational man also succumbs to the pressure of the mass society and tries to fit into his community no matter how far flung he is from it. Be it non-smokers trying to fit into a crowded bar by huffing and puffing or fashionistas trying out the latest dress craze, there is a part in all of us that wishes to please others, to put ourselves at ease and gain comfort in an environment that may be completely or partially alien to us.

Zelig is simply an exaggeration of me, of you, of all of us. Woody Allen deftly uses humor, sarcasm and biting satire to show us who we really are. Underneath the sweet smell of perfume, the layers of chiffon silk and the leather-drafted shoes, there is a soul that simply cries out to be accepted. While Zelig’s reptilist persona is rooted under psychological distress and trauma at an early age, nevertheless there is everywhere a milder version of Zelig in every one of us.


The ‘Krutt-kynslotin’

October 6, 2008

A Guardian article commenting on the rapid decline of the Icelandic economy, says this:

“Older islanders call them the ‘Krutt-kynslotin’ – the cuddly generation. Eco-aware, earnest but pampered, they drift from organic café to bar, listening to the music of Björk and Sigur Rós, islanders who have made it big abroad.”

In the same article, a local Icelander says: “When everyone was extremely rich in Iceland – you know, last month, it was with money that they never have earned. Now those who were extremely rich are just normally rich, but they think they are poor. They were spoilt, spending billions.”

101-Reykjavik is probably the only film I’ve seen about the so-called “disillusioned” Icelandic youth. An interesting film actually, considering that Icelandars are (were?) supposed to be the happiest people in the world.

Naomi Watts

September 12, 2008

An interview with the talented and lovely Naomi Watts, where she talks about Mulholland Dr., voices David Lynch, discloses how she got interested in cinema, and tells us why she loves Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken.

Existential Walks

September 5, 2008

It is a well known fact that Jeanne Moreau’s role (as Florence) in Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows catapulted her to the center of the French New Wave which was then just beginning to take formal shape. But her adulterous character in Malle’s film was strangely epidermal, never quite revealing the emotional undercurrents that motivated her nocturnal meanderings in the streets of Paris. Was it love or desperation that was the genesis of her famous walk, where she roamed the Parisian neighbourhood searching for her mon amour?

With Miles Davis playing in the background and Henri Decaë’s Parisian bokeh and a forlorn Moreau at front, this is the moment when Moreau awoke tingling sensations within the French audience of that time (and still does), effectively making her the leading figure in many films of the New Wave.

Sadly, a similar sequence with Corinne Marchand in Agnes Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 did little to the actress in terms of gaining recognition, while Varda herself was being overshadowed by the dominant male filmmakers of her time (in my eyes, Cléo de 5 à 7 is just as good, if not better than Godard’s À bout de souffle). Marchand’s Cleo is undergoing a crisis worse than that of Florence. She’s waiting for a medical test result that would decide her fate – whether she dies from illness or goes on to live. Her existential crisis is deeply felt from this walk (again in Paris), where she really observes the city and its people for the first time.


August 22, 2008

The Iceland Airwaves is scheduled for 15-19 October of this year. And as usual, it’s held at Reykjavik, the northern-most capital in the world. The Airwaves plays host to independent artists from all fathomable genres, performing in the hottest clubs of this icy capital over a period of five days. I’ve not heard of even one of the bands in the partial lineup that was recently announced.

But, as much as I want to catch a plane and fly over there (the festival’s prices are ridiculously low), I’m upto my neck with research and courses. I’m just hoping things take a turn for the milder sometime soon enough.

From the festival page:

“It’s 4 a.m. You’ve been to five cool clubs, seen ten great bands, made 15 new friends and fallen in love 20 times. You’re tired. You’re wired. You’re ready to find a bed. You’re ready to find the after-party. You can’t believe you’re here. You’re already making plans to come back next year. And guess what? It’s still Day One.”

