Tag Archives: Documentaries

Release the “Clowns”

I never thought I’d get to see “The Day The Clown Cried,” which will probably stand as Jerry Lewis’ second or third most famous movie despite the fact that it’s never been released. I also never thought I’d get to see a commentary or documentary that treated the movie with as much dignity and respect as David Schneider does here.

He raises a point that has always merited discussion: is it even fair to have an opinion about a movie that’s never been seen, was never even completed, and which the director has worked hard to keep completely under wraps? No, of course it isn’t. It’s just way to hard not to. “Jerry Lewis did a movie set inside a concentration camp” is a phrase that spurs as much impassioned imagination as the orange light inside the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction.”

And then, of course, there’s Jerry’s recent comments about the film, during a public Q&A a couple of years ago:

Someone asked Jerry if the movie would ever be released.

“It’s very easy to sit in front of an audience and expound on your feelings,” he said, referring to the Q&A. “It’s another thing to have to deal with those feelings. And in terms of that film, I was embarrassed. I was ashamed of the work, and I was grateful that I had the power to contain it all and never let anybody see it. It was bad, bad, bad. It could have been wonderful. But I slipped up. I didn’t quite get it. And I didn’t have enough sense to find out why I’m doing it, and maybe there there would be an answer. Uh-uh. It’ll never be seen.

“Sorry. I’ll tell you how it ends…

I’ve read that the production ran into financing issues, in addition to legal trouble when the creator of the work upon which the screenplay was based insisted that their rights to the story had lapsed. If that’s true, then my next obvious question is “Would the Jerry of 1972 have finished and released this movie, if he could have?”

I can’t speculate. I’ll say that he seems sincere in this Q&A. He’s forty years older, probably a lot wiser, and maybe he’s giving advice to the younger version of himself that the 46 year old Jerry Lewis might not have taken.

I can easily imagine “The Day The Clown Cried” being similar to that super angry email that you wrote but never sent because you didn’t trust the privacy of a public WiFi connection, and then you forgot about it until you rediscovered it a couple of years later. You can remember everything about that email, and even now, you think you were perfectly right to be this angry with this person…but you’re relieved and grateful that fate prevented this thing from getting out.

Jerry’s by no means one of my favorite filmmakers, though I respect his obvious love of the artform. Still, I always thought it was unfair to judge a movie that he never “finished.” Drivesavers recently told the story of the herculean efforts they undertook to recover “lost” writings of Gene Roddenberry. 200 floppies full of files, which he had written with an early CP/M-based computer whose OS and apps had been custom-made for him. The recovery wasn’t just a technical problem or a forensic problem…the challenge was practically an archaeological one.

His estate now has all of the recovered text. It’s hard to imagine that Gene left behind a complete, fully written and revised manuscript or screenplay for everything. Even any outlines would be, at best, the frameworks for a future work and not the work itself. I’m sure hundreds of thousands of people would love to read these things, but should we? The drafts of a work-in-progress have a certain “sanctity of the confessional” about them. I’ve written some stuff where I tried to stretch myself and explore The Gentle Cruelty of the Human Condition and it was just maudlin trash. Fair enough; I gave it a try and had enough objectivity about my work to see that it wasn’t worth developing further. It’d be wearying to spend the next forty years of my life being judged, partly, by this thing that I myself decided wasn’t any good.

You’ve probably heard that Jerry has donated “The Day The Clown Cried” to the Library of Congress, along with a trove of other personal papers (with the proviso that it wouldn’t be made available to the public in any form for ten years). That seems to be in line with the sentiments he expressed during that Q&A. He’s deliberately chosen to place that footage within the historical context of his life’s story, and not as part of his creative canon. It’s there for the benefit of film historians, not movie audiences.

Either way…I can’t not see this movie. I never thought I’d live long enough to see Star Wars: Episode VII or “The Day The Clown Cried.” I’ve managed to avoid drunk drivers and poisoned chalices long enough to see the first and now I’m quite hopeful about the second.

The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith: Steve Jobs Q&A

The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith: Steve Jobs Q&A

Via The Q&A Podcast.

I listened to Jeff Goldsmith’s onstage interview with Aaron Sorkin, which he conducted after a screening of “Steve Jobs.”

