Jerry and Me
First, the cross-cultural shock: Jerry Lewis dubbed for the Iranian market. (We will learn that, in later life, Jerry sounds exactly like the guy who dubbed him back then.) Not to mention John Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959): a handy subtitle informs us that he is now saying, exasperated, as he walks out on Angie Dickinson, “There is no god but Allah”.
Jerry and Me by Mehrnaz Saeedvafa (sometimes rendered Saeed-Vafa) begins by proposing this estranging “view from elsewhere”: Lewis in the distorting mirror of another culture. Film history, as it has generally been written, only occasionally gives us a glimpse of this kind of shuttle-action across cultures, nations and audiences: a Latin American star such as Carmen Miranda as seen “back home” via the detour of her Hollywood productions; or the cult of certain US actors in Japan. But an entire treasure-trove of spectator experience opens up once we loosen the bounds of territorial belonging, as Saeedvafa does here. It is a different Lewis than the one we are used to encountering in film criticism.
But that is only her starting point. The fate of Lewis’ films handily mirrors an Iranian history through which the filmmaker has lived: born in the early 1950s during the ascension of Mohammed Mosaddeq as Prime Minister, through the heady period of modernisation in the ‘60s (evoked in wonderfully gaudy colour newsreel footage) during the Shah’s White Revolution; later, the Iranian Revolution of the Islamic Republic. Where Lewis’ movies (among others) embodied American-style modernity during the ‘60s – a theme taken up, from different perspectives, by commentators including Miguel Marías and Chris Fujiwara – the ’79 Revolution marked a radical turnaround in cultural values: the lush picture palaces were closed or burnt, and a new sort of cinema production was enforced by the authorities. Meanwhile, Hollywood decadence was replaced by previously unseen art cinema such as Rome, Open City (1945).
Saeedvafa had begun seriously learning about cinema in the early ‘70s, abandoning other, more conventionally pragmatic studies in order to attend film school in London (where she discovered the work of Robert Bresson). Back in Iran, when the Revolution hit, she turned – as did many of her contemporaries – to making a film centred on a child. Then the eight-year war with Iraq started; Saeedvafa had to abandon the film in an unfinished state, and came into conflict with her producers. In 1983, after a first marriage that foundered on differences of religious practice, she left Iran for the USA, where she has been based ever since, employed as a Professor of Film and Video at Columbia College in Chicago. Her films before Jerry and Me include The Silent Majority (1987), A Tajik Woman (1994), Saless Far From Home (1998) and A Different Moon (2008).
What is most fascinating for me in Jerry and Me is the quality of something I could call fan psychoanalysis. A type of self-analysis, arrived at through (to use the classic psychoanalytic couplet) introjection of, and projection onto, a beloved object: in this case, the performances, films, image and career of Jerry Lewis. It quickly becomes much more than a conceit of the personal documentary or essay-film form that clips from Lewis movies stand in for absolutely everything in this piece, whether good or bad, as tokens of Saeedvafa’s lived, social experience.
The Iran/Iraq War is summed up by Jerry dodging debris in a battle zone. Mehrnaz as an uncommunicative, unreachable teenager is embodied in a catatonic little boy who Jerry yells at on stage. Her wish to magically transform into someone else – such as someone with light skin – finds its symbolic correlative in Julius Kelp becoming Buddy Love, via magic potion, in The Nutty Professor (1963). Shots of Jerry in Cracking Up (aka Smorgasbord, 1983) stand in for Saeedvafa’s own exhaustion and despair in the US during the ‘80s, before the period when her son was born.
And on it goes, for the entire thirty-eight minutes: the range of inventive, wittily metaphoric substitutions of Jerry-images for absent (often unrepresentable) real-life footage is really impressive. (It is also intriguing to compare the film with Saeedvafa’s Jerry-less account of her life for the 1992 interview included in Zohreh Sullivan’s Exiled Memories: Stories of Iranian Diaspora [Temple University Press, 2001].) It must be said, though, that the relative sound mix levels on the version I saw left something to be desired.
Gender and a feminist coming-to-consciousness play a crucial part in this self-analysed life-narrative. Jerry, once again, fills all roles available for men in Saaedvafa’s developing imaginary, from childhood through to adulthood: he is the cold, indifferent womanising man (like her father), in a cowboy hat; he is Jerry in drag, wishing to cross the all-too-real line of gender difference; he is a gentle, sentimental, almost effeminate comedian.
But, as she remembers it, she could never get into the place reserved for women in even his best films: the supplicant partners – Mad Men-style ‘60s career women ever-ready to chuck in their careers – who always end up saving this eternal boy-man. And this, too, in a boomerang way, reflects back on Saeedvafa’s Iranian history, in which calls for “today’s woman” collided with crushingly restrictive patriarchal rules. And a certain sexual panic crystallises for her in the images of the “loose” Western woman as embodied by Stella Stevens in The Nutty Professor.
Like many self-analyses (whether on film or in life), Jerry and Me proceeds (and this may also be a result of its condensed running-time) through dramatic, block-like shuffles: at times it seems as if Saeedvafa views her whole biography in terms of a Lost Paradise in her Iranian childhood that she can barely recall, and then idealised projections – such as distant, exotic, America – that then come crashing into grim, depressed reality once encountered. There is an almost desperate need to identify, to belong – as when her son is born (a moving sequence of the film), and she tells us that, at last, she felt she had “become American”.
The very making of Jerry and Me – which, the work itself tells us, was difficult for her to “bring together” – appears to get her to at least a provisional point of equilibrium: teaching a course on Lewis and being able to “reprocess her past” while giving her students an Iranian and Middle Eastern perspective on this American icon; and being able to observe, up close in person, the live Jerry of the mid ‘90s who makes casual, racist jokes against Arabs – and still be able to thank him, in the final frames, for “having given me countless hours of pleasure”.
Pleasure in cinema – pleasure in a star, a body, a genre, a gag – is never simple. This is the cross-cultural field that Jerry and Me opens for us.
© Adrian Martin January 2013