Jerry Lewis, one of the most successful and volatile of popular artists and something of a personal hero, died late in the summer at the age of 91.
After revisiting 32 films in preparation for a long article published to coincide with his 90th birthday, I had already seriously contemplated the idea of him dying. The elderly Jerry who appeared in the morning television segments that I consumed vociferously while writing the essay was not the Jerry starring in the glut of movies I poured over. His vitality lasted through middle-age and into his advanced years, seemingly with little resistance despite three or four lifetimes worth of illnesses, addictions, and injuries. But finally, senescence had ensnared him; I remember being particularly moved by his admission that what he missed most was his ability to stand up straight and walk.
Writing about Lewis, I found it hard to translate into words the way Jerry’s shtick—the flurry of mercurial personalities, the endless generation and regeneration of masks, the Brechtian refusal to acknowledge the sanctity of a self-contained dramatic universe—revealed something deep about the guy. Indeed, I started to believe that this in itself pointed to the limits of Lewis criticism as a whole. Jerry is too fast for description; his effortless parrying between conflicting emotional states overrides the critics’ attempts to pin down his essence. The total filmmaker in command of every aspect of the medium, the atomically precise image and sound sculptor, the master of the loaded gag, was quite obviously also its most ephemeral, diffuse physical presence. When I heard that he had died, I was working on a video at my editor's apartment. A few minutes after hearing the news, it became clear that we had to call it a day. I walked home in miserable rain, tears gathering in my eyes, my brains scrambled.
Of course, it was also immediately clear that I had to organize a tribute. How then to address, in criticism, the figure I had once found to be a relentless parody of the critical impulse? It was evident that I could not do so myself, and that the answer—ironically, perhaps—was to invite more critics into the fold. The writers and video-makers assembled here are some of my favorites, able dissectors of the Lewis persona and the Lewis oeuvre, and in their totality they navigate the maze of his vast body of work with elegance, insight, and a Lewisian exactitude.
There's so much to Jerry's work as both an actor and a director that only a big, multi-writer tribute could do the job of representing the chaos and clarity of this singular figure, a person who made virtually every aspect of his personality close to public property. I envisioned the series as a kind of fractured reflection of the Lewis persona, which meant that smaller, specific pieces—and snippets from the archives—were just as important for that as long studies and overviews. Contributions will roll out over the next few weeks as a steady stream of micro-tributes, both personal and analytical, with the idea being that whoever reads them will go out of 2017 with Jerry on the brain. I'll also amass a regularly updated list of the published pieces below.