WEIRDLAND: Happy Anniversary, Jerry Lewis!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Happy Anniversary, Jerry Lewis!

Jerry Lewis (The Joke Explained) video. Happy Anniversary!

Don’t try to sound wise or informed about Jerry Lewis, don’t try to shed light. He rejects being understood, quite properly, and his impulses live in darkness—a fact Jerry’s every twitch elucidated. The countless commentators who worked through the decades to label Jerry, judge him, pass sentence, never sat with him at the table, yet eagerly framed him in personal, not professional, terms. It is interesting that Jerry, an unwavering source of brilliance, was somehow not a source of illumination. Illumination was neither his method nor his path, although he was a blinding sun. The confession speech at the end of The Nutty Professor, where he breaks up during “That Old Black Magic,” then stands on the stage and tells the story of his life: it is pure sunshine, if also, simultaneously, degradation. One positively needed him to keep on, to be an ultimate survivor, a defier of time who would never lose his path in the desert of the real (Zizek). To claim that at the end he was no longer young is an immaterial lie, because he was young in a way that hurt us to consider: embarrassingly young, insouciantly young, proudly young, critically young, a person with young sensitivities, to whom rudeness was an attack. 

Jerry was young against the tide. He had succeeded in retaining what so many of us are pleased to surrender. It was charming and affronting in Visit to a Small Planet that the alien he played was all of, and nothing but Jerry Lewis, and that, coming to earth for a short while (he liked to say, “I will not come this way again”) he did not offer the creepy sagacity of Robert Wise’s Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still but gave instead unfamiliarity, wonder, awkwardness. Magic, which is not to imply that he acted without limit or responsibility, that he was always, somewhere underneath, “The Kid” audiences around the world came to know so well. Forget mnemonics, forget sensibility, forget pointing to something. Just use your mouth, and then recall how Jerry used his mouth, chewing and tasting language and soundfulness. It is possible to mean “saying” without meaning “that which one says.” Children do this all the time. And so do drunkards. And people suffering from certain neurological disorders. And comedians. Memories change in the winds, but their status as memories does not. They persist as iconic images. Iconic Jerry Lewis has permanence. Or the helpless, profitless attempts at well-behaved articulation, the wholly civil Jerry, as when Julius Kelp needs to explain something to his Dean (Del Moore), with the tongue emerging from the teeth. Meaning only goodness, trying very hard. But unable to meet the vicious demands of modernity, the  heartless, incompassionate orders from above, and because of a nature over which he has no authority. 

We have all been there, initiates to a much cultivated ceremony that we do not grasp, whose features are all mysteries, and surrounded by a coterie of uninterested insiders who have forgotten their own initiations and treat us like dirt. We have all been there, and have forgotten. When he invokes the memory, we resist. We say, with our lips turned down, “Such a clutz!” Indeed, clutzes we are all, but have forgotten, thinking now, in our elegance, that because we are socialized, because we survived the torture that Jerry never escapes, we were always naturally this way, always cool, and it is only with him that there is something very wrong. I love the delicate way he sings Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s “By Myself” in The Delicate Delinquent, because, as need hardly be said, in the late 1950s so many people took delinquency as a serious problem they were incapable of conceiving how a delinquent could be delicate. Hollywood or Bust, his previous film, had been his final collaboration with Dean Martin. Dean was a crooner, like Mel Torme, like Sinatra, like Tony Bennett. Jerry used a harshly tuned whine, like an animal in pain. Jerry was always in sympathy with the “animal” in pain. The question with Dean and Jerry was never who could sing better but which voice we preferred to hear. I was supposed to prefer Dean, but I preferred Jerry.

Life happens. Erosion happens. Jerry lived his life in his art, he gave his life in his art. Perhaps every Jerry fan has his own Jerry but I have surely never met a Jerry fan whose own Jerry was a Jerry I recognize.  I learned to love the Jerry who was in love with Anna Maria Alberghetti in Cinderfella. The Jerry running up and down the stairs to carry a telephone message to Dean in Artists and Models. The Jerry sternly lecturing Robert De Niro in King of Comedy. My own Jerry—the single Jerry I find both impossible and wondrous—is the Morty Tashman who conducts an invisible jazz band in the “board room” sequence of The Errand Boy. It is mime, it is conducting, it is cigar-lighting and puffing to the beat, it is irony, it is sarcasm, it is desperation, it is supreme confidence, it is music. Oh, but Jerry was music. Jerry is music. The Jerry who was music has gone, but the music remains. Source:

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