“Au revoir, Dummy!”: A Smorgasbord of Suffering

It seems fitting that Jerry’s Lewis’ final film as director, Smorgasbord (1983, released on home video under the title Cracking Up), should begin with a prolonged sequence in which the Lewis character, Warren Nefron, unsuccessfully attempts to commit suicide. Like his previous feature, Hardly Working (1980), which begins with the closing of the circus where Lewis works as a clown, the film shows a melancholy awareness of its author’s increasing sense of placelessness and alienation. Here, though, it is not simply the death of the clown as a social institution that our “hero” confronts, but rather the threat of non-existence or non-identity, hardly a new theme in Lewis’ oeuvre. What makes Smorgasbord darker and more despairing than any of Lewis’ other films, however, is the fact that this threat is no longer articulated in terms of any particular existence or identity: Warren’s problem is not so much, like that of Lewis’ earlier protagonists, his failure to measure up to a predetermined role (the movie star in The Patsy (1964), the normative heterosexual male in The Ladies Man (1961) and The Nutty Professor (1963)), as it is an inability to exist at all, even on a purely physical level, without experiencing and causing an intolerable amount of suffering.

Smorgasbord

Smorgasbord

The opening suicide attempts are followed by a credit sequence in which Warren slips and slides across the glossy floor of a psychiatrists’ office: walking upright, an act so often equated with human-ness itself, is near-impossible to him, and staying seated doesn’t prove much easier. His natural inclination is to end up prostrate on the floor, corpse-like, in a kind of living death. We never get a clear sense of what specifically drives Warren to attempt suicide, and he explains his malady to the psychiatrist only in the most general terms: “I’m a misfit, I don’t fit, I’m a square peg in a round hole.” The film’s emphasis is less on the problem itself (although as usual, the Lewis character’s physical clumsiness leaves chaos and destruction in its wake), and more on how it might be “cured”, as the framing device of the therapy scenes might lead us to expect.

In the films of the early 1960s, the Lewis characters’ problems with “fitting in” are often resolved through a process in which his misfit character is transformed through its recognition by another as something else; his ineptitude is revealed to be not a shortcoming, but a virtue and a sign of authenticity. The efficacy of this simple solution, however, is called into question on multiple levels: on one hand, what others recognise as “star quality” in the Lewis character – one thinks of the New York director’s éloge of his expressive capacities in The Errand Boy (1961) – is itself treated with great irony. In The Patsy, and even more clearly in The Errand Boy, the role of “star” cannot be dissociated from the star-making apparatus that the films satirise, noting the destructive character of its capitalist underpinnings and its reliance on the gaze of the other to constitute identity. On the other hand, a supposedly coherent identity related but not identical to the star persona is called upon to provide a sense of resolution in the self-reflexive gestures of The Ladies Man and The Patsy. The elaborate and highly artificial set of the former, which we are permitted to see as set (with all the production equipment in place) at its conclusion, ensures our awareness of the mastery and control of Lewis-as-auteur as the compensation for and resolution of the shortcomings of Lewis-as-character; the problem of a failed or fragmented identity is not solved by an onscreen transformation of ineptitude into a virtue, but by a recognition of the sovereign ego behind the performance of failure. This side of the Lewis persona is even more pronounced at the end of The Patsy, when Lewis’ Stanley falls off a balcony, only to reemerge out of character, noting that “The people in the theater know I ain’t gonna die… I’m gonna make more movies so I couldn’t die.” This latter instance of self-assertion is highly relevant to the suicide scenes that open Smorgasbord insofar as it illustrates the extent to which the solution to the problems Warren faces at the beginning of the film were, at least in the past, resolvable through a meta-filmic move, as though the making of a film itself were a kind of performance through which Lewis cured the misfit he played onscreen (or, if one wishes to be more “knowing” about it and to preserve the self-irony of The Errand Boy, a neurotic compulsion that provided temporary relief without actually solving anything at all).

