March 14, 2018


A series of posts paying homage to Jerry Lewis, his world and the world through him.

Jerry Lewis, Which Way to the Front? (1970)
By Serge Daney

1. There's something in Which Way to the Front? that was already at work in Lewis’s previous films and that finally realizes itself here, hence this particularly strident and not very enjoyable movie where none of the previous tenderness remains. Clearly, Joseph Levitch is turning a corner, and today he's closer than ever to the impossible dream (to be one, to gather oneself up and/or to choose oneself, never to split again). He hasn’t chosen once and for all to be the definite all too human victim, which films like The Nutty Professor or The Ladies' Man ultimately valorized, instead he prefers—and this choice should surprise no one—to be the strong man, the self-made man, Jerry Lewis the producer. The era of this splitting, the mechanisms of which were so easy and exhilarating to play with and to dismantle, is definitely fading away. The desert is growing. And while it’s true that Lewis still treats us (and himself) to a few funny faces , it’s not so much to reassure his audience since—and this has not been noticed enough—these cries, faces, and gurglings (borborygmes) occur only twice in the film: at the beginning, and as a response to the word Rejected.

2. Rejected by what? By a system (the army) which has no need for prestigious  names, but for bodies, cannon fodder (chair à pâté) to make war. This is the decisive novelty of Which Way to the Front? in the lewisian problem; the Lewis of this latest movie is reduced to a word, a brand , a Name. As if ‘to accept oneself’, a known lewisian theme, meant: to renounce one’s body and be only one’s name, what one’s name promises, if it promises anything. And ‘Byers’ stands for ’Buyers’ (a plural which indicates that the splitting, although no longer visible, still survives somewhere; the waxen and tragic mask of Lewis in the first shots are there to prove it). Besides, Byers is a third of the Name and—insignificant himself as a body—he merely inherits from this Name a fortune so colossal that he cannot manage it (and squanders it). In his previous films, Lewis in the end has us (women, powerful people, the public) see him as a Body, a subject, an interiority, an intimacy, etc.. Here, there’s nothing like that: he only learns to behave according to the rules of a game which are no longer his. Since, strictly speaking, he no longer has a body (this body being ‘played’ by the trio Byers III = the three ‘Byers’ = Hackle, Bland, Love), he isn’t going to repeat his mistake (of reporting to the army medical examination, to offer his body and thus lose all possibility of language), and since he is only his Name, he is going to act out the meaning of that Name: a buyer, he is going to buy.

3. From then on, the fiction progresses through a rather strong logic. (Let’s mention, without spending too much time on it, that the analogy Lewis/film-making and Byers/war-making functions throughout the movie. The only elements of war selected and shown are the ones that evoke the making of a film: making garments, choice and purchase of props, learning one’s role, rehearsals, etc., without even mentioning Byers’s use of documentary films which he projects on board his yacht.) A fiction rather unbelievable, implausible, but an incredibility which is a new style for Lewis: no longer the meticulous and ‘realist’ arrangement of a situation which slowly turns to madness with the irruption of Lewis-the actor, but rather an implausibility (or discontinuity, we should say) equally distributed among all the elements of the fiction (for example, the very presence of a Black man in a German uniform is not an issue). Not only does Lewis seem unconcerned with the articulations of his story (no longer prevented, but bypassed, avoided, ignored), but it’s the very principle of diegesis that he seems to leave to chance, the question: how (and by what right) does one move from one thing to another? He asked himself this question with force in all his previous films because the question was then but a particular case of another passage, the passage from one instance to an other within a split personality (hence the bravura moments like the seen transformation of Love back to Kelp at the end of The Nutty Professor). But this splitting is no longer the explicit subject of Which Way to the Front?, nor the motor of its fiction.

4. Why such an apparent loosening? Because Lewis-Byers has taken his role seriously. What is wanted of him? Only what he can give: his Name, and/thus the Money that his Name promises, the possibility to exchange, infinite for him (hence shots of foreign currencies and women loaded aboard his yacht). The story no longer progresses linearly in a homogeneous space, but only through one of these generic equivalents: language, money.  No Lewis film has played so much with language, words and word play; no Lewis film has so openly talked about money and the power it confers (we should spend more time looking at all the dimensions of ‘Jewishness’ at last affirmed in the movie in two opposite senses: Byers’s physical appearance/Name of the decorated German solider: Levitch). No film has gone to such lengths to point out their complicity: Speech is gold.