New French Extremity #2

August 20, 2008

Talking about the kiss, the beautiful kiss that begins Trouble Every Day, the kiss a precursor to the animalistic bites, fleshy excesses of the body, and visceral ebbing of blood that follows later, Denis says:

“That’s not where it was in the screenplay – that kiss – it was elsewhere, during a nocturnal ramble by Vincent Gallo, which incidentally wasn’t filmed. But I still wanted to shoot the kiss because the kiss is the film. In the screenplay, the first scene is the scene in the plane. Stuart of the Tindersticks wanted to write a song, but not for the beginning of the film. And when I heard his song, I said to him: “Stuart, I think it should be at the beginning, you can’t put it in after.” And so we can’t begin with the plane, everything has to be pushed back for Stuart’s song.

In fact, I think Stuart channelled everything into the song: he had not seen the rushes, but he had read the screenplay, he had come to London to see Beau Travail (2000), at the time of a retrospective of my films…I think he had understood that I was ready for a lot of things. And he brought me this song. Stuart is an English man with a lot more humour than I have, but he has a rapport with the body, with flesh, with desire which is very close to mine.”

[edit: incidentally, the song is available online.]

Le voyage du ballon rouge

August 11, 2008

Frequently hailed as one of the greatest living filmmakers, this is Hou Hsiao Hsien’s first film outside of China/Taiwan. Hou dedicated the film to Lamorisse, whose Le ballon rouge inspired this material. At once, it is easy to spot the brilliance in his filmmaking, as the camera tracks the titular red balloon gliding across the streets of Paris, cowering behind tree-branches and deftly maneuvering the train station. The balloon is of course symbolic: here representing childhood and an age of innocence, indifference and freedom, such as that of little Simon. Simon’s mother, Suzanne (Binoche) on the other hand is a busybody, constantly occupied with work and sparing little time for her son who is tended to by a timid babysitter Song.

Hou is extremely observant, both of his environment and of his characters. And to me, that’s also where his film fails. The film observes, but never probes. It never questions the characters, never expresses them, maybe even expose them. Understandably, with the boy Simon, it is quite difficult to formally develop the character (although Vlacil did it in a shorter time with The white dove) and Hou tracks the child across his routines of playing pinball, learning the piano or playing video games on his playstation. But Suzanne just turns out to be a bundle of mess – constantly being irritated by her neighbours, possibly feeling distanced from her other adolescent child, and desperately missing her husband now in Canada. She uses her teenage daughter as a pretext for kicking out her neighbours, and struggles to communicate with Simon, who incidentally feels quite at ease with his babysitter and half-sister.

What I liked most about this film was its use of space. Hou juxtaposes the insides of the tiny Paris apartment with wide-angle shots of the balloon floating above Paris. This mimics the dichotomy of the film’s themes: pure unrestrained freedom as opposed to a state of conformity and disorder. Even with the crummy apartment, Hou is careful enough to work within the limits. Observe how the film slowly “reveals” Suzanne’s apartment. For the first half-hour or so, all we see is the tiny dining table and the kitchen, and then we get a brief glimpse of Suzanne’s attic bedroom. Then the shabby living room with books sprawled across the floor, a TV and Simon’s playstation. Suddenly, the piano is moved into a corner we never knew existed. And then, the eternally meek and distant Song shows us Simon’s bedroom attic opposite Suzanne’s.

Hou’s conservative approach to filming spaces is surely what defines this film. But it shouldn’t have been so. If only he had expressed his characters more.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

August 4, 2008

Rest in peace, my friend, after showing us what real torture was like under the Soviet Union.

New French Extremity #1

July 30, 2008

In 2004, James Quandt wrote in Artforum, ” The New French Extremity sometimes looks like a latter-day version of the hussards, those Celine-loving, right-wing anarchists of the ’50s determined to rock the pieties of bourgeois culture; but for all their connections (shared actors, screenwriters, etc.), the recent provocateurs are too disparate in purpose and vision to be classified as a movement.”

