He’s a real nowhere man,
Sitting in his nowhere land,
Making all his nowhere plans
— The Beatles
Twenty-five years ago, Woody Allen wrote and starred in what I consider the best American-Jewish — perhaps the best American — film of its era: “Zelig.” This pseudo-documentary details the misadventures of Leonard Zelig, a human chameleon who, anonymous and powerless, ends up in the front row for many of the most important moments of the 1920s and ‘30s. (If you’ve never seen “Zelig,” imagine Forrest Gump played by Woody Allen, but filmed in black and white and including cameos by Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow).
At the same time, in 1983, Bob Dylan was just coming out of his “Christian period,” a time when his assurances that he was not a particularistic Jewish artist seemed all too obvious. He had just produced “Infidels,” a wonderfully strange album, including the classic and mysterious song “Jokerman,” with lines like “you’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds, Manipulator of Crowds, you’re a dream twister.”
I was 15 when I bought “Infidels” and first watched “Zelig.” Despite my pretensions to sophistication, I had no idea what to do with these cultural creations. Bob Dylan, I had just discovered, had spent much of the ‘70s in religious and personal turmoil, while Woody Allen was looking for a way to combine his instinct for humor with his desire to create more “serious” art.
I was reminded of the connection between these two men by several recent events. For Bob Dylan, it was the recent award of a special Pulitzer Prize, as well as the recent film about him, “I’m Not There.” For Woody Allen, it was the online rumblings of the impact of “Zelig” after a quarter century, as well as his $10 million suit against an unauthorized picture of him gracing American Apparel billboards in New York and Los Angeles.
Despite the obvious Jewish references in both men’s work, and the Jewish social contexts that helped influence them, neither one likes to be considered a “Jewish” artist. Both creators, Jewishly speaking, seemed like “nowhere men,” having been placed or placing themselves outside of traditional Jewish conversations as they went about creating their art. Woody Allen’s anger at his image on a billboard — dressed in chasidic garb, part of a brief fantasy section from his film Annie Hall — seemed as much a desire not to be pinned down Jewishly, as a legal maneuver designed to control his image.
Of course, being “nowhere” — whether in relation to one’s religion, ethnicity or background — has its obvious artistic advantages. Most importantly, it allows one to stand outside one’s immediate experience, and look at the world from a wider perspective.
Then there is the larger Jewish historical context. Throughout much of Western history, Jews have been wanderers, the “nowhere man” par excellence. In a way this has made them insecure and weak, desperate to have the trappings of the culture around them. On the other hand, to borrow from Yuri Slezkine in “The Jewish Century,” Jewish existence on the margins made them highly creative and flexible. Living on the boundaries, and constantly forced to cross them, gave them considerable power.
And so we have “Zelig,” the seemingly powerless nebbish, who at a moment’s notice can turn Chinese, or become a doctor, or a gangster. The Jewish ability to adapt creates enormous, almost uncanny, opportunities. And with Dylan, who seems to be living on his own planet, every album — even the bad ones — surprise, and on occasion still astonish.
Ari Kelman, a professor of American studies at the University of California at Davis, wonders if the power of a film like “Zelig” and the songs of Bob Dylan emerge out of the artists’ refusal to be pigeonholed.
“Woody Allen’s use of the documentary format allows him to discuss Zelig’s chameleon-like properties as a ‘psychosis,’ posing it as a problem, a sickness,” said Kelman, also the author of several studies on contemporary American Jewish culture. But this old-fashioned idea of the shape-shifting Jew as a sick presence is undercut by the fact that “the film is really a fake documentary. The real message is that Zelig isn’t a problem, but a kind of hero.”
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence, and director of public programs, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. His column appears every other month.
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