5. It is thus thanks to the transformative power of words that Lewis-Byers clears himself a path to and through the Front. It is (as a master of language, archives at hand) by both naming and paying that he can secure collaborators (the Japanese who also appeared in Blue Gardenia, then Love, Hackle and Bland to whom he gives a check after calling their name). It is indeed by speaking the same language that General Buck (his sentences are merely repeated back to him) is duped (Buck = Dollar). In the kingdom of words, no resistance is possible or even thinkable, no instruction or password will hold up. But get the Name wrong and the crude reality of war irrupts (Anzio rather than Naples). And there’s no escaping this reality, that of the Body, this body that Lewis seems to have definitely lost and against which the film is targeted (and to which it is dedicated). Kesserling is defeated precisely because he’s only a body (hence the difficulty for Byers-Kesserling to face his role: whisky and beer before the military council, the blitz of a woman in heat). Hitler is defeated, at the end of a magnificent scene, because again he’s only a mere Body, hence the dance, the reference to Eva, to cooking, the conspicuous masochism, etc.. If  Byers–Kesserling–Lewis–Levitch can mime these mad bodies (in an unbearably bleak manner), it is so as to destroy them (but for how long?). Now he has won, which is to say what he has lost is unspeakable [1]: his Word is gold: (Deutsch) Mark My Words.


[1] The drama of the subject in the Verb is that it faces the proof of its lack of being.

Cahiers du cinéma
March-April 1971, no. 228.
Reprinted in
La maison cinéma et le monde:
1. Le temps des Cahiers 1962-1981,
pp. 118-120, POL, Paris, 2001.
Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar, Andy Rector, Sonja Bertucci.


Which Way to the Front? (1970) will screen this Friday, March 16th, 2018 at 8pm at The Bijou Theater (California Institute of the Arts) preceded by Charlie Chaplin's short The Bond (1918) and an excerpt of Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98, Jean-Luc Godard), as part of the Kino Slang Cine-Club. For more information, see here.




March 6, 2018

March 16th, 2018 




California Institute of the Arts
24700 McBean Parkway
Valencia, CA.



(Charlie Chaplin, 1918)

an excerpt of

(Jean-Luc Godard, 1988-98)


(Jerry Lewis, 1970)


Program total running time: 2 hours 
There will be no introductions 
Doors open at 7:30pm, Film starts at 8pm
Free parking on the Calarts Campus 

Note: the change of venue to CalArts is only temporary. Kino Slang will return to its regular programming at the Echo Park Film Center in April. 


THE BOND (Charlie Chaplin, 1918. 11 minutes)

The tramp wanders onto a blackboard where the bonds of life—friendship, love, marriage, liberty—are treated, ending in war bonds.

HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA (Jean-Luc Godard, 1998. 20-minute excerpt of chapter 1A, "Toutes les histoires" ["All the Stories"]). 

This 20-minute excerpt of Godard's (Hi)stories of Cinema (more "a history through cinema" wrote Serge Daney) begins with the intonation "...WHILE THE GERMANS WERE TAKING THE FRENCH FROM BEHIND..." (referring to the Nazi invasion of France in May, 1940) and what follows like a deluge is Godard's reflection and projection of World War II and its creation and destruction by cinema ("the only history that projects"), using shards of films, popular songs, paintings, newsreels, graphics, etc.. There are hundreds of relationships per minute here of the simple, brutal sort—real black-and-white SS soldiers consuming a turquoise glade by Monet—while macroscopic ideas are expounded in microscopic montage, for example: the conclusion that montage was murdered by the talking picture, and that this victory served "the two industrial brothers, America and Germany, RCA and Tobis", particularly Hitler, imperialism, and the soft fascism of the dominance of "commentary".

WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? (Jerry Lewis, 1970. 96 minutes) 

"Which Way to the Front? with fully anachronistic sets and clothing occurs during the time of World War II. Its hero is the wealthiest man in the world, an American business tycoon. When he receives his draft notice we expect him to evade it, as he so easily can. But Jerry Lewis’ satire has the biting truth of logic: he is proud to serve, henceforth the film has the wonder of logic unfolding happily along its own course, totally uninhibited by considerations of historical fact or normal criteria of sense." (Tag Gallagher)


The Kino Slang Cine-Club is a regular series of cinema screenings programmed by Andy Rector continuing the cinematographic and historical excavations, proceedings by montage and association, silent alarms and naked dawns of this eleven-year-old blog.

February 16, 2018


The August Clown

Interview with Jerry Lewis
by Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana 

To meet Jerry Lewis—even sick, even bitter, even in the gilt of the hotel Interconti-Mental—is a very moving thing. The Jekyll side and the Hyde side camp together on his barely aged face. Here is a clown "who makes funny faces" (as if to reassure us he's actually Jerry Lewis) and a man who, at the age of 54, doesn't yet know if he'll follow the usual path of the great comedians, the path to the tragic.

CAHIERS: We haven't seen you on French screens for six or seven years. And in France there are many Jerry Lewis fans, even among film critics, us for example. I just read that you once told Benayoun that comedy is always about a man in trouble. The question is: have you had trouble?

JERRY LEWIS: Yes? Me? No. It's comedy that's a man in trouble. Are you sitting in front of the idiot you've seen on the screen now? O.K. Don't confuse the two characters. (Pause) I didn't want to make movies anymore. I'd hoped that would change. I didn't want my work in the same theaters as DEEP THROAT. And this has changed. We are in the process of putting porno films back where they should be.

CAHIERS: But your audience wasn't the same as the porno film audience...

