(Visual) Anthropology goes to the movies | Take I : Woody Allen ”Zelig”

Zelig Poster - 1983Weeks of proposals with no end, living with anthropology day and night, dreaming and nightmaring of research… The grants season… I had it, enough already. A break. Needless to say I went to my pile of DVDs to find refuge. And out of nowhere it seemed, picked up Woody Allen’s 1983 ”Zelig”. I had seen it as a teenager, in a moldy subterranean Parisian cinema re-re-re-screening ”classics”. I had no recollection whatsoever of the movie. Barely that – as usual – there were about 3-4 viewers in the theater, that Woody was his usual self, and that it had the flavor of a documentary of the 30’s. And here I am: years later, just as I am looking forward to get as far as possible from anthropology, I certainly didn’t remember the potential of ‘’Zelig’’ to reflect on just exactly that. (Visual) Anthropology goes to the movies, first take!

Re-viewing the movie this time, I was amazed by the possibilities of a Zelig Anthropology if I may. For Zelig poses the same questions to New York 1928′ journalists and psychoanalysts as the infamous ”Other” does to the anthropologist. Then, and as it certainly seems, now. The trouble with Zelig – just as with the ”Other”, is exactly what the movie is all about: elusiveness.

For Zelig is completely liquid, never quite completely catchable, constantly on the move, always where you didn’t expect him, never what you did want him to be. Zelig is a mystery for his contemporaries: he goes from black, jazzman, to gangster, from ”oriental” in all ”chineseness”, to the highly regarded scientist who worked with Freud. Zelig switches identities just as he gets close to anyone. Getting close exactly. Zelig goes native the minute he sets foot into another land, may it be the kitchen of a fancy party, or the pitch of a football game. Zelig gets so close to those he talks too, spends time with, lives along, that he becomes a bit of them every step of the way. And that’s fine. Zelig doesn’t have a problem with it. Zelig probably doesn’t even think about it. Zelig is Zelig in that constant empathy for others that leads to blurred borders, troubled genres, and eluding attachments. Zelig probably doesn’t really care for scientific distance, he has no problem with going too fast, getting too close, becoming Other.

But he definitely poses problem to 1928 observers and particularly the scientists: he just must be sick, that’s all there is. For there is something sick in this constant inconsistency. Zelig doesn’t take the time to simplify the world, he just jumps from one layer to another, sometime combining them. Next thing you know he is on the KKK list: they hate him. Well shouldn’t they? Zelig, now a multicolored man, is a triple threat to them. And then, comes ‘The Party’: bursting into demonstrations against little Zelig, for across his multiple selves, he is taking over the working suit of five honest men at a time!

zelig lynchingZelig is disturbing not only because of this endless layering of multiple identities but also because of the pace he goes from one to another: we don’t have time to settle with the fact that Zelig is A, that he is gone, already being B, soon on his way to becoming C. For those attached to simple single identities it takes time to move on, to get liquid, and to just flow in and out. It may be inconceivable even. Zelig may just be the ultimate fantasy of the postmodern, but make no mistake: he is very real.

For that’s another point made by the movie ”Zelig”. Woody Allen could have made a fiction. But he chose to anchor Zelig into a mockumentary, claiming to use archives of the time, footage attesting of, interviews certifying by. See, says the documentary, Zelig is just so so real. Woody Allen troubles the viewer: back up, what of all this is real, what of it all is not, I am confused… The documentary aspect of the movie gives it a positivist, realistic texture, long searched for in ethnographic films aiming to claim a scientific corner. It’s all about visualism: original footage of witnesses (those who have seen) and interviews of contemporary experts (those who have insight). It is also all about representativity: in order to be representative, the sample has to show a mirror of the society lived in ; in order to be represented, you must be visible, you must be seen.

This visualism obsession is a shout, a clear echo to anthropology and even more to visual anthropology: I am going to show you, for this can not be said or written, or read. For long, visual anthropology has been reduced to just that: the visual. As a recourse to what couldn’t make ”normal” anthropology, the rest of it. Concepts were left to the books, visual anthropology would take over what was to be seen, right there under our very eyes.

In a scene playing as a summary, the psychiatrist Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) who is in charge of Zelig (Woody Allen), opts for innovation, and the use of a camera to better ”see” her patient. Her cousin is about to film the consultations, and the life of the curious wonder that Zelig has become. Dr Fletcher goes on explaining – in a very Margaret Mead sort of way – the use of the camera, all based on the visualism that will bring insight:

”When a man changes physical appearance you want to see it, you can’t read about it, besides which, I am planning to make history”.

The camera is for the seen, the visible. It makes proof. It does science. The unseen, invisible, the conceptual is left to the writing, to the book. To the ethnographic monograph. Never to the anthropological image.

But let’s go back to where we started, to Zelig and his closeness… just a little bit too close for scientists, for observers. The one person though, who really wants to better understand Zelig, Dr Eudora Fletcher, is no anthropologist. Yet, she sets off to observe Zelig, discuss with him, spend some time with him. Then, she realizes that the classic scientific tools are not going to work this time around. She is the woman with a plan:

”Somewhere behind that vacuous face, that zombielike stare, is a real human being, and I can bring it out”


”Some new way… Some technique… Whatever it is, it will have to be personal”.

zelig10What we can see here, behind Dr Eudora Fletcher’s endeavors is a metaphor of anthropology as-it-used-to-be. She is certain she can ”bring it out”, just as anthropology in its most hopeful scientific ambitions aimed to ”bring out” the truth, the real, the authentic, and show it to the world. And so, Dr Fletcher, as many scientists of her time, as many anthropologists of then and before, believes in the synchrony of modernity and the emergence of science: it is with new tools, new methodologies, that she will find an answer, that she will show scientific truth. Think of the camera of course and the visual anthropology of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. But also of ”the new thing”. This constant search of anthropology to define itself with just this added thing that will make it. Like if anthropology was looking for closure. Like if the discipline wanted to be definitive. Like if it had to have a terminal stage. Like if it couldn’t accept the obvious: its interminability.

Zelig_e_eudoraBut the cure, in the end, to Zelig’s so-called disease, won’t come from new technologies, it won’t be made of progress, and it certainly won’t be the result of an empirical study. The cure, as Dr. Eudora proposes it, has to be found in the personal. In that closeness that Zelig is experimenting himself. ”It will have to be personal”. Personal. For if we were doing anthropology not ”on”, not ”of” but ”with”, if we were to live along the lives lived, move in the paths traced, the cure would be found. Yes a mimesis may happen. One made of fast paces changes, and constant modifications, one of liquidity and instability. One losing control. One not aiming to order the world for it would embrace its disorder. A mimesis that would render all the discomfort finally comfortable. And then, finally, Zelig’s inherent multiplicities wouldn’t need a cure. Gad Elmaleh wouldn’t have to take pills no more[1]

And yes, alas, finally, but well, just maybe, anthropology would have contributed to some of the closeness – rather than the comprehension – of the complexity of the world.

Ithaca, January 25, 2015, Emiko Stock.

[1] I am referring to a sketch from the stand up ”L’autre c’est moi” (”I am the other”), in which the franco-moroccan comedian swallows a pill enabling him to ”detoxicate” himself of the Moroccan cliché, in order to become a French cliché.


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