On what Jerry Lewis “has been”, the literature is abundant. And it is excellent at that: see, above all, Chris Fujiwara’s unsurpassable monography.1 Little, one feels, still remains to be said.
There remains, however, some room for manoeuvre on the matter of what Jerry Lewis “will have been”, or rather on what only a retrospective look, from today’s standpoint, could reveal of a directorial corpus that – apart from some rare later additions and a vast number of acting roles that are truly impossible to delimit – ignited, consumed and overturned the very meaning of the 1960s. (How was it put in Hardly Working? The important thing is not to build a good future, but a good past).
Much of this certainly has to do with the difficulty involved in understanding the pars construens of Lewis. There is the Lewis who was irremediably and stubbornly fascinated with grand spectacle (Hollywood, “the real one”), and the Lewis who – in the sacrosanct eyes of those who fought to make Lewis not only “a” herald, but “the” herald of modern cinema in a directly Brechtian sense (such as Adriano Aprà2) – could not but be seen and recognised as a decisive figure. There is the Lewis of Hardly Working, who removed the mask only to discover that there is no face, but only another mask. And there is the Lewis of The Errand Boy, a film evidently conceived as the disaggregation/explosion of the Hollywood machine, which, at a key moment (just before the “climax”), includes a dialogue between a stuffed ostrich with a Southern accent (Magnolia) and an inept billposter (Morty, Lewis himself), a character who, instead of spying for the studio bosses reeling from an economic crisis (but not a box office crisis!), incessantly taxes their brain cells. The tone becomes serious, some would even say “syrupy”. We are presented with one of those introspective, sentimental parentheses, on account of which many have naïvely censured Lewis, who, by contrast, has openly claimed them as something that was 100% his own. More pointedly, we have a sincere openness to magic (hence to the fascination of the early Hollywood era), which is merely the complementary flip-side of escapism, a word that excellently defines a cinema which, as is the case with Lewis, is conceived as an unending succession of vanishing acts.
In sum, The Errand Boy elucidates a key aspect of Lewis’ cinema: it is more than a mere deconstruction of the imaginary. In the opening minutes of the film this intent is already enunciated, and thereby incinerated, by the stentorian voice of the establishment, who points out the studios from the vantage of a helicopter. Lewis willingly leaves deconstruction to the system of the spectacle, which will, in fact, over the course of a few decades, incorporate the laying bare of the spectacle into an integral part of the spectacle itself (“making of” DVD bonuses are only the tip of the iceberg as far as this phenomenon is concerned). It is the spectacular “machine” that lays bare its own mechanisms, in order, precisely, to reinforce them. By dint of being deconstructed, illusion finds itself here sacrificed to postmodernity’s voracious beasts. To this false materialism (which is indeed more clearly visible today than it was at the time), Lewis opposes another, fundamentally different, materialism, an authentic materialism, and not merely a materialism that is authentically modern. It is not simply a matter of (feigning to) neglect the plot in order to maintain the film through an ensemble of self-sufficient gags and digressions. His materialism involves boldly getting up close to the machine’s cogs, in order to confront himself with the fact that each one of them, considered by itself and placed under the lens of a microscope, does not “hold together”, but crumbles into dust. This is the true formula of materialism: minimum units do not exist. That which is thought to be the singular building block of matter that constitutes the universe is revealed to merely be so many big bangs, over the course of which the universe never comes to an end but is continually reborn – this, incidentally, lies at the root of the bond between Lewis and Godard. Every element is prey to the difference that divides it from itself. And Lewis knows this perfectly well: “There is a classical tradition of speechmaking which has a direct relationship with comedy. It is known as the rhetoric structure. Tell the audience you are going to do something; do it; and then let them know it is done. The rule applies to comedy.”3 Lewis is perfectly aware that the thread that links rhetoric and the comic is the discrepancy between an action and its own symbolic inscription. His gags (including the gags in The Errand Boy, the sublime mechanics of which – akin to the gems of the silent era – has already been amply discussed in the critical literature on Lewis) are akin to the discrepancy that is laboriously rediscovered between each frame of celluloid. Lewis, for instance, shows Morty beside a swimming pool, intrigued by a scuba diver he sees in the water, before cutting to an underwater shot of the scuba-diver, with Morty swimming behind him, thereby eliding the moment that Morty falls into the pool.
And if “thinking comedy in visual terms, as opposed to verbal terms, opens the door to incongruence and hence laughter,”4, this does not negate the fact that there is a profound link between Lewis, the master of images, and, at the unreachable mountain-top of the Scriptures, that other Jew who has disappeared behind his own literature, the one who more than anybody, in the view of Maurice Blanchot (to whose definition of literature, it so happens, Fujiwara turns at the end of his peerless dissection of the Lewis universe), incarnates literature as the ne plus ultra of a negativity that ingests and then expunges the biographical: Kafka. Kafka is, like Lewis, a figure who conceives of the fabric of his own work as an infinite line of flight.[5 See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986 )], and an absolute master of the comic, in whose work the discrepancy between action and its own inscription is expanded up to a moment of eruption, whereupon only inscription exists within it, an inscription that swallows up any other object or action whatsoever. Kafka also wrote an incomplete novel on a hotel bellboy (see The Bellboy, 1960) who, after having found himself in the house of Brunelda – that is, in the clutches of the feminine superego, escaping from her with his life intact (see The Ladies Man, 1961) – is intercepted and saved by the Oklahoma Theatre, which we can not help but see as Hollywood. The same Hollywood whose miraculous progeny Lewis, in the conclusion to The Errand Boy (1962), declares himself to be.