JERRY LEWIS: My audience would've been forced to go see them. Not necessarily forced, but that's what ended up happening. I was very happy to pull back and wait. I didn't stay at home doing nothing.

CAHIERS: What makes you think it's changing now?

JERRY LEWIS: There is no reason for the trend not to reverse and stay there. In the current state of things, there's a lot of housekeeping to do. And everyone is responsible, even those who have nothing to do with it. Cinema is one of the greatest cultures that man has ever had.

CAHIERS: But when you work in television, are you unhappy? Even when you do your show?

JERRY LEWIS: I don't like television.

CAHIERS: Because one can't work properly?

JERRY LEWIS: They don't believe in perfection. Is it good? No, but it's ready now. That's how they work. I cannot work like that.

CAHIERS: But by making movies can you achieve perfection?

JERRY LEWIS: Yes. Of course, we never reach perfection. But the cinema gives you a better chance of approaching it. You make a film, it's forever. Now on television everything is on tape and we erase it. Cinema is a universal means of communication. I communicate better with people in foreign countries than with other people.

CAHIERS: We've wondered here if a clown character would work on television?

JERRY LEWIS: I don't believe so. Television... the simple view of television... Look at this box (he points out a sumptuous tv set in the room and opens it). To communicate, you need concentration. Listen, Absorb. Maintain a thought. Look at this set. It's off. Yet I see a table, a couch, a statue with bare breasts. My training was a darkened theater where there's concentration, larger than life. That (vengeful gesture towards tv), is smaller than life. Just this information, unconsciously and psychologically, makes you look at tiny characters, dwarves. Remember when you were a child and you tried to measure with your fingers the distance between two stars? It's la meme chose. For me. If I go to the cinema... WAW!, it takes me, and there is a place for me, for you and you and you. We can all communicate between each other; that's why when we're in a cinema and the movie is bad, it's really bad. For me it's, (hateful gesture), it's about news and sports. Because in sports there is nothing to communicate but who wins and who loses. If you watch a football match and a player scores a goal... (he applauds) The image of a little man is fine, it doesn't have to be larger than life. But if you want to touch people, their hearts and minds, you can't be distracted. You've all seen that in Hollywood (he holds his hand out while looking the other way): "Hello! Nice to see you..." Bullshit. Distraction. And I say let's take these people and put them in a dark empty room with just a little light on them and they will shake hands and yes, they will meet!

CAHIERS: Do you believe that producers, the people who have the money, believe as much in comedy as they did before?

JERRY LEWIS: To do a good job? No. This is the system: Is it good? No, but it's ready now. THE GIRL THAT ATE DENVER makes money! She is twenty-five feet tall and she can eat three planes at a time. Rrrrah! If it makes money, they will make the film: there should be more people like Sam Goldwyn who did THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES without knowing in advance if it was going to make money, and that's a film rich in meaning, in communication. There are some, there's George Roy Hill who wanted to do and did THE STING. What a film!

CAHIERS: We know very little about your other film THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED and we'd like you to tell us a bit more about it. What's the relation between the theme of the clown in a comic film and a serious film, or is there, I believe, a reflection on the social meaning of the clown...?

JERRY LEWIS: I don't know if there's a social meaning to the clown... It's easier for me to communicate that way, that's all. I am a clown. Even if I don't wear clown makeup all the time. We can be sure it's always the comic, the clown, the one who makes us laugh, who is the first to communicate, without even the people realizing the communication, sometimes without the clown knowing it himself. In France, I'm told that I do things that I did not know. Yet I'm the author, I know what I wrote. I remember a French journalist who wrote that since I was showing a big woman in one of my films, I had a hairy fat woman in my childhood. Baloney! Unless you want to take me by the hand and bring me to doctor Freud... The meaning of the clown in the world today? It's that the clown doesn't take himself seriously and that the world does. Much too seriously, but not enough. People don't know what matters most. They agree, too much importance. The world is vast. We don't stay on it for very long and we must stop making a garbage heap of it. One of the great recipes for that is to make people laugh. If we'd made Idi Amin laugh more, he would have had less time to hate.

CAHIERS: In the movie made about him, he laughs a lot... but like an ogre.

JERRY LEWIS: Yes. Good film. Good director. A propaganda film of course... Same thing with Hitler. Hitler walked very straight when there were cameras around; when there were no cameras, he walked like a cripple*.


JERRY LEWIS: It's a serious film. Completely.

CAHIERS: So this time you didn't want to make the people laugh but to make them think or to move them...

JERRY LEWIS: remember. They must remember. If they do not remember, they will be condemned to repeat it. One of my sons asked me about HOLOCAUST, if it really existed. Every five years we must say to our children: yes, it existed. Many people don't want to remember, because it's painful. But they do not see the danger of it happening again.

CAHIERS: What do you think of HOLOCAUST (1978, Marvin J. Chomsky)?

