Puya navigated the Los Angeles traffic like a seasoned pro, without the help of an app. Its streets, traffic lights, accidents, stalled cars, make-or-break freeway decisions, whimsical lane choices; but no horns, hardly ever any honking like in other large cities, as if the gridlock, the forced collectivity, dulled the cars into a vehicular catatonia: we’re all in this together, why fight? Oh, there are certainly incidents of road rage in LA, but honking as a way of expressing individual frustration over conditions of which nothing can be done about is virtually nonexistent.
Anna could sense Puya’s excitement as he walked through the door. There was an eagerness to his step out of proportion to an average Friday evening.
“They release the schedule today as promised?” she asked.
“Oh yeah,” he responded.
He plopped himself down on their only couch in their small Highland Park bungalow.
“What’s the first showing?”
Puya paused, pretending to be in thought. He knew the answer of course. “I think they’re going more or less in chronological order during his Paramount years. They’re starting with The Bellboy, and then over three weeks, The Errand Boy, The Ladies Man, The Patsy, The Family Jewels, a couple others… Which Way to the Front maybe… I’m not sure about that one, and they end with The Nutty Professor.”
Puya came of cinephilic age in late twentieth century America. This meant he viewed cinema, and particularly American cinema, through the lens of a specific French cinephilia. A lens which saw cinema’s first seventy-odd years – its history and canon, its theoretical and critical positionings – determined by battles waged and won in mythical post-war Parisian journals. The only time and place, it seemed, in which cinema mattered collectively to a society as much as it did to Puya personally. It was, when Puya discovered those names – Godard, Truffaut, Bazin, Chabrol, Langlois, Daney, and even an errant Iranian name, Hoveyda, beckoning his inclusion as well – and that way of cinephilia, polemics above all else, an instant attraction.
What he loved most were the anecdotes of devotion. Like when Langlois’s partner, Mary Meerson, responded to a complaint regarding two missing reels of a silent Swedish film screened at the Cinémathèque, “My dear, when you go to the Louvre you do not complain that the Venus de Milo is missing her arms.” Or that Langlois refused to have live accompaniment to silent films, claiming that the images had a music and rhythm all their own. Or that the Cahiers and Positif writers defiantly sat at opposite ends of Langlois’s Cinémathèque, like the impassioned orators of a National Assembly. Or that many of them would sit as close to the screen as possible, so as not to be too far from their beloved. Or that Serge Daney described the process of becoming a cinephile as an event akin to a spiritual awakening, a sort of rapture or religious conversion.
Puya would describe the events of May 1968, to those willing to indulge him, as a near-revolution in response to the sacking of a film programmer – a description, to be fair to Puya, not that far from the truth. A love bordering on insanity, that’s how he imagined it, that’s what he could feel when reading them, a maniacal and unreasoning cinephilia emanating from the page.
Logically then, the cinema that was most important to him was the cinema defined by those young, Parisian iconoclasts – the high art to be found in the ostensible entertainment machine that was Hollywood. Hawks, Hitchcock, Ray, Mann, and for Puya, above all, Jerry Lewis.
All the others had been accepted, anointed and canonised as saints in the church of the academy. Taught in undergraduate classrooms, dissected frame by frame in textbooks, psychoanalysed in graduate seminars, appropriated by continental theorists, levied in service of scholarly careers (the foremost ______ scholar in the world; that we can see Hawks just as easily as we can imagine Proust), became the shared language and touchstones of a global film culture, both in and out of the academy. They were dinosaurs enshrined, forever.
But not so with Lewis. A line was drawn beyond which Americans refused to be told about their own culture. Perpetually dismissed as a fetish of the French, here was something Puya could champion, cinema in need of his defence.
Puya saw it as the one battle waged and lost by his spiritual brethren, and it was his chance to pick up the nearly forgotten flag off the corpse-strewn battlefield and march forward, the dead, in his imagination, rising and following, like a filmic Liberty Leading the People.
Nothing could quite get Puya going like Jerry Lewis. Dismissive comments about Hitchcock or westerns he could tolerate. Accusations of pretension around Godard or Resnais he could ignore. If the social circumstances called for silence, like a friend’s newly included girlfriend expressing her tastes for the first time, he would remain respectful. But with Lewis he reflexively leaped to the filmmaker’s defense, his ferocity often catching his opponent off-guard.