It is this concluding “miracle” (one which does not lack counterparts in Lewis’ various autobiographies, such as finding success literally overnight when still a young boy) that proves to be particularly useful with respect to our errand boy. The head of Paramutual Studios, along with a few colleagues, views the rushes in which Morty unwittingly sabotages a small party on the edges of the set, flooding it with champagne. The bosses decide, on the basis of Morty’s inadvertent accident, that he has what it takes to be a star. It is only in the middle of the scene, thanks to a backwards zoom, that it is revealed that the disasters wreaked by Morty are being projected onto the screen in a studio theatrette. Fujiwara rightly relates this scene to the opening sequence,5 in which a handful of stereotypical Hollywood scenes (an Indian ambush, a passionate kiss…) are shown twice, with the second time unveiling the backstage special effects which, beyond the visual range of the camera, guarantee that the scene functions properly (stuntmen, boulders made out of cardboard, etc.). Fujiwara, however, does not adequately emphasise the divergence between these two sequences, using the reverse logic. These repeated/unveiled Hollywood sequences are in an implicit discontinuity (the special effects) which, designed to be passed off as transparent, are subsequently demystified. Morty’s accident in the later scene is, by contrast, an explicit discontinuity that is idealised (in the moment in which he becomes a star). To be transparent is really a form of opacity (the opacity of his own ineptitude). The first example, the deconstruction of the imaginary, is precisely what does not interest Lewis, who willingly leaves it to the system of the spectacle. The second, however, absolutely does interest him. The spectacle is not the unmasking of illusion so as to claw back the truth: it is an irreducible indeterminacy, and this is why it is an inexhaustible fount of wonders.
It is true that The Errand Boy ends with a recapitulation of the apparatus of illusion that is also its liquidation: Morty, dressed like a movie-star – in practice, like Jerry Lewis himself – is shown greeting, from his car, all the characters encountered earlier in the film, who are piled up like so much fictional debris, just like the fictional debris of The Big Mouth, which, in the last scene of the film, returns to the void from which it came. But the hastily gathered nature of this debris does not cancel out its charm. On the contrary. This is patently visible from and in its discontinuous nature (in the final moments of the film, Morty, now a star, meets his former self, the billposter), the same discontinuous nature that each gag laboriously seeks out and discovers, the fascinating (materialist) indeterminacy that only the absolute precision of the mise en scène can entice and conquer. Such a dialectic might recall Walter Benjamin’s aura (exceedingly well-known today, albeit frequently misunderstood), but this is not altogether certain. Morty himself confesses to Magnolia that Hollywood, in its present guise, is still more distant than it was when he dreamed about it from far-off New Jersey. It is, literally, the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.
To return to Magnolia: in this optic, it is decisive (but rarely mentioned) that the dialogue scene with the puppet is not alone. It arrives a few minutes after an analogous scene in which Morty, in the same storage closet, watches the sweetly surreal dance of a dressed-up finger on a counter-top which – as everything suggests despite nothing being explicitly said – belongs to Morty, who, although he is visible on the other side of the counter, appears to have placed his arm underneath it. As such, Lewis initially tells us that this magic could be an illusion (even if he never says this explicitly). Then, soon afterwards (with Magnolia) he surprises us by saying that, no, the puppet’s strings are not being pulled by Morty after all. Unveiling the mechanism is not an explanation in the service of the truth, but a hypothesis (which is preserved as a hypothesis and never transfigured into a “fact”) in the service of magic.
This stands out all the more clearly today, now that “demystifying the mechanism” is no longer something that can debunk the system, but, on the contrary, only serves to reinforce it. It is this equilibrium between credulity and incredulity that is all the more valuable today. The plot in Jerry Lewis’ films is not simply a “pretext”, as it is in Bob Hope’s parade of hackneyed wisecracks: if the narrative is diminished, narrative tension nonetheless persists. This is the case in The Errand Boy, where there is an incandescent persistence of the plot (specifically, the espionage mission with which Morty has been tasked), which is triggered by an interrogation of the Hollywood of 1962 as to its own decline/destiny. But there is something else that imposes itself as being still relevant today: namely, the idea that nothing can be deconstructed if it is not deconstructed in the first person. Anybody who seeks to disassemble the machinery must first disassemble themselves, otherwise all is in vain. And on top of being in vain, it could even become ensnared in the venomous claws of postmodern disenchantment. Although Lewis transcends the self-deconstruction of the system announced in the opening minutes of The Errand Boy, his work is destined to become increasingly exaggerated in the ensuing decades (which, conceding to the spectators that they “know”, only reinforces and cements their individuation as spectators), precisely because he introduces his own self-deconstruction. This is the self-deconstruction of a star who reveals, in its entirety, the “unavowable” link between success and incompletion, the dodecaphonic clash within oneself of innumerably diverse “selves”. And this time, in a rather unique case for Lewis (but one that is, for this reason, all the more meaningful), there is no need for him to don a disguise.
Translated from the Italian by Daniel Fairfax. Reprinted, with kind permission from Marco Grosoli and Toni D’Angelo, from La Furia Umana no. 12.
The Errand Boy (Jerry Lewis, USA 1961, 92min, black & white)
Director: Jerry Lewis
Script: Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond
Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley
Sound: Charles Grenzbach and Hugo Grenzbach
Music: Walter Scharf
Editing: Stanley E. Johnson
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Morty S. Tashman), Brian Donlevy (Tom Paramutual), Howard McNear (Dexter Sneak), Dick Wesson (The A.D.), Pat Dahl (Miss Carson), Renée Taylor (Miss Giles), Rita Hayes (Singer)
Producer: Ernest D. Glucksman and Arthur P. Schnitt
The Errand Boy is screening as part of the ‘Jerry Lewis: The Total Filmmaker’ program at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival (28 July – 14 August 2016). Find out more and purchase tickets here.