Potentialities and Limitations of Mockumentaries Term Paper

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Film Begets Film And Real Begets Fake: Woody Allen's Zelig

Woody Allen's Zelig represents many classic potentialities and limitations of the mockumentary. Predating the "mockumentary" designation by a full year, Zelig helped pioneer the mockumentary's use of clever parody to entertain, expose the fallibility of "historical" archival footage, prick the conscience and soothe. Simultaneously, Zelig suffered and suffers from the limitations of the mockumentary, as parasite and slave to the documentary, inherent filmed format and key components imitated to the point of triteness. Despite Zelig's relatively early techniques and presentation, it remains squarely within the mockumentary mode.

Body: Film Begets Film and Real Begets Fake: Woody Allen's Zelig

The term "mockumentary" is a synthetic word stemming from a comment in 1984's This is Spinal Tap. In that film, documentarian Marty DiBergi referred to his work as a "rockumentary, if you will" (Doherty 24). In a small leap from that term, "mockumentary" was born. Woody Allen's Zelig (Allen), released in 1983 and now deemed a classic mockumentary, pre-dated the official name its own genre. Zelig achieved well-deserved classic status, as it helped define the form and fully shows the potentialities and limitation of a mockumentary.

Briefly, Zelig is a parody of several aspects of modern life: our reliance on archival footage as reliable, complete history; human nature and particularly modern man's wish to conform, belong and assimilate; and American culture and celebrity. The film uses a 1970's black-and-white newsreel format, successfully mimicking and mocking the seriousness of a documentary to recount the life of a famous-then-infamous-then-famous-then obscure main character. The main character, Zelig, is a 1920's American man who is so eager to conform and belong that he mutates to the characteristics of any person -- regardless of race, size or any other characteristic -- near him. Eventually, according to the mockumentary, this quality makes Zelig a celebrity, complete with a marketing bonanza of songs, a chameleon dance and even a Hollywood film about him. Unfortunately, Zelig also suffers the downside of celebrity, being blamed by the Communist Party for monopolizing 5 jobs at once and by the Ku Klux Klan for being a triple-threat Jew, Negro or Native American, depending on whoever happens to be near him. Disillusioned by the nether belly of celebrity, Zelig vanishes but reappears on a Vatican balcony with the Pope. Discovered, Zelig is deported to America.

During Zelig's first wave of celebrity, medical experts -- including psychiatrist Dr. Eudora Nesbitt Fletcher -- unsuccessfully analyze him. Then, upon his return from Italy, Dr. Fletcher takes Zelig to the isolation of the countryside and so successfully "cures" his malady that Zelig attacks…

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During Zelig's first wave of celebrity, medical experts -- including psychiatrist Dr. Eudora Nesbitt Fletcher -- unsuccessfully analyze him. Then, upon his return from Italy, Dr. Fletcher takes Zelig to the isolation of the countryside and so successfully "cures" his malady that Zelig attacks an expert because Zelig disagrees with the expert's correct statement that it's a nice day. A "cured" Zelig now travels the U.S. with renewed celebrity status, giving motivational speeches about "being yourself." In addition, Zelig and Dr. Fletcher -- who is also famous due to Zelig's cure -- announce their engagement, at which point multiple women come forward to claim that Zelig married them while he was in one of his chameleon forms. Now that Zelig is accused of bigamy and adultery, the easily manipulated public turns against him, pressuring him to return to his chameleon disease and disappear. Dr. Fletcher searches for Zelig and finds him in a newsreel of Hitler; consequently, she travels to German and sees that Zelig is in Hitler's inner circle. Seeing Fletcher, Zelig comes out of his chameleon existence once again and they both return to America. The gullible and manipulated public now celebrates Zelig with a ticker tape parade in New York City. Zelig and Fletcher then marry and fade into obscurity.

Ideally, the mockumentary has several powerful potentialities. Typically, it is a clever, provocative parody of the documentary genre (Grossman 271-2). Zelig, for example beautifully imitates the black-and-white documentaries of the 1970's which purported to give an accurate and complete history. Without the benefit of digital film or CGI, Allen inserts himself as Zelig in numerous historically important scenarios. Zelig's revisionist history, just this side of reality in that Zelig poses with real historical characters (Doherty 24), "incinerated" the naive reliance on archival film as an accurate conveyor of history. Furthermore, to buttress the supposed historical reliability of his mockumentary, Allen used a then-key innovation that has been used ad nauseum: real experts such as Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow, to lend superficial credence to the truthfulness of his mocking historical account (Doherty 23). By almost seamlessly inserting Zelig into archival footage, the film shows the fallibility of film as genuine history.

Zelig also succeeded in fulfilling another potentiality of the mockumentary: parodying the modern concept of celebrity and human nature, particularly modern man's wish to conform, assimilate and belong (Genter). Through the use of comedy and keen historical mockery, Zelig succeeds in cultural critique of those facets, prompting audiences to "self-conscious analysis" of our tendency toward those human weaknesses (Grossman 272). By raising Zelig to celebrity, then lowering him to despised status, then raising him to celebrity, then relegating him to obscurity, the film forces the audience to examine our gullibility, easy manipulation and persistent problem in distinguishing fact from fiction in our celebrity-obsessed, image-obsessed culture (Grossman 283). Consequently, even as the audience laughs at the

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