Everybody loves a clown, but it's hard for a guy who plays for laughs to be taken seriously -- a dilemma worthy of a Jerry Lewis film.
But not so much in Vienna these days.
Like a Lewis character, Lewis and his work tend to be maligned for whatever reason happens to be out there: He was kids' entertainment. He was a product, cloned by industry exec Hal Wallis, who made too much money. His entropic childish character made audiences feel uncomfortable. His telethons were sentimental spectacles that made you feel even more uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that interviewers during the 1980's felt obliged to issue warnings about Lewis' fundraising and suggest that there might be something unethical about it. His later work went downhill.
Oh, and the French loved him, the ultimate put-down. It was sort of like the comment made by the now-disgraced Tom Delay at the 2004 Republican National Convention: "Good evening, or as John Kerry would say, 'Bonjour.'"
It's not that Jerry Lewis is back. Go on the internet and you could find plenty of Lewis films to watch in their entirety. But at the annual Viennale underway in Vienna – the respected festival in Austria – Lewis is getting the kind of retrospective he deserves, in a series sandwiched in between tributes to the Spanish filmmaker Gonzalo Garcia Pelayo and the Harvard "Sensory Ethnography Lab."
Lewis' films are being shown on film -- a rarity these days -- with the best projection quality. There's the magisterial restored mega-documentary "Bonjour Mr. Lewis," by the French critic Robert Benayoun, plus an anthology of assessments and interviews in a book published by the Vienna Film Museum – in German, for the locals to read.
The Austrians and Jerry Lewis? Austria is so far from the frame of reference of Americans that jokes can't draw on the same knee-jerk contempt that fuels the endless automatic babble about the French loving him.
But the timing seems right.
Timely? As if it's ever the wrong time for someone who can ridicule the self-importance of Hollywood or any other form of authority?
"It's a completely surreal pop art world," said the critic Adrian Martin on a panel about Lewis that the Viennale organized free to the public (as all its panels were). "I'm a fan of the TV show 'Mad Men,'" he continued. "'Mad Men' is the sedate version of the 60’s fantasy that Jerry Lewis inhabited. It's a gaudy world of wealth and affluence, of advertising and media imagery. It's world that he celebrates and denigrates at the same time."
Also intersecting in the zeitgeist today is male fashion, which for several years (with the blessing of Prada) has accorded its imprimatur to the little boy look – tight trousers too short and fastidiously cuffed, jackets in too-small sizes that can't be buttoned, and the bow tie. To be fair, Peewee Herman did it more than 20 years ago, but his look also drew from Lewis.
Watching Lewis dance -- a surprise to those of us who hadn't kept up dutifully with the early films -- you can't help but see movements that you would find in hip hop decades later. (Let's not forget that Richard Pryor, a star with his own kinesis, was a huge Lewis fan. Watch Pryor's interview on the Merv Griffin Show, back in 1966.) Listening to Lewis, you also hear a kind of play on language that's revered when you hear it from Beat poets.
This said, the Viennale audience wasn't drinking the KoolAid, or wearing it. The retrospective was accompanied by a book published by the Film Museum of Vienna, whose director, Alexander Horwath, co-organized the Lewis tribute with the Viennale's director, Hans Hurch. Screenings weren't Jerry Lewis versions of the look-alike costuming of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," but filled with crowds that seemed to have discovered Lewis on the screen long ago. Lewis admiration didn't tilt into Lewis snobbery, although the jargon of lit-crit theory seems to have caught up with the man who never went to college.
"When I was young, I was not a big Jerry Lewis fan," said Hans Hurch, director of the Viennale, "because you could see the films on television in German versions [dubbed]. The language is very important, and then there's the physical thing. If you get the one thing, you just have the impression that he's very comic and it's too much. When I saw the films in the original [format], I could see that he's a great filmmaker, and a great actor, and that his films are a world in themselves."
Lewis "remained a taste of hard-core cinephiles, so the normal bourgeois reviewers in the newspapers couldn’t be bothered," said Alexander Horwath of the Vienna Film Museum. "That didn't change over the decades, so our goal is to get a new generation of young critics interested, which seems to be the case."
"It began with Jim Carrey and the Farrelly Brothers," said Horwath, "I loved 'Dumb and Dumber' and many of Carrey's earlier things, and that was the beginning of a debate where Jerry Lewis was brought back into play as the forefather of many of these filmmakers. It may not have been that correct in precise terms, but in general it was." He added that Lewis' talent was especially important to recognize in light of today's movies. "Now those young critics are starting to say that directorial talent is somehow missing in current vulgar comedies," he said. "The quality of the comedic performer might be there, but it's not so similar to the Jerry Lewis moment because the mise en scene and the cinematic thinking seems to be missing often."
Since Lewis can and does generate volumes of reactions, here are some highlights.