We were in the college film society together. A mixture of undergrads and grad students, we programmed Friday night campus screenings. Depending on the semester, we were about half a dozen members, and would meet Friday afternoons to discuss the following semester’s program. Although all members had an equal say, the mixing of undergrads and grad students would at times threaten the ostensibly egalitarian nature of the society, when outside social hierarchies would impose themselves. But discussions were usually cordial and joyful – ultimately we were amongst our own – and also provided a venue for championing, something that was not unique to Puya but something most of our members relished. The grad students often pushed what was currently fashionable in the academy, a member of a certain national background would champion the merits of her particular underappreciated national cinema, or often times a member just really wanted to see an otherwise impossible-to-find movie or director (my usual position).
One Friday afternoon Puya suggested Lewis’ The Errand Boy. Sheleen, a hard-core, theory-above-all-else grad student, half-rolled her eyes and made a quick dismissive sound by quickly exhaling through her nose.
“What, Sheleen?” Puya demanded. “This program is your baby, Plotless Movies. And The Errand Boy is definitely plotless, long before plotless movies was even a thing.”
“That’s not true,” she responded. She stayed calm. I always admired her ability to remain articulate during moments of tension. I remember thinking how horrible it must be for her boyfriend, who likely never won an argument. The rest of us stayed silent, waiting for this to play out.
“What do you mean?” Puya looked at her.
She neither looked at him nor averted her eyes, simultaneously addressing him and the room. “There were plotless movies long before Lewis.”
“Not in Hollywood. And what is more transgressive than a plotless movie out of a major Hollywood studio?”
She sighed. An astute lunge from Puya. “This program is not about transgression, it’s about plotlessness, its history, and how it’s used in the cinematic apparatus. How the viewer experiences plotlessness, how it can be both oppressive and liberating. There is nothing about a bumbling child which accomplishes that.”
“Okay, let’s see what we got so far.” Puya picked up the paper containing the list of movies we had so far, mostly proposed from Sheleen.
“Last Year at Marienbad, Scenes from Under Childhood, The Party, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, some stuff by Mekas, Live on the Sunset Strip, Flaming Creatures, if the university lets us show it,” Puya looked over at Alice, our university liaison, who had mentioned it would be best if we ran it by administration before screening it. Alice was of a certain age and cultural persuasion – she looked like an ex-hippie. When she first mentioned her reticence about showing Flaming Creatures without university approval, I imagined her at the original Bleecker Street Cinema screening, our little contact with film history.
“It seems to me what all these movies have in common,” he continued, “is subversion. They all subvert the viewer’s expectations on what a movie is supposed to be, and the contract between spectator and screen assumed when entering the theater. Even the Pryor movie, which may not subvert the viewer’s formal expectations – everyone knows what they’re getting into with a concert film, someone standing up on stage trying to make us laugh, the camera assuming a handful of different seats in the theater – is still subversive in Pryor’s style, his seamless mixture of bare-my-soul and America-look-at-your-shame comedy.
“And what The Errand Boy is is subversive. Its ontology.” Puya loved to use their language against them, even if incorrectly. And though I know it annoyed the hell out of Sheleen, she did a good job of not showing it. “This is a movie made for Paramount in the early sixties by one of their most popular mainstream stars and he gives them a series of barely connected gags as he walks around the Paramount lot. It subverts the studio’s expectations – and all their millions behind it – and it subverts not only what the audience expects a Jerry Lewis movie to be, but a Hollywood movie to be.”
Sheleen: “But what it doesn’t have in common with the rest is that it’s not a movie made for adults. Bugs Bunny may subvert the notion of a cartoon when he addresses the child viewer mid-Looney Tune, but it’s still for children. Daffy Duck may subvert the child-animated character contract – we accept that I, your beloved cartoon character, am real, though inherent to my being is that I am drawn – when he erases himself right off the screen. But Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, and all the rest of them are still created for children and consumed by children, and who otherwise wouldn’t exist if there were no children. And that is essentially what Lewis is – kids’ movies for grown-ups.”
