An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jerry's America

Today, a fascinating confluence of three things I love: (1) Jerry Lewis, (2) Dave Kehr's DVD column in the New York Times, and (3) 1960s culture. It seems there's a new DVD set collecting sketches from The Jerry Lewis Show, a TV show that aired from 1967-69 and that I didn't even know existed. Kehr covers it here, and this is the paragraph that really fascinated me:

"The most interesting sketches in this collection find Mr. Lewis confronting [the social changes of the late '60s]. A two-part parody titled “My Bonnie Lies Over the Clyde” offers Mr. Lewis and Audrey Meadows as the outlaw couple played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the 1967 film, which had come to symbolize the “new Hollywood.” Presented by “Nice Clean Pictures,” the sketch begins by satirizing the unprecedented level of graphic violence that “Bonnie and Clyde” had introduced to American movies: Mr. Lewis’s Clyde enters a bank, mows down a dozen extras with a machine gun, and announces, “Nobody move and you won’t get hurt.” But with his Bogart lisp and “Scarface” tuxedo, Mr. Lewis is playing a gangster of Hollywood’s old school, not Mr. Beatty’s stylish new model, and a revealing disconnection sets in."

My curiosity about this may not be strong enough to actually track down the DVD, but I like the idea of Jerry as an avatar for the Mad Men generation of formerly hip gents watching their own obsolescence in slow motion. There's something poignant about the idea of Jerry fucking up his attempt to engage with the changing times, as per Kehr's latter observation about the outmoded gangster impression. Jerry's richest artistic period—his run of self-directed films from 1960-1965, in my estimation—was also, as far as I can tell, the last time he was really taken seriously as an American cultural institution. Once the proper-noun Sixties began in earnest, so too began Jerry's descent into public ridicule; as early as '67, Roger Ebert was already indulging in that now horribly clich├ęd practice: making fun of the French for loving Jerry Lewis.

Incidentally, Lewis's influence can currently be seen in multiplexes, as Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (a disappointment, but that's another subject) uses the same Jerry-derived visual trick that he borrowed for The Life Aquatic—the "cross-section" shot, used to show the boat in the earlier film and underground tunnels in the new one, was deployed by Lewis in his 1961 film The Ladies Man to show all the busy rooms of a house. JERRY 4 LIFE.

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