JERRY LEWIS: I think they made a huge effort. But I had the feeling they were scared. Of what? I don't know. At first they had great courage and then halfway, they made a compromise. It's a very difficult story to tell. And then they gave too much importance to dialogue, to words. There is much more to show. The audience does not want to hear things, it wants to see. I don't remember what I saw more than what I heard. Did they show HOLOCAUST here? Has it been successful? At least we're sure that it will be shown on television, that people will see it. But for different reasons. They will show it to make money, to make profits. There is a whole neo-nazi movement in the United States. Maybe if they see HOLOCAUST two or three times, we'll get rid of them. What scares me is not that, it's how stupid people are.

CAHIERS: Can you tell us the theme of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED?

JERRY LEWIS: The theme is simple. There were clowns who accompanied the children into the gas chambers. I researched it for three and a half years. Everywhere, from Dachau to Auschwitz. I lived with a family in Heidelberg for a week. The man had been a researcher for Hitler. Hitler wanted to know everything about everything. His biggest fear was the children. He was terrorized by the children. He could not lie to them and the children, it was them he remembered. He believed that the minds of adults could be shaped, but not those of the children. He was afraid they would grow up, that they would remember and escape him. Of the twenty million people who were killed (I never speak about six million Jews, even if, as a Jew, I am more sensitive to the fact that six million of my people were killed -- because there were many more victims, the Poles, etc.) three quarters were children, from six to eighteen years old. The story is, fundamentally, this fear of children. The children cry, make noise, something the adults don't do. So they go find this clown in a circus, an old German clown, Helmut, and they promise to save his life if he keeps the children quiet. And at the end, he goes with them into the gas chamber. It's not a funny movie. It was very difficult. It took two or three years of my life. But when I finish it, I think I can be proud of it. That said, I'll be happy to return to my idiot role, after that. You know, I play the role of a man of seventy-five; I lost forty-four pounds, I looked like that (makes his hand straight, like a stick). I asked the tailor to make my prison clothes two-times too big for me. Pouah!

CAHIERS: What happened to the film?

JERRY LEWIS: It's still in Sweden. Now all the legal problems are in order, we got rid of the gangster, a French producer who lives here; I was told he had a heart attack, not fatal unfortunately. As soon as I finish this tour and I'm back--I have to play again in Las Vegas and prepare my new film--I'll go to Stockholm and spend three months to finish it. I hope to have it finished for Cannes next year.

CAHIERS: On French television not long ago we saw A KING IN NEW YORK by Chaplin. It was surprising to see how, as he aged, Chaplin became bitter. Most comedians judge others and society more and more as they age, and are morally more and more demanding. Their films become tougher. Do you think this could apply to you?

JERRY LEWIS: If they do to me what they did to Chaplin, yes. I don't think it's as inevitable as all that. There is nothing that I should be bitter about. Chaplin had many reasons to be bitter. Sometimes this hardness is just the expression of a job less well done. The artist realizes it and tries to force things. But Chaplin, they broke his heart. They were unfair to him. Today, can anyone tell me if Chaplin was a communist? And if he had been, what does that have to do with his work? As long as his work makes people happy... There are certainly people doing good work today who may be communists, but I don't care, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone . The last time I was in Paris, I did a series of interviews and I didn't know that one of the journalists I was speaking to was a communist. So what? I was initially worried and then I wondered why: they were good people, they printed what I said, which is not always the case... Nobody comes and explains to me what a communist is. My children asked me this question, I answered: I'll tell you, I'm going to Europe to find out. But I agree with you about A KING IN NEW YORK. What a film!

CAHIERS: And the relations between the king and the child are very strange, not at all sentimental.

JERRY LEWIS: Yes, but if it had been sentimental, it would've still been reproached. I find that soft and sentimental people do not realize when they are sentimental, and that people who are sentimental want you to be, they get angry because you remind them that they are sentimental themselves. How dare you be sentimental when it is so easy for you and so difficult for me to admit! But in the time I spent with Chaplin, he never mentioned A KING IN NEW YORK. He talked about everything except this movie. Interesting... I myself have never spoken to him about it. We have rather talked about the MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR, MONSIEUR VERDOUX, LIMELIGHT... It wouldn't immediately come to mind if you asked me what films he made. It's thanks to Chaplin that we have the cinema. He made it walk. It was nice of the Academy Awards to wait until he was almost dead to award him. Another ten minutes and they would've missed him! Like with Stan Laurel. I think I'm going to write them a letter: don't do this to me**, give me now what you'll give to me when I'm eighty-four, give it to me immediately, while I'm still young enough to dance up that scene without shame.

CAHIERS: In this regard, is having been recognized by French critics a good or bad thing in the United States?

JERRY LEWIS: Wonderful. The best thing that's happened to me in my life. It gives me the opportunity to tell American critics what I think of them. The American critics think that the French are stupid because they like what I do. That's why when I want to feel better, I leave America and come here. It's not the American public; they have always been wonderful to me. But in France, I have both, the critics and the public. I have been fighting with American critics all my life, because they are liars, they do not watch films. There is a critic who wrote about a piece of film that I'd eliminated from the final cut... But he had read the pressbook (we didn't have time to correct it) and he criticized what he read inside it. And besides, he liked this scene whereas if I'd removed it, it's precisely because it was bad! The bastard. All critics are not like that, almost all of them... Without the French critics, the French public, my French friends, I might've dropped everything a long time ago. Because they end up taking from you, driving you crazy. I go to Paris as often as I can. I walk down the street and it stimulates me, it's good for my creativity. I want to come to France and work here, make a film. I think it would be good for me.