By beginning with a scene in which the clown’s services are acknowledged as obsolete, no longer of interest to a paying public, Hardly Working acknowledges the impossibility of this solution, as ambivalent and neurotic as it may have been, for the Jerry Lewis of the 1980s. In that film, another solution is proposed, which involves a willful rejection of socially-sanctioned identity: this is perhaps the only film in which the Lewis character ultimately ends up being good at a “normal” job (that of a postman), at which point he promptly quits it to head to Ringling Brothers Clown College with his girlfriend and her son: the mass public may no longer be there, and Jerry may no longer be the star he was, but a smaller scale public endures in the form of the ad-hoc family and, presumably, a group of followers or pupils (the Jerry loyalists). In Smorgasbord, by contrast, the weak optimism of this conclusion is immediately called into question; indeed, one could easily see the opening scenes as the “true” continuation of the previous film. Here, Jerry is no longer simply an ill-adapted neurotic who might ultimately find his niche, but instead fully embraces his “late” form, which Murray Pomerance describes (referring both to Lewis the man and to his art) as “an existential singularity and essential unrelatedness, a man enisled.”1

Smorgasbord

The episodes that make up the film can thus be read as figurations of potential solutions to existential isolation: they do not illustrate adaptation or the trying-on of provisional identities, but simply ways of coping with being itself as a state of solitude and suffering. This level of abstraction is permitted by the almost total lack of anything resembling a plot, and one can hardly call Warren, even by Lewisian standards, a “character.” The fact that we are dealing here with something like the “human condition” is signaled early on when Warren, in therapy, explains that his problems do not originate in childhood, but go back hundreds of years in his family. We then see an episode involving one of his ancestors in fifteenth-century France, a coachman who is imprisoned after an unfortunate carriage accident. The coachman is fashioning a dummy that he plans to leave in his bed to fool the guards as he escapes. His plan is thwarted when the guards carry away the mattress in which he has hidden the dummy, which falls out and tumbles down a hill, landing atop the horse that the prisoner was intending to use for his own escape. Gazing through the bars of his cell, he laments, “My dummy escaped! Au revoir, dummy, have a good time in Paris.”

The dummy is of course a sort of double, and recalls both Lewis’ on-screen doubles and his self-constructed auteur persona. It is intended to function as a means for his escape, but its non-identity with the consciousness that projects it, no matter how much it may gain the recognition of others, means that it is only the image that escapes. The dummy represents, like Lacan’s mirror image, a false sense of coherence, and thus only imaginarily resolves the instability and incoherence of that which it ostensibly duplicates.

The inadequacy of performance and art are addressed in two other episodes as well. In the first, a group of stereotypical gangsters enters a bank. The leader (played by Lewis) looks into the security camera and initiates an elaborate dance routine rather than the expected heist. The filmmaking equipment that appeared in Lewis’ 1960s films, suggesting both the mastery of the one who wielded it and the expected recognition of the viewing public, has been replaced by an automated camera that interpellates its object as deviant or guilty. Performance does not enhance a sense of identity, but rather imposes it, and does so in an anonymous and impersonal way. In a later sequence, which repeats a gag from The Errand Boy, Warren visits a museum only to have a bull from a painting burst forth into the gallery, suggesting that – much like the dummy we have just seen – it is liable to take on a life of its own, rather than serving the needs of its creator or spectator.

Non-creative escapes from lack of identity and isolation are equally unsuccessful. Sexual relations are, as is often the case in Lewis’ films, revealed as a dangerous lure: Warren becomes aroused while listening through the door to one of the psychiatrist’s other patients, a sex-obsessed woman. When she emerges, we see that she is in fact Milton Berle in drag. The “female” character is thus not a suitable sexual partner, but embodies at once a castrating mother (she appears much older than her voice suggests) and a fear of homosexual desire. She aggressively propositions Warren, who recoils in fear, doubling Herbert’s gynophobia in The Ladies Man. As soon as she has left, the point of the scene is made abundantly clear, as Warren quips to the doctor, “One look at her and you get the desperate desire to be lonely.”

