It’s one of the great gags in film theory. Writing in 1969, Cahiers du cinéma editors Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni devise a seven-part critical typology of the cinema, based on the political or ideological value of the films in question. The third grouping they proffer consists of films “in which the signified is not explicitly political, but, in some way, ‘becomes’ so; that is, finds itself re-produced as such by the ‘formal’ critical work on it.”1 The two critics give examples of films belonging to this category (c): Méditerranée, Persona and The Bellboy. The line-up has given generations of film studies scholars reason to chuckle: Philippe Sollers, Ingmar Bergman… and Jerry Lewis? What a delightful prank it was for Cahiers du cinéma – the universally recognised home for serious, theoretically profound reflection on the cinema – to place the buffoonish American comedian in a category shared by some of the luminaries of European artistic modernism!
Only, they weren’t joking. Comolli and Narboni’s classification of The Bellboy (1960) reflected a genuine love of Lewis’ films, one that bore no trace of the kind of ironic posturing or eclectic one-upmanship that would mark so much contemporary reception of supposed “low-brow” film genres. Jerry Lewis was incontestably part of the Cahiers cinematic pantheon. From Jean-Luc Godard’s 1957 encomium that “the height of artifice blends at times with the nobility of true documentary” in Lewis’ face,2 to Serge Daney’s admiration of Smorgasbord as a “tragically funny” film in 1983,3 the journal dutifully followed his films, lavishing them with praise.
In the Narboni/Comolli era, this esteem resulted in a series of interviews with Lewis published by Cahiers, and the appearance in the journal’s Christmas 1967 issue of a 45-page dossier dedicated to his films.4 Sylvie Pierre recalls that she even kept a photo of Lewis pinned to the wall at her desk in the Cahiers offices, taking pride of place next to Glauber Rocha, the two filmmakers being her “two great idols”.5 In an almost unparalleled case of critical accord between the two rival reviews, Positif shared Cahiers’ glowing appraisal of Lewis’ œuvre, an appreciation that reached its apotheosis with Positif critic Robert Benayoun’s mammoth 5½-hour documentary Bonjour Mr. Lewis.
Both journals not only shared a passionate ardour for Lewis’ films, they also took it upon themselves to treat him seriously as a filmmaker. Far from contenting themselves with snap judgements on whether his films were successfully funny or not, they probed the formal characteristics of his films, analysed their narrative structures, delineated his approach to mise en scène, colour, editing and performance, explored the way Lewis constructed his gag sequences, and sought to account for his inimitable screen presence. In essence, they interpreted Lewis’ work as that of an auteur, and deemed that he had just as much a claim to this title as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles or Jean Renoir did.
The two journals were not deterred from continuing their exegesis of his work by the resulting lazy American stereotypes about France’s inexplicable love for Jerry Lewis (a cliché that overlooks the truly global nature of his fan-base). In recent years, meanwhile, a serious critical appraisal of Lewis has broadened out beyond the circles of Parisian cinephilia. Advocacy by film critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum has been matched by the work of scholars including Steven Shapiro, Scott Bukatman and Murray Pomerance, a tendency that was capped in 2009 with Chris Fujiwara’s peerless monograph on his work.6 Although it is impossible to truly separate Lewis the Filmmaker from Lewis the Performer (not to mention Lewis the Persona), recent interest in his work has also perceptibly shifted from his status as a movie-star to his sensibility as a director, and from a preoccupation with his comedic talents to an examination of his directorial techniques.
It is this impetus that is behind the present dossier, published in conjunction with a retrospective of all 12 feature films Lewis directed (from The Bellboy in 1960 to Smorgasbord in 1983) at the Melbourne International Film Festival in July-August 2016.7 To a certain extent, divorcing those films for which Lewis took a directorial credit from those in which he “merely” acted is an abstraction – not least because on so many of the films he starred in he shared in the directing duties. But the corpus of films for which he was sole director is nonetheless a captivating body of work. It was with these films that Lewis truly merited the term “total filmmaker”.8 Not only was he a technical innovator in the cinema – including, most notably, his development of the video playback technique, now ubiquitously used by filmmakers – the films he directed also attest to his restless stylistic inventiveness and distinct visual palette. In a 1980 interview, Godard explicitly declared that he considered Jerry Lewis to be, above all, a painter, and this aspect of his work comes through not only in the chromatic splendour of his colour films, but also in the dynamic organisation of volume and movement, and the kinetic interaction between bodies and architectural spaces present throughout his œuvre. Even in those works of his where one only has rare occasion to laugh, his films have an irrepressibly invigorating energy to them. Like the works of Dziga Vertov, Federico Fellini or Glauber Rocha, his films dance.