CAHIERS: One last question: what do you think of the new generation of American filmmakers?

JERRY LEWIS: I like them. But you have to watch them. Spielberg is a good filmmaker. But we should've never let him make 1941 (1979). He's not a comic filmmaker. When you have success in a field, you mustn't change. The man who's very good at repairing the phone, should he also be a brain surgeon? No. If you don't watch the young filmmakers, they'll be eaten alive by the money-men. Spielberg, Lucas, Bogdanovich, Randy Kleiser, they were all my students. They risk disappearing either because they cannot master their success, or because the money-men will steal their talent, turn it on their heads, and not know what to do with it. It's like wine, if you open it too early, it's vinegar. We can't speed up the creative process. We don't do in a year what takes twenty-five years to grow. Hemingway did not begin by writing THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. We learn from what we've done, not from what others tell us. And we are our best judges. Because we know what we did. When we're young we get our heads together, we figure out that what we do is good. But great works come from big mistakes, not great successes. I don't like it, but that's how it is. And the young American filmmakers you're talking about, they've learned their craft but haven't learned patience. We are all impatient in a way, but if you are too impatient, you won't last long. Then there are those who make mistakes, can't stand it and slink away.

Cahiers du Cinéma
May 1980, No. 311
(Translation: Andy Rector)

*This conviction of Lewis' is thoroughly demonstrated in his film ten years prior, WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? (1970), where his character, the billionaire Brendan Byers, must masquerade as the Nazi General Erich Kesselring (brother and lover to Hitler) and perfect the General's spastic limp via rehearsals before an an act of historical sabotage is set in motion (cf. the pealing off and on of roles inside fascism and resistance to it in TO BE OR NOT TO BE [Lubitsch, 1942]). In the same vein, it's worth remembering the categorization of Hitler as "a failed thespian" by both Hanns Eisler (in his conversations with Hans Bunge, 1958-1962) and by Charlie Chaplin (through his famously reported laughter during a screening of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL). -A.R.

**Jerry Lewis was given an honorary Oscar at the exact same age as Chaplin, age 83, beating his prediction by one year. -A.R.


MAYBE WE CAN GET IT WEAVED — No. 1  "Twelve Memoranda for Jerry Lewising" by Murray Pomerance  is here.  

February 6, 2018

"Kafka's writing is a cultic operation that keeps him alive." (Franco Fortini)

January 31, 2018


A series of posts paying homage to Jerry Lewis, his world and the world through him.


Twelve Memoranda for Jerry Lewising 

by Murray Pomerance


Don’t try to sound wise or informed about Jerry, don’t try to shed light.  He rejects being understood, quite properly, and his impulses live in darkness.  At any rate, nobody really knows anybody in this life, we’re all surprisesa 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 table, yet eagerly framed him in personal, not professional, terms.  We never met, but I always cherish a tiny moment caught and held by Martin Scorsese in The King of Comedy, where a man I take to be very like Jerry, named, of course, Jerry, pauses in the atrium of his New York apartment to watch Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street on his television: the penetrating regard, the poise, the suspension of breath, the meticulous air of analysis (which I take to have belonged to both the onscreen Jerry I watch there and the real Jerry playing him) give me a thrill, as though in working to scrutinize this TV watcher I am picking up some of the mojo that is already his, in watching the film on his screen.  Perhaps Jerry Langford isn’t Jerry Lewis in any way, and I’m not getting anywhere near Jerry Lewis by observing him, but I really don’t believe that. 

It seems he was always in the glare of one light or another, arc light, klieg light, candle light, sun.  That for him being in the light came naturally (stepping out through the billboard mouth hole in Artists and Models) and therefore couldn’t have been a torture.  Yet can we ever be sure?  Think of Bertolt Brecht’s lines for Kurt Weill:

Some in light and some in darkness
That’s the kind of world we mean.
Those you see are in the daylight.
Those in darkness don’t get seen.

Since, watching Jerry, we sit in the darkness, can we really know what it is to suffer illumination—always unless one retreats, from every side, and with howling voices?  Jerry’s performative antics were hugely visual.

          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. 