Smorgasbord

Another sequence involving a low-cost airline (and later paid homage to by Godard in his Soigne ta droite! (1987)), meanwhile, functions as a microcosm of social existence: one has to get one’s hand stamped (that is, essentially broken) to get on board, the fellow passengers are armed, and the pilot (a father figure) is drunk and away from the controls. Yet even this awful situation demands the exploitation of others, here represented by the “boatmen” who are hidden on the plane’s lower deck. After the plane’s inevitable crash, the possibility of a spiritual escape emerges, in the form of a yogi who tells Warren, “There is peace all around you.” There is, however, no escape from the physical world: Warren’s response to the yogi causes an avalanche, which lands both in the hospital. The latter insists he needs no anesthesia before surgery (“I can dissociate my mind from my body, where I shan’t feel anything, absolutely nothing whatsoever”) but cries out in pain as soon as the first incision is made.

Perhaps surprisingly, the film ends with an apparently effective cure, as the psychiatrist places Warren under hypnosis and programs him to shed his neuroses once he hears the word “smorgasbord.” Although Warren instantly seems to have recovered (as illustrated by his easy interaction with some women he meets on the street), the psychiatrist begins to take on Warren’s symptoms, losing control of his body and causing a series of dramatic accidents. While this may appear to be a sort of contagion or exchange, it also suggests once again that Warren’s condition is a shared, universal one; while it may be temporarily cured by the imposition and acceptance of the father’s command (something like the Lacanian “name-of-the-father”), the father himself is not the origin or possessor of the coherence he imposes upon the son. The apparent coherence of the self, furthermore, originates from outside, quite literally through a form of mind control.

Smorgasbord

As accidents accumulate around him, the psychiatrist repeats the word “smorgasbord,” as though attempting to repair his fragmenting being; a dissolve then brings us from a shot of him holding his head to a marquee bearing the name of the film we have just watched. The father’s order and supposed cure are thus explicitly identified with the artistic process, recalling Lewis’ frequent casting of film-as-therapy.2 This cure, however, is one whose failure has already been recognized: the self-referential conclusion that was site of the emergence of the sovereign ego in The Ladies Man and The Patsy here reveals its flimsiness and insufficiency. The film closes as Warren, exiting the film with a date, is asked about it by spectators waiting in line; his date appears more enthusiastic about the film than he is, and one spectator, a verbose waitress who appeared in an earlier sequence, springs a litany of questions upon him, some we would expect from the average viewer (“Was it cute or silly?”) and others that are more obvious double entendres (“Will I love it, or just like it?”; “Is it long or regular?”). The spectator seems impossible to please, and casts doubt upon Warren’s (and Lewis’) artistic (and sexual) abilities. This scene’s position at the conclusion of Lewis’ last feature as director suggests that even if a public, upon whose recognition the success of the cure depends, still exists, it will never be convinced of the coherence and mastery of the subject that the film constructs. Neither the man, nor the dummy can ever escape the judgmental gaze of the other, so better to retreat from view altogether.

Smorgasbord (aka Cracking Up, Jerry Lewis, USA 1983, 89min, colour)
Director: Jerry Lewis
Script: Jerry Lewis, Bill Richmond
Cinematography: Gerald Perry Finnerman
Sound: Joseph Holsen
Music: Morton Stevens
Editing: Gene Fowler Jr.
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Warren Nefron, Dr. Perks, Gangster, Speed Armeter), Milton Berle (Mrs. Sultry), Sammy Davis Jr. (Himself), Herb Edelman (Dr. Jonas Pletchick), Francine York (Marie Du Bois), John Abbott (Surgeon)
Producers: Peter Nelson, Arnold H. Orgolini

Smorgasbord is screening as part of the ‘Jerry Lewis: The Total Filmmaker’ program at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival (28 July – 14 August 2016). Find out more and purchase tickets here.

 

Endnotes

  1. Murray Pomerance, “The Errant Boy: Morty S. Tashman and the Powers of the Tongue,” in Enfant Terrible!: Jerry Lewis in American Film, ed. Pomerance (New York: NYU Press, 2002), 247.
  2. Chris Fujiwara identifies this function in many Lewis works, noting that “most of Lewis’s color films are concerned with healing and happiness …” See Chris Fujiwara, Jerry Lewis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), p. 71.

About The Author

Michael Cramer holds a PhD from Yale University’s combined program in Comparative Literature and Film Studies. He has taught film at Yale, Princeton, and SUNY-Purchase College and will join the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College this fall. His book Utopian Television, which deals with the television works of Godard, Rossellini, and Peter Watkins, is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press.