“A Jerry Lewis retrospective in a German-speaking country? Fantastic! I never thought I’d live to see the day! Can you recommend a cheap hotel in Vienna?” Good grief! Who in the world would want to see that? You Europeans still like Lewis? Unbelievable!” These two early reactions to the announcement of the 2013 Jerry Lewis retrospective reflect two classic and opposing camps of film enthusiasts. The first – now in their third generation – primarily reside in Europe and have venerated the American actor Jerry Lewis since the 1960s. They regard him as the rightful heir to the great classic film comedians Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel & Hardy, indeed, as the comic actor of American cinema since the beginning of the sound-film area. They especially admire his extremely physical, grotesque performances and the true-to-character manner in which he stages his own films as a director. To them, Lewis is an auteur par excellence – a fully accomplished artist whose films exude a certain aroma in practically every detail and once you’ve picked up the scent, you become addicted to its sweet fragrance. The film-lovers of the other camp see the same qualities in Lewis’s oeuvre, sense the same aroma, and are still shaking their heads three generations later. They consider Lewis to be an egocentric attention-seeker, who has chosen the wrong medium and who should have stuck with theater, an unsophisticated popular clown lacking urban wit. Where exactly Jerry Lewis – one may say “the phenomenon Lewis” – marks the dividing line between these two camps, which in turn stand for two cultural orientations, has been a great, fascinating question in the history of film that has never really been answered. It also touches upon an issue that is often bashfully brushed aside, as if one were referring to sexual preferences: HOW am I laughing? Loudly? Unrestrainedly? On the sly? From the head or from the heart? WHAT actually makes me laugh? Puns? Earthiness? Irony? The absurd? Do I enjoy the playfulness of comedy? For instance, the playfulness of a lanky and almost absurdly elastic body that displays an incredible suppleness in the “silliness” with which it, for example, is constantly falling down? Do I enjoy this suppleness, does it whet my appetite for more? These are some of the essential and intimate questions that “the phenomenon Lewis” has been posing to audiences time and again for decades, long before any critical reflection. And the answer is clear. It is mainly as an “emotive body” – one that provokes physical reactions in the audience through its very nature and expressive power − that the audience of the great Viennale and Filmmuseum retrospective will perceive Jerry Lewis in a program of more than 30 films, selected TV productions and a comprehensive documentary. We will have to be careful in watching this man who was born in New Jersey 87 years ago as Joseph Levitch and started his career as a pantomime: he has given new meaning to the phrase “I laughed until my sides were aching!” A German-language catalogue on Jerry Lewis will be available on the occasion of the retrospective, including new and classic essays, selected interviews, autobiographical material and reviews of all the films shown during this tribute.
A retrospective by Viennale and Austrian Film Museum.