“But that is exactly my point. It’s still cinema ‘for grown-ups.’ His character may be a child, may in fact be annoying too, grating and repulsive. To you, he may be maddening and irritative the way fingers dragged on a chalkboard can be, or the unending, piercing cries of an infant, but it’s still cinema. And its plotless and transgressive and subversive and any other definition by which you want to define these movies.”
Sheleen rolled her eyes, annoyed. But ultimately she knew she was defeated. Puya had cornered her into something she knew she couldn’t defend – taste. Formal, historical, theoretical, cultural, political – these were all modes of defending and denigrating which were acceptable to her. But to simply dismiss or champion because of taste was anathema to her, a scholar. Taste, like resorting to “beauty” as a way of explaining the virtues of a filmic image, was refuge for the naïve fan, or even worse, the philistine. And whether Puya had successfully defended Lewis or not, she could sense she was being made to appear dismissive by virtue of taste – a cultural gatekeeper!
“Okay,” Sheleen said. “Let’s do it. What does everyone else think?”
“Sounds good to me,” I responded. The others, Natalie and Tim, nodded their heads with Yeahs of their own.
“Why don’t we start the series with it?” Puya said. “Kind of headline with it. I’ll write the blurb for it, and try to promote it around campus a little.”
This got Alice’s attention. Part of being our university liaison included safeguarding the financial solvency of the society. We lost money every semester. We never made enough in ticket sales to even cover the cost of renting the prints. The university provided us with a student projectionist, the use of an auditorium, and covered our losses. Lately Alice had been hinting that administration was growing tired of their financial support. So Alice was always encouraged when members suggested going out of their way to promote a film or a series, or when members suggested that a particular film would draw large audiences. The prior year we had shown Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, just one or two years after it had won the Palme d’Or. Puya and I had fliers written in Farsi, and had posted it on announcement boards in nearby Persian grocery stores. This simple act had drawn nearly 400 people to the first screening, and ever since then Alice would casually and not-so-innocently suggest, “Why don’t we show another Iranian movie?” And now that Puya had risen in spirited defense, and was backing that passion with promotion, she was all for showing Jerry Lewis. Puya had pressed his hand wisely, and the spirit of the room was such that Sheleen couldn’t refuse. Very quickly, her baby had turned from a study of plotlessness to Jerry Lewis and some other movies.
The next few weeks Puya did exactly as he promised. He created the flier for the following semester’s program, with The Errand Boy as the headliner. The flier had a large still of Lewis sitting at a palatial desk, holding a cigar, impersonating the studio boss in that famous dialogueless but far from silent scene. Under it, to the right, was the list of movies and the schedule. On the left, was the capsule Puya had written. It read:
Forget everything you know a movie to be. Forget everything you think Jerry Lewis is. Or better yet, think of these things and then come to the theater to be blown away. Jerry, bumbling, simple, and ineffectual – the Jerry Lewis you think you know – is hired by a Hollywood studio, “Paramutual Pictures”, to roam the studio lot and to discover areas of financial waste. This is it. This is the extent of the story. And what pursues is a series of self-reflexive, formally playful gags that ultimately play on the notion of what Jerry Lewis – the character and person – is supposed to be, and by extension what being human is supposed to be. This was your beloved post-modernism long before such things came to the movies. If you slogged through Infinite Jest last year and loved it, come fall in love with the screen. Self-aware, formally playful, but never cynical, he can swim in the muck with you, and lead you out of it.
He posted the flier all over campus, in the Humanities buildings, the Sciences, the student center, computer labs. Everywhere there were announcement boards, this lime green flier was pinned high on the board – Jerry Lewis’s face contorting like the Looney Tunes character Sheleen had accused him of being, mouth agape silently screaming, hands up and palms outward as if holding his arms up in some absurd, slap-stick benediction over the students gazing up at him. It became a campus fixture. The last few weeks, while everyone was studying for finals, it became a sort of campus mascot. Students would look up at him, after coming out of a long stretch of studying in the library, and say, “What do you think, Jerry? We gonna rock this final?” and move on, to the mirth of the students close enough to hear. Students, arguing over some academic or social matter – does anyone actually understand quantum mechanics, or who’s the greatest shooter in NBA history – would stop mid-argument, point up to the flier and say, “Well, what does Jerry think?” A friend even told me they saw someone, while denying accusations of infidelity from his girlfriend, put his hand up to the flier and plead, “I swear on Jerry I didn’t do it.” He became one big university-wide inside joke, a sort of anti-inside joke, since everyone was invited to be in on it. He crossed all the normal boundaries of the school: science vs. humanities major, white vs. ethnic, undergrad vs. grad. He was accepted and represented by all. Universal. Human.
