Snapshots: Zelig

Snapshots are extra short reviews. Everything you need to know, nothing you don’t.

The mockumentary is a staple of 21st century entertainment, ranging in style from the shock humor of The Office, to the deadpan satire of In the Loop, to the meta collection of Documentary Now! episodes. But it’s worth remembering that the narrative technique has been used for decades; I’d like to highlight my personal favorite in a quick snapshot review, the 1983 movie Zelig.

Zelig is a Woody Allen rom-com (i.e. a Woody Allen movie) about a human chameleon named Leonard Zelig. Leonard can change his demeanor and even appearance depending on whom he’s with. He’s a Republican around Republicans, but can flip sides in a group of Democrats. If he’s with a group of beefy lumberjacks, he instantly grows a beard and gains weight. The documentary chronicles his rise as a national icon, then later his romantic relationship with a psychiatrist.

It’s a simple concept that is heightened by the presentation as a documentary, complete with a stereotypical narrator, black and white news footage, newspaper headlines, present day interviews with ‘people alive at the time’ – Allen even goes so far as inserting himself into actual historical footage (11 whole years before Forrest Gump!). The video below is a nice excerpt which highlights the film’s attention to detail in creating fake history.

And yet, for all its comic trappings, the story is genuinely insightful. Leonard never actually knows anything in depth, he can only talk about it. If he’s with a baseball player, he can repeat baseball terms like a parrot, without any sense of what they mean or even how to use them properly. To an everyday person, his conversations seem impressive; to those he converses with, he seems at best a little odd, at worst idiotic. He’s a collection of buzzwords and everyday trivia with no distinct personality or unique insights. I guess some things never change from one era to the next…

The one ‘drawback’ – whereas some mockumentaries can be enjoyed on their own, most of Zelig’s comedy is predicated on an understanding of how historical documentaries were told. That said, if you’re familiar with the genre beyond a cursory Leonard-Zelig-level understanding, then this one is well worth your time.