Wednesday, August 08, 2012


Not reconciled

Jerry Lewis, Smörgasbord

In 1963, Jerry Lewis invented a seducer character entirely motivated by hate. Logically, he called him Love. Mister Love was as opposed to the timid Doctor Jerry as day and night, as Hyde and Jekyll. A very dialectical opposition. To better “accept himself” (the condition for the others – the audience, you, me or a young girl, slightly maternal – to love him in return), the good Jerry had to go through Mister Love-hate.

A (double) star was then born. The total idiot and the cynical star, the one rejected by the others on the campus and the shrewd businessman, Lewis the actor and Lewis the producer. Will they be reconciled one day? Will one kill the other? Or will the merger of the two create a synthetic “Jerry Lewis”, more serene as years go by? This underestimates our auteur. A great comic doesn't just give people “what they want” because he loves them; he distributes – with no hope of getting anything in return – a surplus of energy and an excess of love. This is why the great comics are often our "accursed share"*. This is why Jerry Lewis has never been accepted at home.

So it wasn’t rare to hear, behind Jerry Lewis’s false good feelings, a serious threat. Something like: if one day you stopped loving me as a destitute clown (Jerry), I would be forced to resort to my professional show-business arrogance (Love), to the cold exhibition of my power to do good (Lewis the philanthropist, the friend of children), to my abstract love and my real contempt. The universal Love (with a capital L) declared itself against a background of resentment. In the Lewisian world, a practised ear has no difficulty hearing the bitter calculation of guilt and its transfer: endless and merciless accounting. Inescapably, Jerry Lewis was becoming the benefactor of a humanity from which he was more and more cut off as the days passed. No film between Which Way to the Front? (1970) and Hardly Working (1979), just an unfinished project (The Day the Clown Cried, a serious topic) and the crazy idea that pornographic movies had “stolen” his audience of children.

The inevitable therefore happened. Despite the promise, made in public and in a static shot at the (unforgettable) end of The Nutty Professor, that he will never attempt again to split, the gap between the actor and his double, between Jerry and Love, between poisoned success and poisoning failure, kept growing. A day would come when Jerry Lewis would no longer be able, alone and in one film, to make complete a survey of his own personality.

That day has come. It’s today. 1983 will be the year of Jerry Lewis’s return. The return of all the Lewises. Lewis-Ego, Lewis-Me and Lewis-It. The first will be crowned (the Nobel-type philanthropist of medical research).  We will admire the second’s performance in Scorsese’s film, The King of Comedy (where Lewis is presented as himself). And we will rediscover the third, inspired gagman and crazy inventor, in his latest film, the strangely titled Smörgasbord. The reconciliation didn’t happen, but Smörgasbord is a beautiful film.

Firstly it’s a very free movie, or rather very liberated. Liberated from the Other, liberated from Love, since Love (or more precisely what Love has inevitably become “20 years later”) is entirely in another film, thanks to another film-maker: Martin Scorsese. From then on, it’s everyone for himself. Smörgasbord only looks at the “Jerry” side of the mirror. Except that in this peculiar double picture of Dorian Gray, the two reflections have grown old: (fleeting) time reveals stiffness, wrinkles, sweat, the emptied gaze of the body that supports them. Jerry and Love have become separately horrible. Not one redeeming the other. Redemption is over. The mirror is shattered.

Jerry Langford, in Scorsese’s film, is a Mister Love made bitter, old and tough by success. He doesn’t even look at the one (DeNiro-Popkin) who, starting from nowhere, also wants to succeed. Worse, he’s on the other side, on the side of the respectable, realistic and responsible adults, who were his joyful target when, with Dean Martin, he was still misbehaving.

All you have to do is look at Warren Nefron, Smörgasbord’s hero, to stop asking how long Jerry Lewis can maintain the credibility of his character as a prolonged teenager. Nefron is no longer a nice, crazy, simple kid with a big heart; he’s a universal type: the Misfit by essence, addicted to shrinks, a real loser of our time. Age is no longer relevant.

Freed from the Other, Warren Nefron is also freed from what slowed down previous films. Smörgasbord, with all its dead weight, follows the auteur’s inventiveness, anywhere and at full speed. There’s not a gram of sentimentality, even faked. No “feminine presence”, even innocently phallic. Not a drop of dialectic, even forced. No happy ending, even imposed. No obligation to pretend to tell a story since the script of Smörgasbord is not the cure but rather the disease. And to an incurable disease, one can only oppose a cure “just for laughs”. It’s such a cure that “smörgasbord” precisely symbolises.

We are, from the first images of the film (the failed suicide attempts), in a world where everything has become a conspicuous symptom. If the subconscious is, as Deleuze would have it, a factory and not a theatre, let’s say that for Smörgasbord, the factory workers have become overzealous. As soon as a gag can be built as a slip of the tongue, a daydream, a witz or a rebus, the Lewis factory no longer worries about verbal precautions. It goes all the faster because there is nothing and no one to give moral lessons to. Love, I repeat, is in another film.

The story of the film is not only impossible to narrate, it is, like poetry, impossible to sum up. It is disjointed, like the first Lewis films (The Bellboy, The Errand Boy) that we criticised at the time for being mere catalogues of gags, but it is disjointed like any story that obeys the logic of the signifier (and not literary or psychological plausibility). Smörgasbord is a mechanical bachelor**, happy to simply and energetically emit signals. It calls out no one. An example? The French translation of the title (“T’es fou, Jerry!”: Jerry, you’re mad!) says it all. But that is still someone – an intimate – observing this state of madness. Whereas “Smörgasbord” is madness.

This small Swedish word acts as the “rosebud” of the film, the word that the psycho-analyst, having exhausted all other means, utters to Nefron under hypnosis but which makes him fall into the disease from which Nefron will emerge. It’s a comic “rosebud”. “Smörgasbord” also means “hors d'oeuvre” and one can’t avoid seeing this as a plea pro domo by Lewis, the preemptive response to the accusation of having made yet another disjointed movie. In burlesque, there are only hors d'oeuvres: no need to dish up the story of the (piece de) resistance(s).

Jerry Lewis has been so (psycho) analysed that the exercise is really no longer needed. The “shrinks” clearly belong to his world. But, unlike Woody Allen, Lewis does not give a respectful image of psycho-analysis (the cure, the sofa, etc.). For him, shrinks are part of the Punch and Judy show. It’s in his way of unfolding the film via free association, in his art of making objects suddenly seem like words, it’s in his style that Lewis really takes into account the subconscious, subconsciously of course.

Hence the magnificent, inspired and unforeseen gags and the admirable scene where Nefron tries to have dinner in a restaurant but eventually gives up because the waitress (with the voice of a modern Barbara Nichols!)  lists all the possible dishes. We’re that close to the anxiety of the fanatic. Instead of one decision to make, the list of all possible decisions is presented. Life becomes a series of boxes to tick, up to the point when we run out of boxes and go crazy. This is where the film is at its most staggering, where Lewis remains a modern film-maker. A body that trips over the set, that's funny; one that becomes entirely code when language has become a war machine, that’s crazy.

The beauty of the film is extracted from unhappiness. Smörgasbord is tragically funny. 

* Cf. The Accursed Share by Georges Bataille.
** As in "The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even…"

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 347, May 1983. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde: 2. Les années Libé 1981-1985, pp. 180-184, POL, Paris, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Bill Krohn.