That Godard interview was with Dick Cavett – who is clearly bewildered at the praise the nouvelle vague titan heaps on someone who American intellectuals sniffily turned their noses up at – and, in the same discussion, the filmmaker pinpoints one of the chief paradoxes of Lewis’ œuvre. Jerry Lewis is funny, he explains, but he is even funnier when he is not funny, because it is funny that he is not funny.9 Certainly, by the time he assumed the director’s chair, Lewis knew how to draw laughter from an audience: the enormously popular films he made with Dean Martin are testament to this, while his collaborations with Frank Tashlin would have a lasting effect on American comedy (the legacy of these films’ anarchic humour is notably apparent in The Simpsons, for instance). Starting with The Bellboy, however, Lewis began to develop other aims than the purely comedic. Not only did he toy with the comic persona his earlier films had created – most trenchantly, of course, with The Nutty Professor (1963), but multiple identities are present in virtually all his films – he also, and more pointedly, began to explore the mechanics of comedy itself. In his taste for experimentation and his refusal to adhere to the conventional guidelines of established practice, even when it would come at a cost to his own chances of popular success, Lewis reveals himself as a modernist of comedy. The only apt comparisons with his work are those of avant-garde pioneers in other artistic practices. As Picasso is to the painting, and Stravinsky is to music, so is Lewis to the gag. All, indeed, have been divisive figures in their fields, repelling received bourgeois tastes at the same time as they won over a legion of die-hard advocates.
And yet, if there is a parallel with any canonical figure of artistic modernism, then it is with Godard (again). The French filmmaker had, of course, paid homage to Lewis with a replica of the doll-house set of The Ladies Man (1961) in Tout va bien (1972), as well as more recent nods to Lewis in Soigne ta droite (1987) and Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998). More than this, however, there is a curious parallelism in their trajectories: belonging to the same generation (Lewis was born in 1926, Godard in 1930), both released their first feature films in 1960, after a period of cinematic apprenticeship in the 1950s (acting for Lewis, writing criticism and making short films for Godard). Both made a prolific string of films in the 1960s which have gained a canonical place in film history. And both entered a crisis stage in the late 1960s, leading to a highly politicised period of filmmaking (One More Time  and Which Way to the Front?  for Lewis, the Groupe Dziga Vertov films for Godard). Both experienced failure in 1972 (the inability to complete The Day the Clown Cried for Lewis, the box-office failure of Tout va bien for Godard), which led to a long period of exile from cinema screens. As the 1980s dawned, both made spectacular comebacks, with Hardly Working (1980) and Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1979), respectively. It is at this point, however, that the analogy ends: whereas Godard would continue to make films throughout the 1980s and up to the present day, Lewis effectively ended his directorial career after Smorgasbord.
Godard’s adoration of Lewis is not, it would seem, a mutual phenomenon: a friend of mine reports that when asked about the Frenchman at an audience Q&A, Lewis bizarrely responded by accusing Godard of transvestitism. But if the two share a common aesthetic mission, then this can perhaps best be summed up, as Comolli and Narboni put it in “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”, as the “critical de-construction of the system of representation.”10 Of course, Lewis’ films evince an extremely loose concern with the norms of diegetic realism – something that the parameters of the comedy give more allowance for than do other film genres – and they exhibit his taste for self-reflexivity and various techniques of “laying bare the device”. More than this, however, Lewis deconstructs the very functioning of the joke itself. From being structured around gags, his films increasingly come to centre on their absence. The Patsy (1964), as Fujiwara points out in his Great Directors profile, is “a film so radical that it makes comedy out of the situation of a comedian who isn’t funny”11. Furthermore, the inability or unwillingness to play the role of the clown-figure is the central theme of all of Lewis’ late films. On a more microstructural level, Lewis also experiments with the very construction of the visual gag on a shot-by-shot and even frame-by-frame basis.
In his piece on The Errand Boy (1961), Grosoli has highlighted a sequence in the film that is totemic of Lewis’ propensity for eliminating the moment of the joke from a gag-sequence, thus confronting the audience with its own expectations for visual humour.12 Morty (Lewis) is walking along the edge of the pool when he sees a scuba diver plunge into the water. As a stage-hand blithely paints a studio backdrop behind him, Morty leans over to get a better view, teetering on a plank extended out over the water. In the next shot, we see him immersed in the pool, swimming around the diver: the actual moment of Morty’s fall into the pool – the moment, that is, when the audience would be expected to laugh – is eliminated, and instead we have a “discrepancy between an action and its own symbolic inscription.”
A similar phenomenon takes place nearly twenty years later in Hardly Working:. Here, a close-up of a sign for the “City Glass and Mirror Factory”, whose motto is “If it’s for drinking or looking – we’ll make it!”, is accompanied by the clamorous noise of vitreous destruction on the soundtrack. Again, having given us the premise (the Lewis character Bo Hooper has found employment at a glass factory), Lewis can rely on audience expectations and the use of sound to convey the joke, and so he avoids actually showing the central event of the gag to us. Instead, he simply cuts to the result: the factory boss – whose look of resignation betokens that he shares the viewer’s assumption of what would inevitably happen with this mix of ingredients (Jerry + glass) – simply ushers his sheepish (and now fired) employee to his car.
