Footage from "The Day the Clown Cried," an unfinished Holocaust film Jerry Lewis attempted to make, is seeing the light of day. Is that a good thing?
The phrase above was the name I gave to the arts section I edited at the University of Washington Daily. I thought (and still think) it was funny, while it also satirizes the central conceit of writing about culture, whether it's "high culture" or "popular culture." (If I made a Venn diagram of those categories they would significantly overlap.) I still have a rubber stamp that says, "This is not art." I got it about 30 years ago. Sometimes I like to get it out and stamp it on things because I think it is absolutely hilarious -- both as a comment on art and a comment on criticism. I laugh and laugh, even if it's only on the inside.
The cast of the Oscar-favorite film, "Home for Purim."
"For Your Consideration" -- Christopher Guest is blessed with the finest comedic stock company since the heyday of Preston Sturges. Guest, Catherine O'Hara (Goddess of Funny), Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Michael Hitchcock, Paul Dooley, Jim Piddock, Larry Miller... I get a thrill just seeing them share screen space in various combinations (and this time they've added Ricky Gervais and Sandra Oh to the mix). Every few years when they get together (the last time they were together was "A Mighty Wind" in 2003), it's like seeing old friends for whom you will always harbor a deep and abiding affection. Here's hoping they keep reuniting for many movies to come.
In "FYC," the subject isn't so much the movie industry (Guest already made the best American dissection of the contemporary film business back in 1989 with "The Big Picture") as the awards and publicity industry. We join a film in production -- a kind of kosher Tennessee Williams melodrama about a Jewish family in the South during the war, called "Home for Purim." Somebody on the web (or the "World Wide Internet" as the typically clueless HollyLuddites call it) claims the lead actress (played by O'Hara), an '80s sitcom star who's been virtually forgotten by the public and the industry, may be giving an "Oscar-worthy" performance, and a rumor is born that (as in "The Big Picture") takes on a life of its own.
Der Funnyman und der Führer.
It's the hottest thing in contemporary cinema -- after superhero movies and pirate movies, that is! I refer, of course, to movies about clowns in Nazi concentration camps! Who doesn't adore that genre? Let's see, there's Jerry Lewis's infamous, unreleased "The Day the Clown Cried" (wince), Robin Williams in "Jakob the Liar" (cringe), and Robert Benigni's cuddly and zany, Oscar-winning "Life is Beautiful" (projectile vomit). Holocaust hilarity ensues! Now The Guardian reports, in an item with a fantastic headline ("Schrader to direct death camp clown tale" -- sounds like a great name for a Northwest band) that Paul Schrader will direct Jeff Goldblum in an adaptation of Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk's novel "Adam Resurrected," about a clown who entertains Jews on their way to the gas chambers. Actually, Schrader (writer of "Taxi Driver" and "The Last Temptation of Christ," director of "American Gigolo," "Mishima," and "Light Sleeper," among many others) may have exactly the right sensibility for this project because he has virtually no sense of humor. In this case, that would likely be an asset.
A notorious 1989 Spy magazine article about Lewis's legally locked-up death-camp slapstick project quoted Harry Shearer, one of the few who has actually seen a cut of "The Day the Clown Cried": With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. "Oh My God!"—that's all you can say.The original writers, according to a Wikipedia entry, will never allow the film to be released "in part due to changes in the script made by Lewis which made the clown more sympathetic and Emmett Kelly-like." (You can read the script yourself here.) Well, it could have been worse. Lewis could have made the character more Robin Williams-like or Roberto Benigni-like....
What do you think about Clowns and Nazis? Has anybody made it work? If so, how? Is it a good idea to play the Holocaust for sentimental humor, as opposed to, say, satirical humor -- as in Lubitsch's "To Be or Not To Be" -- made while the war was still raging, and the outcome uncertain, in 1942? (Now that was a gutsy movie.