I don’t think it could be called a shock, exactly, learning that he was gone.  Since before November 2002, when Enfant Terrible! came out, he had been bloated, incapacitated as a result of the years of pratfalling and the pain drugs, and when those symptoms cleared he fell victim to other harassments of the flesh.  And if now I would have to confess it was categorically impossible to imagine sharing the world with him, that he was out there moving around, in truth I always thought of him as being somewhere else, walking into Sulka on Park Avenue, say, to pick out some shirts, or wandering Pacific Palisades or the yacht basin in San Diego, but never in lifejust as in deathpresent for me as a person who might walk up and say hello.  In the materiality of Jerry (a taller man than one may have supposed) there was something unsettling, especially as one reflected upon it now:  less that in dying he confounded the fact that one had presumed to consider him immortal, in the way that one tends to presume with stars, than that 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 (as Zizek had it).  For some time it did become palpably clear, in the photographs glowing with the bright red sweater that screamed out against the forces of gravity, that one way or another he was waning, perhaps terminally illwe wouldn’t be told.  What afflicted him shared the mortality of his voice, his crossed eyes, his twisted run.  To claim that at the end he was no longer young is, of course, an immaterial lie, because he was, young in a way that hurt us to consider:  embarrassingly young, challengingly 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.  And yet, now one had to use the past tense, and with every grammatical transposition away from here and now one felt a strange, metallic pang.

          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 but gave instead unfamiliarity, wonder, awkwardness. 


“That old black magic has me in its spell.”   


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.  If you watch King of Comedy or Max Rose, you’ll see a sensitive, touchy, adult human being with dignity, poise, grace, music, brains.  But of course you’ll never deny to yourself that underneath all this is The Kid in full blossom, waiting, breathing, holding his breath.  In King, watch the look of cold appreciation in his eyes while, as Jerry Langford, he stares at the performing Masha (Sandra Bernhard) as she sings “Come Rain or Come Shine” into his face.  A man never not in the business of the show.


On The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson one of those nights he was filling in, he did “One Hen Two Ducks.”  Why?  To this day I have no clue, hearing it over and over for decades.  One hen.  Two ducks.  Three squawking geese.  Four corpulent porpoises.  Five Limerick oysters. . . .

     But, not trying to sound wise or informed, let me just peek at that once more.  Language in pure form, words with musical enchainment.  The logic of the puzzle a complete hopelessness, which is why some people—the logicians among usgo nuts trying to remember it.  Six pairs of Don Alverzo’s tweezers.  Seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array.  Why Macedonians?  Why seven thousand, not seven hundred?  You have to work the phrase “Seven thousand” around your mouth a few times, begin to taste the volume and the chewiness of the thing you produce when you say those words together.  Forget mnemonics, forget sensibility, forget pointing to something.  Just use your mouth, and then recall how Jerry used his mouth, the mouth chewing and tasting language and soundfulness.  But you also have to go on, it’s all about going on.  Eight brass monkeys from the ancient sacred crypts of Egypt.  (Crypts . . . of . . . Egypt.  Of course there are crypts in Egypt but are they more relevant to any theme than crypts somewhere else?  It is only—only!—a semantic link, the “ypt” in crypt and in Egypt, an echo and a matching so that the Egypt becomes a crypt and crypts become Egypt, both of these more deeply something unidentified, something vocal, that is, musical, that is, beyond what we can know.)  Nine apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic old men on roller skates with a marked propensity toward procrastination and sloth.  (Oh yes.)  Ten lyrical, spherical diabolical denizens of the deep, who hall-stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivy all at the same time.


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.  There is a revealing piece of footage showing Jerry backstage preparing to go on, at the 1979 Telethon.  His world seems divided, “us” and “them.”  His team includes his backstage crew, his stage manager, his control room gang, his wife, his personal assistant, all of whom take him utterly for granted as both the person that he is, a person they know well, and this for some time, and the public face he is intending shortly to put on.  He can jump, or lapse-jump, into that public persona—the shrill voice, the improper comment—and slip quickly back out of it.  With his team he stands calmly, quietly, looking around, checking time.  How much?  How much?  “Three seconds.”  “Oh—I can do three seconds in an hour!”  It is fascinating to see the concentration, to note him noting the circumstances, who is where, who is doing what, what must he do, what is next, what must he worry about?  A low, calm voice when he speaks directly to someone; then a higher-pitched, louder voice for a crowd, or for a quasi-performative instant.  There is a line of majorettes dancing on camera before he is to come out, and standing backstage he quips to an unseen confederate (in a snarky tone of voice), “None of them will give birth.”  Our instantaneous reaction to thisbut not, perhaps, to a great deal else that he says backstage: to his comments or queries, to his listing of what must be said on camera, to his kissing his wife, to his asking a security guard to get his wife to her seat, to his affection for his wardrobe assistant—is to assess it as a clue to the deepest meanings in life, as he entertains them.  And what, indeed, could he mean?  That no human being will couple with any of these girls at any point to produce offspring?. . . That they dance but are barren?. . . that it is genuine creative movement they will not produce ?. . . That misfortune will befall every last one of them . . .?  But he does not react to his own comment as though he means any of these things, or indeed as though he means anything at all.  It is simply that the dancers are not part of his team, and so they are there.  Like the audience in the auditorium and the several hundred million television viewers, they are “them.”  He is distancing himself, identifying his family, his region, by pushing back the alien horde (who live onstage just as well as anywhere else), and then pushing back Ed McMahon, too, by virtue of a comment about the man’s problematic microphone that they should scurry to fix.  The mic can be fixed but we can hear it’s not the mic, it’s Ed McMahon on the mic who is one of them.