The following semester began and the Jerry Lewis joke broke its spell on campus. After the semester break, making a Jerry Lewis joke became sort of passé. But the tattered flier remained on the announcement boards. Puya loved it all. He had made Lewis, even if it was in irony, a campus fixture, on the lips of all the students. In his way, he had fought his battle, done his part for the cause. And on the opening night of the series we nearly reached the Taste of Cherry audience, much to Alice’s approval. I really hoped the screening went well, for Puya’s sake. That the projectionist wouldn’t make any horrible mistakes between reels, that not many people would leave mid-movie, and most of all that the audience treated the screen with reverence – that the collective spirit in the theater was that of an audience watching a work of art. A howl or jeer at the screen, a derision or a heckle, and I was afraid of what would happen.
The print was immaculate. Just the occasional line or scratch to remind you that it was indeed celluloid, and celluloid of a previous era, preserved for posterity. The movie began and things started out well. The audience responded to the gags. Their laughter, untinged with irony or cynicism, rose quickly off the seats and swirled above our heads, lingering between scenes. The flier had primed them to laugh. It had invited them to be in on the joke. Not to feel superior to the screen by virtue of its cheesiness or its childish idiocy – that superiority which defines the viewers’ relationship with the so-bad-it’s-good genre of movies, which one feels for example in the theater of an Ed Wood movie – but to feel superior by virtue of your recognition of its artistic merit. Laughter was an expression of self-regard. That you were smart. That you recognised all the formal inventiveness and subversiveness Puya’s flier alluded to, in a work which was otherwise difficult to take seriously. The audience’s pleasure was still primarily derived from its sense of superiority, but rather than the veiled disdain of an audience watching a sixties low-budget science fiction movie, it was one of shared regard. Look how smart I am that I recognise how smart you are, Jerry.
This can take an audience only so far, and slowly the laughter died down. Nobody left, but the mood turned from anticipatory excitement to festive to reverent to, as the movie entered its final third, tolerant.
Towards the end of the movie, Lewis stumbles into an empty prop room and has a conversation with a puppet, a bird from the deep south, as she herself says in an exaggerated southern twang. Lewis – both the character and the person – confides his disillusionment with Hollywood, as a long-eyelashed bird puppet bats her eyes in maudlin empathy. Even for the most sincere viewer the scene is difficult to take. For most, it feels mawkish, goopy, and ridiculously sentimental. But it also has a tenderness, a humanity which is buttressed by all the formal inventiveness and vulgar cartoonishness that surrounds it. The camera is now static. There are no gags, or subverting of expectations. Lewis is still, his body no longer a disarticulated marionette prancing about the screen. His face is expressive, but no longer in grotesque exaggeration, like some malleable theater mask. It’s a pause in the movie, and for a brief moment Lewis the person is addressing not only his audience but Lewis the persona. The scene is emblematic of the great dialectic that defines Lewis’s art – authenticity vs. artifice, sincerity vs. spectacle, Lewis the person vs. Lewis the persona; and the great struggle between the two in Lewis and his art.
I looked around, wondering how this would go over. Most stared blankly, tolerant. Neither moved nor cynical, they just waited for the scene to pass. The scene is a moment of sincerity, when they were no longer invited to feel smart about themselves, but to accept the humanity which is ultimately the impulse behind all art and its consumption. And they swallowed their medicine, preferring to ignore the fact that all the formal aspects of Lewis’ work are actually in service of something – a great humanity. I shouldn’t be so harsh. We all have our reasons we are in the theatre, and I’m sure mine have not always been the most genuine or noble. They didn’t laugh dismissively or look away. What 20-year old can face such sincerity, strip herself of all irony and allow herself to be moved? That comes later, after the world has kicked you around a bit. And perhaps the blankness of their faces was not one of tolerance, but a willful obfuscation of something stirring within them. Who knows?