In the case of Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, the film’s provocations, meant to disarm the stereotypical viewer adjusted to the familiar rumblings of cinematic narrative, fail to evoke a sense of empathy or understanding for its characters. Arguably, the film strongly delivers on its “shock” value, exposing charred human repulse in the most vulnerable of circumstances, and the denouement in Twentynine Palms accomplishes its primordial purposes of inciting disbelief and awe, its intensity further amplified by the utter lack of cognizant events for the most part until then. But what is one to make of the meaningless violence? Quandt probes further:

“What new or important truth does Dumont proffer that his audience needs to be slapped and slammed out of its sleepwalk into apprehending? In his sophistry, Dumont may place himself in the tradition of provocation, from Sade to Rimbaud to Pasolini, but Twentynine Palms has none of the power to shock an audience into consciousness evident in the elliptic violence of Bresson’s L’Argent, the emotional evisceration of Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, or the bitter sexuality of Pialat’s A Nos Amours.”

The film’s masculinity overwhelms and erodes whatever arousal it prompts within the common man during its numerous sex acts. Ballistic grunts and screams almost echo within the distant sky or the nearby ceiling. The hummer, imbued as a phallic symbol, is the vehicle of transport in which the two main characters, struggling to communicate, spend most of their time in. Darren Hughes, in his Senses of Cinema piece, writes:

“As an example, when all is said and done – after the endless driving, the pain-faced orgasms, the countless miscommunications, and the brutal, brutal violence – Twentynine Palms, I think, is really a film about a red truck.”
I think I agree.

Les Amants

July 24, 2008

Louis Malle, often referred to as being tangential to the French Nouvelle Vague, made the polarizing Les Amants (The Lovers) in 1958, when Godard and Truffaut were still critics at Cahiers du cinema, and Chabrol was just getting started (in the commentary, Malle observes that The Lovers was released between Chabrol’s first two films). Screened at the Venice Film festival, it caused a huge uproar by the Italians who scandalized the film for its blunt and tasteless “sex” scenes, and it later received similar receptions back home in France.

Ginette Vincendeau, in her essay accompanying the DVD, says, “Fifty years on, it may be hard to understand the shock waves The Lovers created with its “frank” depiction of a woman’s sexual pleasure, but in the context of late-1950s France, it was a bombshell, all the more so as Malle embedded his portrait of a woman’s “liberation” within a trenchant satire of the high bourgeoisie.”

This is precisely what caused the ruckus in Italy, France and the US (where the manager of a theater in Ohio was accused of screening obscenity, and the case was subsequently taken to court). Now it might be the fact that audiences everywhere were appalled by the character Jeanne’s (played by Jeanne Moreau) perfidious affair with a stranger in her own house, but what really drove them over the hill was the fact that the film applauded her for it. The film defended her right to sabotage her marriage and her child, to seek a new life, hesitant and uncertain about the future, yet unrepentant, with a complete stranger, shunning even her “socially acceptable” lover.

In Germany, apparently, scenes containing her child were removed, to make Jeanne appear less harsh and mercurial; but as Malle explains, this would render the entire purpose of the film useless, since without the child, Jeanne really is giving up nothing. It is only when she considers the child, and even after that decides to leave her stale bourgeoisie life behind, has she really undergone a transformation – from the mother of a loving child and the wife of a loveless husband to the lover of a bohemian wayfarer.

Ginette writes beautifully about Jeanne Moreau’s rising role in the Nouvelle Vague (Moreau later went on to play a tempestuous woman handling two lovers in one of the central films of the Wave, Truffaut’s Jules et Jim):

“This rebirth is indeed self-consciously reiterated in Jeanne’s transformation in The Lovers, from artificial, frivolous creature to “existentially” sensuous woman. Bernard tells her “I love you because you are different.” From her huge close-up at the opening of Elevator to the Gallows, Moreau was at the center of a shift in the representation of female eroticism, from the body to the face (even the sex scene in The Lovers avoids showing her body). Her face connoted interiority, her full, slightly down-turned lips gave her a proud, independent allure. Moreau brought to the cinema a new type of glamour, less overtly sexy than Bardot, more cerebral – she was known offscreen as a cultured woman, in tune with the new art cinema. With Moreau, the “new woman” of the New Wave had arrived.”