The great clowns

In Europe, as in the United States, they have been lining up to see Woody Allen's new film ''Zelig.'' One might have feared that this essentially American production would travel poorly, and the thought of dubbed dialogue did indeed make me hesitate before recently buying tickets at a crowded Paris movie house. I need have had no apprehensions. The audience loved every moment of this fleeting masterpiece. The French language, sometimes dubbed, sometimes in the form of subtitles, often mixed with the original English, only made the film seem more wonderfully zany. It reminded the viewer that he was enjoying a work that transcends national boundaries as it does specific cultures.

Here in truth is a fable for our times. The story is of a man who cannot help conforming. Among athletes he becomes an athlete; among savants, a savant. He even takes on a physical resemblance to those among whom he finds himself, his figure mysteriously enlarging itself when he is photographed in the company of stout people. He grows famous overnight. Superimposed upon the basic satire about the loss of identity - the failure of a person to be anyone except by association and by conformity - is the richly worked-out satire upon modern techniques of communication.

For it is through the mass media that this strange phenomenon is raised up - and is then cast down. The newspaper, the old-fashioned newsreel, the contemporary forms of the documentary, are as much a part of the story as are the travails of the unhappy and bewildered hero. The image and the object become inextricably related, as they are in modern life. Process and substance are inseparable.

My mind went back afterward to another great creative genius, to Chaplin, who , like Woody Allen, is a master of pathos, who in a similar way deals in the kind of humor that sits beside the wells of truth. Indeed, Woody Allen may be said to be the Charles Chaplin of our day - like him many-sided, prodigal in his gifts, telling us something important about ourselves. And yet how different are these two incomparable clowns! And how different are the worlds they interpret, and in interpreting make comprehensible and humane.

Chaplin was the offspring of a time where poverty was a central preoccupation. With poverty went loneliness, humiliation, fear. But it was the fact of being deprived of material things that underlay everything else; that made life bitter; and that occasionally - because there were some kindred and essentially generous souls - could make it sweet. Overarching the little man's unappeasable need was the huge conspiracy of economic classes. Against that conspiracy, as against his own want, Chaplin fought a gay and gallant warfare. He was doomed to defeat and yet he had moments - to be sure, illusory moments - of ecstatic success.

Woody Allen is the child of a different world. For him the problems come from within. They are the problems of alienation, loss of identity, fear of boredom. He speaks for a generation when he suffers, and his doubts belong in some measure to us all. Almost never in any of Allen's films and writings does despair come as the result of external catastrophe or economic hardship. It is the fruit of a profound malaise for which only the psychoanalyst is supposed to provide relief - and yet in dealing with which the psychoanalyst consistently fails.

That he can extract from such a predicament the elements of humor, that he can be so genuinely funny at the same time that he is being so incurably sad, is the measure of Woody Allen's genius. His Zelig, the hero of his latest film, is a man who experiences triumph and despair, great popularity and equally great abuse, and yet is never bitter or angry at the world. The wonderful thing is, he is not angry at himself. He accepts his lot; and in doing so he helps us to keep our lot in some perspective.

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