But Puya looked different. His head was tilted back and his chin jutted outwards, as if he were looking up in awe even though he was level with the screen. He had a look of beatitude, of religious rapture. I had never seen that look on his face. Like a Joan of Arc Falconetti close-up, his face had that same other-worldliness, like he was looking across the divide and anticipating the death that awaits us all. It was frightening. And as the scene neared its conclusion something happened which I have never seen since nor imagine ever seeing again. A lone tear slowly fell down his left eye, leaving a defiant rivulet down his stubbled face, dying at his jaw with nothing left to drip to the floor. He left it there, not wiping it or acknowledging it. The room was dark, obviously; and everyone looked forward, so no one saw this but me. When the movie ended, there was no redness in his eyes nor any stain left behind as evidence of its existence. As the ephemerality of the experience goes, so goes the evidence of its reality. We walked out and met our friends at a party.
Over the years, Puya would defend Lewis when his name would come up. Whether with cinephiles or casual movie-goers, it didn’t matter. Most times he would be met with dismissive eye-rolling, but he relished in it nonetheless. And now, nearly twenty years after Jerry Lewis took over our college campus for one brief semester, when not only the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but other esteemed cultural institutions both abroad and in America – the Pompidou Center, the MoMA – were having celebrations and retrospectives of his work on the occasion of his 90th birthday, Puya felt vindicated. It was an occasion to see his work on celebrated screens, but also to don a big I-told-you-so smile. He felt he deserved to share in the celebrations, as he had participated in the battles. The audience was coming of age, and he had done his small part in helping them get there.
A week before the retrospective was to begin, Puya sat on his couch waiting for Anna to come home from work. His feet were propped up on the coffee table, laptop on his lap. He surfed the internet reading about Lewis in anticipation, visiting his favorite writers new and old—Rosenbaum, Kehr, Daney, yellow Cahiers. He clicked on a link he stumbled upon, and found himself in a nearly hour-long interview had with Lewis just a few months prior. He half-listened while responding to emails and running other digital errands. His stomach growled and he wondered when Anna was coming home.
Forty-five minutes into the interview, Lewis was asked what he thinks about the rise of ISIS, catching Puya’s attention. What a strange think to ask Jerry Lewis, Puya thought, as he clicked the browser tab switching his screen back to the interview. He clicked to full-screen, watching Lewis give an authoritative, self-assured response that all the NATO allies should collectively pool their military might to defeat them. “And what do you think about the refugees, allowing –
“Refugees should stay where the hell they are!” Lewis responded truculently.
“They say there is a humanitarian crisis. They’re fleeing. They have to come to America and –”
“Hey! No one has worked harder for the human condition than I have,” Lewis interrupted, yelling back, angry. “But they’re not part of the human condition if eleven guys in that group of ten thousand are ISIS. How can I take the chance? I don’t want to lose another Frenchman or another Englishman. That bothers me.”
Puya stared at the screen in a daze. He knew of Lewis’ right-wing politics of course. He knew his love of Ronald Regan, and his support of other Republican politicians and candidates. This hadn’t bothered him much before. He sort of accepted it as a difference of opinion that can occur in people who otherwise can view the world and human beings in much the same way, a difference of opinion regarding how society should work on the individualistic-collectivistic spectrum. He didn’t see it as a moral failing on Lewis’ part or his. But suddenly and irrevocably, a huge chasm had entered Puya, and how he saw Lewis and his screen. His quick, combative dismissiveness of profound, wide-scale human suffering swirled within Puya as the interview continued, the words no longer registering in his ears. Against this, those images we had all seen in those months battled for reconciliation – a grieving father carrying the dangling limbed body of his dead son out of the sea; a stunned, soot-covered boy sitting alone, his eyes empty and distant; mothers screaming over the dead bodies of their children; camps of people lined up at border crossings, their fingers slipping through the gaps of wired walls, the only part of them allowed to cross. How could it possibly be?
He sat in the daze of thought one sits in when stunned, thinking everything and nothing at the same time, when he heard the interviewer ask, “What do you think of Donald Trump?”
“I think he’s great,” Lewis calmly said.
Puya slammed the laptop shut, before he could hear anymore or an explanation for his admiration. How could it possibly be?
