Friday, October 31, 2014

Jerry Lewis, Blockhead

I saw Jerry Lewis at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, IL at 3pm last Sunday. Think about that - Jerry 3pm...on Sunday. One anticipated rank nostalgia on the menu but the venue and time promised little else. In Chicago on a Friday or Saturday night, the evening might have attracted art types hungry for some insight into the greatest American film comedian. Instead, the good old days crowd dominated the Paramount and were in bed by 8pm. At 88, Lewis should by all rights be part of that crowd. But the genius hasn't slowed down. He's still trying to bring the musical version of The Nutty Professor to Broadway and just last year, he starred in the barely seen drama Max Rose.

Sadly, none of this recent vitality was in evidence on Sunday. Lewis sat alone on stage, recounting past glories, telling jokes, and singing songs. In between, reportedly rare film and TV highlights, all of which are available on youtube, were shown as avi files projected from a computer while Lewis sat engulfed in darkness waiting for the clip to end. With no interlocutor and the Q&A cancelled, the evening came off as a rather oppressive slide show. And to make sure those past glories stayed in the past, Lewis pandered to the audience with an out-of-nowhere rendition of "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore," the mawkish low point of the entire affair.

And yet, both the out-of-nowhereness and the grotesquerie of the sentiment were perfectly in keeping with Lewis' genius. As with his film masterpieces, the show was constructed as a series of building blocks, to borrow Chris Fujiwara's analogy from his fine monograph on the director. Each block is a self-contained unit, mimicking the gag structure of his pre-Hollywood stage routines, that forestalls forward progression. Even in his more story-driven vehicles, Lewis never cared all that much about a tight three-act structure that propels the narrative onward. So why should he wedge his career into one? This was no "And then I wrote"-type reminiscence. The "here a song, there a joke" format mangled chronology and conveyed freedom rather than aimlessness.

The mawkishness and self-absorption are harder to defend but are as essential to the Lewisian effect as his anti-linear materialist filmmaking. Even Fujiwara tries to justify such grotesquerie by claiming it "harbors deep uncertainty that always stands ready to undermine what seem to be their own most firmly held values and basic imperatives, even as Lewis' insistence on sentiment threatens to become a parody of obviousness" (45). But if he truly was id to Dean Martin's blasé, stabilizing super ego, then why wouldn't he act like a self-pitying, attention-starved child in every other context? Indeed, that's his proto-rock 'n' roll gift to us and thus he requires no escape clause. In this, he recalls Simon Frith's words from Stranded on the Rolling Stones: "The real point of the Stones soap opera turns out to be that they get away with behavior most of us daren't risk for fear of consequences...for the rest of us, engaged in constant behavioral calculus, it is the Stones' lack of interest in moral accounting and not their supposed 'sinfulness' that is shocking" (34). So on Sunday, Lewis told the audience that no one but him understands what it means to receive fifty-plus years of applause to which the audience responded with even more applause. Instead of lessening (or even negotiating) the eternal divide between performer and audience, Lewis augmented it - I'm on top of the world and you're not. It was a repulsive moment but only insofar as we want the spotlight too and can't have it. We can pout and cry all we want but we have jobs and relationships and pouting, crying children to attend to. The consequences are dire when we act like babies or demand the mic. When Lewis does it, he gets applause (and tons of cash besides). Our need for attention, even (or especially) across from such blazing talent, explains why shouts of "We love you, Jerry!" spread around the theatre like coughs at an opera. For the briefest moment, each fan commanded the spotlight. But Lewis quickly grabbed it back: "You must be in heat."

This is the fate of the lonely clown and it's no surprise he's a frequent subject of kitsch art. He goofs off for our sins of living a decent, sober, careful life, to quote Frith (33) and in turn transforms secular entertainment into religion. We come to worship the clown in order to feel out the limits of our everyday actions. It's something else Lewis understands better than we do as evinced in this remarkable meditation on comedy/drama from an interview with Fujiwara:

"When I stand in front of an audience on New Year’s Eve, let’s say, years ago, and I see the young man and his girl, man and his wife, girl, boyfriend, couples, lovers, all that wonderful stuff ringside. I’m standing up there alone and making a fucking fool of myself to entertain all of them. There’s nothing more dramatic than that moment, Chris. It’s very dramatic. Because I have to call on something that’s not what I want to be at that moment. I want to be there with my girl or my wife watching some other schmuck make of fool of himself. But I never ever thought of what I did as demeaning. What I thought of it was: other than me at that moment. So it’s very dramatic. I love when somebody said, 'Did you ever think of doing drama?' What? Do you really think that Jack Nicholson does drama? He reads material, he’s directed in a scene, and he plays it as a very good actor. There’s nothing dramatic about that. He’s a very good actor reading the words and not bumping into the furniture. When you ask a comedian if he ever would do anything dramatic – he’s done it from the day he decided to make people laugh! He’s far more dramatic than any dramatic actor. Sir Laurence Olivier said to me, 'I wish I knew your drama'...You don’t have to ask Sir Gielgud to be dramatic; you ask him to act and learn the words and do the scene. Of course it’s called drama because it’s a story of a man who lost his son, and it’s terrible. But it’s not as dramatic as this" (109-110).

Therein lies the dilemma that gives rise to his maudlin moments. But it's those moments, in addition to every other facet of his genius, that make him equal to the Chaplin of Limelight, the Raj Kapoor of Mera Naam Joker, and the Tati of Parade.



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