Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Nothing on a Ground of Soft Music

More re-posting of the translations from Steve Erickson's old website, now tackling the ones published in the English editions of Cahiers du cinéma by Andrew Sarris, starting with three texts from 1966.

A Nothing on a Ground of Soft Music (The Family Jewels)
In The Family Jewels there is a scene in which one sees a man take off once and for all the costume that made his living, deny its tinsel, denounce its servitudes. It concerns, of course, Uncle Everett, the clown, who has not forgotten that a public entertainer is no more a man than a mask is a face. No doubt, Lewis secretly delighted in making this character, to whom one believed him a priori so near, antipathetic and even odious. But is he really so far from him? Very simply, Everett is less engaged in his creation than Lewis is; he is less involved with his double. 
The more things go along, the more Lewis moves away from his character. With The Family Jewels, it is indeed a question of his present situation, of his chances for survival. Yet in a few years, this character becomes, with age, impossible and derisory. Between now and then it is absolutely necessary to become oneself again, to take one's distance vis-à-vis the mask. In The Patsy, Lewis, sure of his "happy ending," makes the circuit of what has been necessary for him to do, in order for him to deserve himself. It was a film turned towards the past. The future was to be the concern of The Family Jewels
One slides towards a new world. Strangely, it is a question of our world, futile and familiar at the same time. Lewis takes risks there, still a little maladroit and awkward, asking himself whether life there is possible. The Family Jewels is the return of Lewis to the land of men, no longer in front of them but among them. It is a serious film, because never has the actor been so unsure of himself, so intimidated: he has just refused artifice, makeup, magic; he is going to appear as he is and for what he is; he is going to run the risk of not being recognized... For Willard is an entirely normal man, who resembles everyone slightly, even Jerry Lewis... 
These are difficult beginnings, on tip-toe; all the bridges have not yet been cut. In places the mask resists and imposes some of its old tricks (the sequence of the service station.) But those are quotations, references to a universe that it is necessary to go beyond, conceded to an audience that one must not treat too roughly. Halfway between the old and the new, Lewis, who owes as much to himself as to his myth, must change skin without changing audience. 
The Family Jewels will be the place of this metamorphosis. Since there are two Lewises in competition, there will be two films as well, two audiences. And first the "adult" audience – in search of caricatures – will be satisfied by six ineffable uncles, who are six Lewises, therefore six bravura pieces. Empty castoff clothes destined for an audience that awaits them. For the real film is played elsewhere, far from grimaces and distortions, between the real Lewis (Willard) and the real audience (Donna). It is the real film that is the more beautiful as well, the newer, the more moving. The more that what Donna and her chauffeur say and do is banal and insignificant, the more serious the film is; the fewer things happen in it, the richer it is. And one begins to think about the masterpiece Lewis (and he alone) might make by henceforth filming nothing, or almost, on a ground of soft music... The greatest simplicity, the ultimate discovery, invisible to all, can only reach a child. By inventing the character of Donna, Lewis does nothing but conform what he has always said: children alone understand him, because, for them, little preoccupied with second degrees, he does not play at being, he is. If Donna is the ideal audience, it is because she does not think it possible to cheat, to play act. Which makes The Family Jewels, too, into a very simple parable (and especially defense plea.) One proposes to the audience different versions of one same man, and one asks it to choose, reminding it that this choice, decisive, carries along all the future... But one has underestimated the audience in presenting to it only monsters, full of good will, certainly, but too preoccupied with themselves to really think about this very audience. It makes no mistake about that, and chooses the only man who does not wear a mask and who, for that very reason, was out of competition. Scandal in the milieus of spectacle; but they will be defeated. 
The masks give way, the fact triumphs at last in broad daylight. Yet one little detail: Willard wins his audience only on condition of denying himself, at least one minute (but that minute is essential), the putting on the makeup of a clown. That is the curse from which he is not yet wholly safe. To win over his audiences entirely, it is necessary all the same to play the fool a little, more by necessity than by vocation. This little detail does not shake Willard: tomorrow belongs to him...
First published in Cahiers du cinéma, #175, February 1966. Published in English in Cahiers du cinema in English, number 4, Andrew Sarris (Ed), 1966.

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