     The moment—and Jerry’s presence in itis utterly indicative without troubling to “say something”: “we” are here together, making this show, about to have me go on, and this complex happeningthe number of people involved and the details multiplying are reminiscent of a launch from Cape Canaveral. This event we are working with enormous care to stage, and to stage successfully (so that over the 24 hours of the telecast over twenty-four million dollars can be raised), is something “we” are all in, each of us on the team equally, and I, Jerry, am merely the face, the face you are checking and fixing, the face in the tuxedo that is being politely brushed from behind, I am merely getting ready, ready to follow these interminably dancing girls, who are “other,” part of the hired warm-up.  The crazy Jerry is not the Jerry behind the crazy Jerry, who works the wings like a flier.  The crazy Jerry is just a puppet that Jerry and his team are working.


This alchemical transformation, when one moves out of the wings onto the stage:

One does not think, as one waits there, of the atmosphere into which one is about to fall.  Indeed, the senses are very acute, there is a tendency to notice small, idiosyncratic things, like a small vertical tear in a near-hanging curtain, or a piece of spinach caught in the teeth of one’s hairdresser as she leans over your head, or to think, quite suddenly, of some fragment from an old story, as when one’s grandmother touches one’s face again, earliest childhood returned, and asks if one would like a boulichka and some warm milk.  The sweetest politesse in all directions.  The genuine smile, only that one, which is distinct from the stage smile, and only when it is justified, but broadly.  I had the fortune one night to stand in the wings next to Leonard Bernstein as he prepared to make his way onstage to conduct the New York Philharmonic.  He wore, over his tails, a long black cloak, and an assistant made a movea tiny move that I can recall to this day, fifty-three years later—upward with the hands, in preparation for removing this cloak.  And the maestro said aloud, in poetic reverie, “Ashrei yoshvei veytecha!,” which is the beginning of a Hebrew prayer, “Blessed are those who sit in audience to You,” and there was a distant—a very distinctly distant—gleam in his eye, because he was thinking about and looking toward some place else.  Some place:  the orchestra onstage in the bright light?  His past?  His blind future dream?  Once, stepping onstage myself, I found my director by my elbow, unanticipated, shoving a lit cigar between my teeth so that as I entered I was coughing up smoke (“Perfect!” he said).  And Jerry paced and stood, and turned and grinned, kissed, made comment, was concerned, was relaxed by his assistant, asked how long.  “How long?”  “Three.”  “I can do an hour in three minutes.”  He turned to face away, in the direction of the long dark gap.  He took a second to lift up his head.  He strode forward with that buoyant, athletic, Buddy Love stride.  Where did the spirit enter? 


And who was it died, when Jerry Lewis died?  Consider that the Jerry so many fans adulate today, and adulated earlier, the Jerry of Living It Up, or of Artists and Models or Hollywood or Bust; or the Jerry of The Bellboy or The Nutty Professor; or even the later Jerry of The King of Comedy, is a Jerry of memory, a Jerry of the past, which is to say, a living ghost, borne away and forward again in time (and preserved in time) from the Jerry whose life ended at the age of ninety-one.  Memories change in the winds, but their status as memories does not.  They persist as iconic images.  And they are reproduced as such in the countless items of memorabilia, signed by him or not signed, that people collected (and collect) in order to feel attached (and show off, in order to make claim to the attachment).  Iconic Jerry neither died nor was mortal, since media images are not mortal things.  Jerry Lewis inhabited a colossal array of media imagery, such that seeing him in multiple contexts is inevitable, and the insurmountable imagery has permanence.  When fans openly grieve for their lost “Jerry” they are forgetting that he was already lost, lost even when his images first showed.  When The Nutty Professor opened in New York, July 17, 1963, the Jerry beneath both Julius Kelp and Buddy Love was long gone.  We know there is no film of which this cannot be said.  Yet with Jerry, perhaps more than with other performers, it is a fact audiences today find hard to grasp, sentimental as they are about the characterizations offered onscreen.  But those characters and those sentiments are generated out of material, but immortal stuff.  As to the future, we will not see him again.  He would not give birth.


Are you there?  I’m making sound and watching your face, are you there?  You smile, you nod, you talk back, you whisper in my ear.  I need you to be there, are you still there?  I need to touch you, I need always to be in touch with you (or to know that I can be in touch with you).  I’m not talking because there’s something I want you to know, I’m talking because I want to touch.  Talk as touch.  So, where does the talk come from, the brain or the heart?  Because only fools believe there is no difference.

          If there is only the stage and the audience, the stage in light, the audience in darkness (at this point in history, the point Jerry inhabited with us), touch is the problem.  Are you there, can I touch you?  Are you out there touching me?  Can you go beyond appreciation and reach forward, so that onstage here, in this blinding light, I am not alone?  If I invoke you, if I call out in some very close language, a language that hits the spine, can you feel me? 