But then he reheard the words in his heads. The lives of ten thousand Syrians weren’t worth the life of one European. They’re not part of the human condition, he had said. Puya realized there was only one real difference between the images of Syrian suffering, of Syrian humanity, both he and Lewis had seen, and the humanity of Lewis’ screen. He realized that what he, Puya, meant by human might not be what Lewis meant by human, which was… white.
Puya of course knew that Lewis’ screen was nearly exclusively white, but he had never used that fact to question the universality of his humanity. It was a function of his time and place. Lewis was a white man, which meant his immediate world was mostly white, so of course that would translate to the screen. Puya never took this to mean that the screen’s humanity actually had limits, or that one’s humanity should be extended with partiality. The fact that he never saw someone like him or heard a name like his on the screen never bothered him. Nor was it ever the cause of some unbridgeable gap between him and the screen, because all on the screen were like him by virtue of their shared humanity, or so he had assumed. It was something he had never really given much thought to – though everyone on the screen was white, that world still seemed to exist aracially, like some tacit belief of unknown provenance that whiteness was the original condition of human existence and therefore included all. Puya realised that the growing and horrifying terror within him was not just that Jerry Lewis’ politics veered dangerously to the right, but that the humanity on his screen did not actually include him.
And then his panic grew from an even more terrifying thought. The names and their images he so sacredly held flashed through him. Chaplin, Tati, Vigo, Clair. The images came in quick succession. He thought of the Tramp and his now-sighted beloved flower girl mutually seeing one another for the first time, their recognising gazes redeeming their shared suffering. He thought of Chaplin’s barber at the microphone, all the world watching, pleading for men to recognise their shared humanity. He thought of monsieur Hulot. He thought of PlayTime; of the rigid, unfeeling, colourless, straight lines of the offices and homes of Tativille, and of the final roundabout images of curves and colors which show us how to exist in that space – human beings reclaiming their world. He thought of Vigo’s camera comforting Michel Simon that all will be well, giving him a lonely Parisian bench to rest on, and a few moments alone on the screen, reassuring him we all recognise that he too is human and deserving of our most noble sides. The filmic poets of humanity. He had never questioned them. On their screens were their immediate surroundings, which was a function of their time and place. It didn’t mean their humanity didn’t include him. Did it? My God! Did it?
His mind went to the page. Agee, Orwell, Miller, Nabakov. He thought of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee; of Rufus Follet gripping the hand of his ill-fated father, walking by moonlight to the picture show. He thought of Walker Evans and his photographs of Alabama sharecroppers, their faces entreating recognition. He thought of George Orwell and Catalonian freedom fighters dying in the squalid trenches of an unwinnable war, and their talk of justice and equality and the struggle of man’s birthright to a decent life, to the indispensable minimum without which a human life worth living can not be lived at all. He thought of The Road to Wigan Pier and of the wretched slum girl whose desolate and hopeless visage momentarily glimpsed by Orwell on a passing train convinces him she knows the injustice inflicted upon her, for he sees in her face not the ignorant suffering of an animal, but an understanding that she knows as well as he does how dreadful a destiny it is to be kneeling in the bitter cold searching for food up a fetid drain pipe. He thought of Henry Miller fleeing from New York to Paris and then to Big Sur, renouncing the pains and compromises of modern living while writing in the isolation of his majestic sequoias. He thought of the suffering of Humbert Humbert and of his inevitable fate and of the only immortality allowed to him with his beloved – the refuge of art. All these images nearly simultaneously bore through him, in quick succession. Did any of them include him? Did any of it include him? This great history of modernity which he had unquestionably assumed was his history. Was that history not his? Or did he not own it, but at best was merely an invited guest allowed to admire it. Or at worst an uninvited guest, the wired-walls of culture allowing only his fingers to slip a few inches through them, an unwanted refugee peering through the gaps.
A little while later Jerry Lewis passed away. Texts went back and forth between our circle of friends. RIP Jerry Lewis, links to some of his iconic scenes, things like that. Puya remained silent. Trying to invite a response, I sent him a personal text, “Goodbye to one of the greats.” It took some time until those three dots popped up. He wrote, “Goodbye to Professor Kelp AND to Buddy Love.”
But deep in his heart he knew it wasn’t so simple. That it wasn’t just the Lewisian moral dialectic struggling with itself, but that he had to consider the possibility he was never part of the struggle to begin with.