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I sure intend to. Any movie written by Sorkin is worth my attention, and the fact that it was also directed by Danny Boyle makes it a can’t-miss-it for me. If the first movie I watch from a director includes a beautiful underwater scene shot inside The Worst Toilet In Scotland, then that director has won him or herself a lifelong fan.

Jeff’s interview affirms something I suspected: a move made by these two people can’t possibly be careless work. After listening to this hourlong interview, you may or may not think this movie was a good idea. But it’s hard to not come away thinking that its makers went into it with the highest aspirations and an intention to do their very best work.

With biopics, I often get the impression that the filmmakers had an idea for a fictional story that they’d wanted to tell for years, and wound up casting a familiar, real-life figure as the lead character in that movie. This was the case with “Wired,” a 1989 movie based on a biography of John Belushi that was produced under similar circumstances to “Steve Jobs.” It was the life of a famous, recently-deceased person, based on a biography that many people had found fault with.

Even the 2013 Steve Jobs movie that starred Ashton Kutcher made that same mistake. I saw that one on its opening weekend.

(Forgive me. I had no choice. I knew I’d be talking about it on a podcast the following week.)

That flick told the life story of Steve Jobs, the fictional character of folklore. He was born in a log cabin that he built with his own two hands. He was so disengaged during the filming of “The Godfather” that Francis Ford Coppola had to feed him each of his lines through a radio earpiece; he pitched a no-hitter while tripping on LSD; and died a hero of workingmen everywhere when he managed to drive more steel with his powerful arms and mighty hammer than a newfangled steampowered contraption could in the same span of hours.

Throughout the production of “Steve Jobs,” Sorkin has been upfront about producing a fact-based portrait that uses obvious storytelling conceits. For instance, yes, the first public demo of the original Mac ran into a snag when Steve insisted that the computer speak, and the team couldn’t get the code to fit inside 128K of system memory. In reality, though, the crisis had been solved long before the launch event.

On that basis, I’m okay with the liberties Sorkin and Boyle took. But I do understand the concern. How many people, because of the movie “Amadeus,” think that Antonio Salieri was a mediocre composer and killed Mozart? Or that John Dickinson was indifferent to the cause of American independence, because of “1776”? Or that Gus Grissom panicked and blew the hatch of his Mercury spacecraft prematurely after splashdown, causing Liberty Bell 7 to be lost to the sea and almost getting himself killed, because of what they saw in “The Right Stuff”?

We tend to believe what we see, and a screenwriter imposes a streamlined, easy-to-grasp clarity upon a narrative that reality doesn’t. (“Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.”) This must be an unpleasant experience for Jobs’ friends and family. They knew the man for all of his depth, without having to streamline anything or condense several people into a single composite character. What chance is there that Laurene Powell Jobs is going to recognize anything in the man that Michael Fassbender is portraying? How rough must it be to wonder and worry about what sort of conclusions about Steve that audiences will be taking away with them?

I know something of this. “Life Itself” was a documentary, not a biopic. It was based on Roger Ebert’s own memoir. It was made by Steve James, Roger’s personal choice of director, who also made “Hoop Dreams,” one of his favorite documentaries. The guiding hands of Roger and his wife Chaz were directly involved in the production, every step of the way.

And it’s a terrific documentary that I hope you’ll all see. I knew Roger for more than half my life, and that’s the only reason why the doc felt strange to me. It was accurate and affectionate. It even used some of the photos I took when we were out together. But of course, two hours of interviews and found footage can’t possibly convey the man I got to know and love through a quarter-century of experiences and conversations.

So I certainly respect any negative comments that Steve’s actual friends and family might be making about Sorkin’s movie. I hope to see the movie myself. But I’m not as excited to see it as I am about a bunch of the heavy dramas that the studios are releasing here in Awards Season. Or the “Peanuts” movie. I’ll get to it eventually.

I do hope that the people who knew Steve well will find the time to sit down and write or record their memories of him. Even if they only leave their testimonies to a university library, even if they demand that these stories remain sealed until after their own deaths. Because without a wealth of first-person narratives, future historians — and future filmmakers — will have to connect the dots on their own.