Deleuze, then, is right to classify Lewis as a filmmaker of the “time-image”: just as much as the work of Rossellini or Resnais, his films are marked by a breakdown in the “sensori-motor schema” and an abandonment of the standard laws of cause and effect. The philosopher – a fan, needless to say, of the comedian – concomitantly describes Lewis’ films as consisting of “pure optical and sonic situations, which are no longer extended into an action, but return to a wave. And it is this wave, this movement of the world on which the character is placed as if sent into orbit, which results in Jerry Lewis’ finest themes, in this very special oneirism or this implied dream-state.”13
Following the lead of Godard, Daney and Deleuze, the common programme of the articles in this dossier is to take Lewis’ comedy seriously. In doing so, the dossier charts the evolution of his filmmaking over the course of the two decades in which he directed films. Two articles give a broad overview of his cinema, but from very different chronological standpoints. The first reprints the article “Some Basic Characteristics of the Fool” from the April 1970 issue of the Melbourne Film Bulletin, edited by stalwart Melbourne-based Jerry Lewis devotee Alan Finney, while the second provides an updated version of Chris Fujiwara’s Great Directors profile on Lewis (having first been published in Senses of Cinema in 2003, the text was a precursor to Fujiwara’s monograph on the filmmaker), which includes new material from Fujiwara on Lewis’ later films. The dossier also includes articles dedicated to all 12 of the feature-length films Lewis directed, along with pieces on The Day the Clown Cried and Bonjour Monsieur Lewis. Some of these (James L. Neibaur on The Bellboy, Scott Bukatman on The Nutty Professor and Fujiwara on Three on a Couch ) are reprinted from existing sources, with the kind permission of the authors. Others (Grosoli on The Errand Boy, Bernard Eisenschitz on Which Way to the Front? and Jean-Michel Frodon on The Day the Clown Cried) appear in English for the first time. The majority, however, were written specifically for this dossier (Pomerance on The Ladies Man, Shaviro on The Big Mouth , Nafis Shafizadeh on The Patsy, Jeremi Szaniawski on The Family Jewels , Daniel Fairfax on One More Time, Paul Macovaz on Hardly Working, Michael Cramer on Smorgasbord and Sam Di Iorio on Bonjour Monsieur Lewis). Finally, Jennifer Sabine provides an anecdotal piece on two Jerry Lewis appearances in Australia four decades apart – in 1971 and 2011 respectively. Proof, along with the Melbourne Film Bulletin article, that a sustained cinephilic appreciation for his films outside of the bastion of Parisian film criticism has a venerable history.
My sincere thanks go to all the writers who contributed to this dossier, as well as the curatorial team at the Melbourne International Film Festival for giving Australian Jerry Lewis aficionados the chance to revisit the films he directed, at a time when the man himself has just reached the age of 90.
The retrospective program ‘Jerry Lewis: The Total Filmmaker’ screens at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival from 28 July – 14 August 2016. Find out more here.
- Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinéma/idéologie/critique”, Cahiers du cinéma 217 (October 1969), pp. 11-15, available in English as “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”, trans. Daniel Fairfax, in Jean-Louis Comolli, Cinema against Spectacle (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015), pp. 251-259, here p. 256. ↩
- Jean-Luc Godard, “Hollywood ou mourir (Hollywood or Bust)”, Cahiers du cinéma 73 (July 1957), available in English as “Hollywood or Bust”, trans. Tom Milne, in Godard on Godard, ed. Tom Milne (New York: Da Capo, 1972), pp. 57-59, here p. 59. ↩
- Serge Daney, “Non réconciliés (Smorgasbord)”, Cahiers du cinéma 347 (May 1983), pp. 20-22, here p. 22. ↩
- See “Spécial Jerry Lewis”, Cahiers du cinéma 197 (Christmas 1967), pp. 25-69. ↩
- Sylvie Pierre, private communication, April 14, 2016. ↩
- Chris Fujiwara, Jerry Lewis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009) ↩
- miff.com.au/program/streams/jerry-lewis-the-total-filmmaker ↩
- See, of course, Jerry Lewis, The Total Filmmaker (New York: Random House, 1971). ↩
- To watch this fascinating episode of The Dick Cavett Show, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAsUE1qNgMs. ↩
- Comolli/Narboni, op. cit., p. 256. ↩
- http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/lewis/ ↩
- http://sensesofcinema.com/2016/jerry-lewis/the-errand-boy/ ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 2: L’image-temps (Paris: Minuit, 1985), p. 89. ↩