Zelig and The Front
Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival
Life folded in on itself like a collapsed star last night. Walking into the lobby of an apartment building on the Upper East Side to attend a friend’s book party, who should be leaving at exactly the same moment but Woody and Soon Yi themselves. I was briefly overcome by a moment of disorientation at the strangeness of it all. My initial grandiose thought was that I had somehow produced this manifestation. That Woody Allen had somehow materialized like some superheated extrusion of magma from my own brain. It was so intense, the connection I felt, perhaps even moreso because it was entirely one-sided. Kind of like seeing a co-worker the morning after you’ve had a dirty dream about them. This was followed immediately by a stab of hot-faced shame. I felt chastened by some of the stuff I’ve written here. A few years back, I wrote a brief squib about one of my least favorite books at the time, a novel that I had to resort to reading because I was quarantined in the hospital and had finished the book I had been loving (coincidentally, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, one of the items on Woody’s Manhattan make-life-worth-living checklist). This new book, although wildly popular at the time, struck me as inane; hysterical straight man bullshit, overwritten and febrile, with lines like—and I paraphrase—“Get out of my house but first take your hand off my husband’s cock!” I have, over the years, made dismissive hay out of it again and again. But then I found myself at a writer’s festival with the author who gave one of the most impressive talks I have ever seen: humble, eloquent, funny, touching, and profound. There weren’t that many writers at the festival so meeting him was inevitable and he was just as delightful one on one. A complete prince of a guy. Maybe it’s just the necessary remorse one feels as one gets older and regrets the unearned carpet-bombing salvos of one’s twenty-three-year-old self, but I felt, and still feel, like a complete shitheel. It’s not that I disavow my feelings about, say, Everyone Says I Love You, but if this concentrated three weeks of viewing have done anything, they have really deepened my respect and made more steadfast my fandom.
When I told a friend that I saw Woody Allen himself, she wondered if perhaps I was hallucinating (I know a psychologist who treated an adolescent Lubavitch girl once who said in her first session, “There’s nothing wrong with me. If all the men didn’t come at me, day and night, with their penises exposed, I’d have no problems.”), or if it was an impersonator, which would only be fitting, in light of today’s movies, both about imposture.
Zelig is extraordinary for many reasons: its prescience (it anticipates the faux-documentary, having been released a year before Spinal Tap); the sheer technical feat of incorporating Woody Allen into all that marvelous stock footage (nowadays, every schmendrick with iMovie can do as much, but in 1983 this was really remarkable); and its anticipation of all of that endless post-modern academic interrogation of the nature of the Self. Allen assembled a group of talking heads, both fictional and real—Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, Bruno Bettelheim—all of whom seem to delight in aping for a movie what they do in real life by expounding on the fictional Leonard Zelig, the human chameleon whose highly elastic mutability, both characterological and physical, made him as famous in his day as Lindbergh.
Zelig is a story of assimilation, of deep cover, of Jews in America. Irving Howe says as much. And Howe also, in summing up Zelig’s life, might just as well be talking about Allen himself, or any artist who tries to sustain a creative existence with something approaching longevity, when he says, “Everyone loved him. Then they stopped. Then they loved him again. The 20s were like that. Has America changed that much? I don’t think so.”
The Front is Woody as hired gun actor only, playing Howard Prince, small-time bookie and bar-and-grill cashier who helps out his friends, blacklisted writers, by allowing himself to pose as the author of their TV scripts, work that would otherwise never get made due to the Red Scare that had the networks flushing out fellow travelers in the 1950s. Andrea Marcovicci of the Cleopatra nose plays Allen’s girlfriend. Woody himself is good, but miscast. Howard is meant to be a penny-ante operator. Unprincipled, unpoliticized, and unschooled. The Front is essentially the story of his gradual education in the nature of writing and the evil that men do. But Allen projects too much nervous intellect to seem credible. Still, the film has an extraordinary presence in the form of Zero Mostel as Hecky Brown, a lovable Jackie Gleason-esque comic whose life is destroyed by the witch-hunt. And when the final credits roll, listing director Martin Ritt, writer Walter Bernstein, and Mostel himself, among others, and the dates of each of their respective blacklistings, you cannot help but cry. I couldn’t, at least.
I’m sorry. That’s all I have to say today. Schematic and stupid, I know, but the experience of seeing the man walk by in person had me needing a drink last night (a lie, really. The white wine came by on a tray and I took some), which has left me today with the lingering depressive melancholy of alcohol, and the phantom throb of headache, which made watching a double feature in my cheap Lenscrafter $49.99-and-under-rack eyeglasses a little difficult. Time to pop some more Tylenol and ready myself for tomorrow, the final day.