It is a marvel to see and hear Jerry bellow and belt incoherently, the sound welling up from some hidden dark cave and taking shape through the curvature of the face.  We get this in The Disorderly Orderly when he listens to patients’ symptoms and instantly suffers from whatever horrendous condition they are describing.  Or when, pushing the brake pedal of an ambulance too desperately his foot goes through the floor and starts smoking as it skitters along the road:  “Pain!  Pain!”  Or when he is in a fast flow of traffic, standing alone among the cars, and something ominous is speeding into his face.  Vowels and consonants put together as comic-bubble squeal.  Words that are no longer words, words carried back to their origins in the feelingful (the sentimental) body subjected to conditions. 


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):  “Wel-elllllll . . . ahem,” with the tongue emerging from the teeth.  Meaning only goodness, trying very hard.  We cannot ask for more.  But unable to meet the (vicious) demands of modernity, the compelling militaristic, heartless, incompassionate orders from above, and because of a nature over which he has no authority.  “Use your authority./ If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long.”  Unable, not unwilling.  Unpreparedthat is, unindoctrinated.  Jerome K. Jerome being welcomed at breakfast in the girls’ boarding house in The Ladies Man (by the Brünnhilde, Helen Traubel):  speechless, flailing, turning and turning to find the answer in the air, who-what-when?

        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; and here, with this rendition, he is everything of delicate and at the same time, because such a bad fit, everything of a delinquent.  In The Band Wagon Fred Astaire had come close to making an anthem of this song, as he walked the platform at Grand Central in the shadow of his former glory.  But Jerry’s version is simpler, cleaner, less orchestrated for the voice, the simple, unadorned Sidney Pythias voice:  “I’ll go my way by myself, this is the end of romance . . . I’ll face the unknown, I’ll build a world of my own.”  This wasn’t long after his breakup with Dean, this Pythias’s Damon and his daemon, too. 

Hollywood or Bust, his previous film, had been their final collaboration.  The romance that was ending was Jerry’s and ours, but only those old enough to remember watching Dean and Jerry together will fully feel nostalgia for that loss.  “Two Men Singing,” the act might have been called, and one has to stretch the eardrums to conceive the force of that comedy as a duet:  Dean was a crooner, like Mel Torme, like Sinatra, like Tony Bennett.  Jerry used a harshly tuned whine, like a human version of Jack Benny’s violin at its most romantic and like an animal in pain at other moments.  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.)  Dean’s was the voice of custom, the one we had been trained to hear.  Jerry’s was the voice of the new.  The tacit—the hidden—public presumption behind the split-up of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis was that Jerry had clung to Dean; that Dean had been the totem pole and Jerry had been tormented slave.  Thus, “I’ll go my way by myself” was a pathetic promise.  But we have learned better.  Jerry made a deal with Barney Balaban at Paramount (a handshake deal, nothing on paper) and then let the technicians teach him cinema.  The rest is history.


Martin Scorsese eulogized that watching Jerry was like watching a virtuoso pianist in performance.  As a former pianist, I find this comment intriguingly apt, because in pianistic virtuosity a great deal that a performer might cause audiences to think supremely difficult is in fact not difficult at all; whereas a great deal of what is supremely difficult might be invisible, or seem merely casual to those not in the know.  Scorsese’s comment reveals something very true about Jerry, who knew in his flesh, from decades upon decades of practice, how far to go:  when it was necessary to strain the muscles, when not; when it was necessary to hold back from strain (because a stressful moment was about to come on), when not.  He knew how to play his instrument.  We may nod with dismay about the damage to his skeleton the constant pratfalls produced, and his medical therapies, but really, honestly, go into the kitchen with any hard worker who knows his stuff:  damage happens.  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—and I have met many zealous Jerry fans, Jerry mockingbirds—whose own Jerry was a Jerry I recognize.  To put this a little differently:  the sounds Jerry made (his animal sounds, that is, his sounds of recognition that we live an animal life), that are crucial to me, are not the ones I hear people quote.  I learned to love the Jerry who was in love with Anna Maria Alberghetti in Rockabye Baby.  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, “You’ve got it.  You’ve . . . got  . . . it.”  The Tonight Show Jerry very much, walking up with a hungry “Gnunnnng” and opening his maw to eat the camera.  The Telethon Jerry, nervous, calculating, desperate for time, perspiring openly.  Jerry with his mouth open in distress, but untold distress, pure distress.  Jerry with Kathleen Freeman (a brilliant and frequent collaborator) or Del Moore (a brilliant and frequent collaborator).  Improbable Jerry in a palpably masking clown-face in The Jazz Singer (yet how improbable, since he was a clown?).

My own Jerry—not any of the many I treasure and laugh with, but the single Jerry I find both impossible and wondrous, both instructive and mystifying—is the Morty Tashman who conducts an invisible jazz band in the “board room” sequence of The Errand Boya film, I must confess, the disregard of which, in public statements, by Mr. Jerry Lewis, astounds and befuddles me.  Here he is, at any rate, letting the band articulate the “voice” coming out of his mouth.  It is mime, it is conducting, it is (almost impossibly) 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.