Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tracking Down The Clown

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2006)

I was recently scrolling through the film section of the Guardian newspaper’s website, and I came across the following story:

“We've had Life is Beautiful and Jakob the Liar. Now the list of movies mixing clowning with the Holocaust is to grow with Adam Resurrected, a film adaptation of the book by Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk. The story centres on a Jewish circus clown who is kept alive by the Nazis to entertain his fellow Jews as they march to the gas chambers. Jeff Goldblum has signed to star while Paul Schrader will direct. A spring 2007 production start date has been pencilled in for the film.”

Paul Schrader

Now I’m always excited when Paul Schrader directs anything, because I’ve kept the faith through his up-and-down career, from hotshot screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, through some flashy early success as a director with American Gigolo, through films that gradually dwindled in momentum if not necessarily in interest, almost to the point of total wipeout, until Affliction and Auto Focus made him viable again. In particular, I must write an article one day on one of my all-time guilty pleasures, his version of Cat People (now that, as regular readers may recall, I’ve got my confessional piece on Blake Edwards’ “10” out of my system).

Most recently, Schrader suffered a real reversal when he was hired for his most commercial assignment in years, to direct the prequel to The Exorcist, and was then very publicly fired. Most versions of the story say the producers thought Schrader’s end product was too intense and not scary enough, although there were also reports of personal problems (a constant throughout Schrader’s career). The film got made over again, with reliable hack Renny Harlin, predictably bombed, and then Schrader’s version got let out after all (it’s played here on TMN). It’s better than Harlin’s but still beneath him. Happily, Schrader has recovered with a new film to come (which he describes as a take on an older version of the American Gigolo character, starring Woody Harrelson), and now the report on Adam Resurrected.

For a while it seemed that Schrader’s Exorcist film would join the ranks of legendary unseen movies, like all those barely glimpsed Orson Welles projects I wrote about recently…and this takes me back to what really grabbed me about that report in the Guardian. As students of cinema’s quirky back alleys will know, there was a third “clowning with the Holocaust” film that was never released, and that consequently possesses a quasi-mythic quality, although in this case, if you don’t know already what I’m talking about, you may be just about to wonder if this is the April 1 issue. Here it is. The film is (or was, or would have been) The Day The Clown Cried, directed by and written by and starring…Jerry Lewis.

The Day The Clown Cried

As a summary has it: “It tells the story of a self-centered circus clown, Helmut Doork, who is sent to a concentration camp after a drunken impersonation of Hitler. There, he befriends the Jewish children of the camp, and performs for them, angering the camp Commandant. He is accidentally sent with the children on a train to Auschwitz, and there, he is expected to lead the children, like a Pied Piper, to the gas chambers.”

Lewis shot the film in 1972 in Sweden, after losing 35 pounds for the role. The production was plagued (like all such lost films) by financial and logistical problems, and disappeared at the end into a sea of legal troubles, not helped by the fact that several people involved hated what they saw of the film and never want it released.

Lewis apparently keeps a videotape of the rough-cut in his office (in a Louis Vuitton briefcase) and has screened it for various people. The most evocative report we have of it comes from comedian Harry Shearer: “…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.”

After I read that Guardian piece and Lewis’ lost film popped back into my mind, I did a Google search and came to the Subterranean Cinema website, which contains the Shearer quote, several accounts of the film’s making, some brief film clips from the set (accompanied, hilariously, by music from the Solaris soundtrack), and most astonishing of all, two complete drafts of the screenplay. If you have a general familiarity with Lewis’ acting and directing style, and you keep in mind the comments by Shearer and others, you can probably make a pretty good stab at visualizing the movie that might have resulted from this, and it is indeed, at best, not very good. Perhaps most distasteful of all is the prospect of the Holocaust serving primarily as a mere backdrop to a maudlin story of individual redemption (“I demand to be treated like a ‘clown’,” says Lewis’ character early on, before he’s sent to the camp, “not a stooge ... A ‘clown’ ... and a Person!”).

Filming The Holocaust

I didn’t care at all for Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful a few years ago (and was particularly not amused when he won the Oscar for best actor by beating – just to reach for another connection – Nick Nolte in Schrader’s Affliction), and have often disparaged those who tell me it’s an uplifting fable of the human spirit. I suppose I’m a little pious in this regard in that I’d probably look sceptically at any treatment of the Holocaust that isn’t primarily about the Holocaust. If there’s anything we should have learned from that, it’s the wrongness of looking away, and I think our obsessive focus on individual stories (whether of loss or transcendence) often amounts to looking away from the plight of the many. So to me, in a way, a film about the Holocaust that focuses on a single quirky protagonist tends to reinforce the complacency that generates vast injustice. I’m not particularly saying that’s a justified view – only saying it’s mine.

So I would probably hate The Day The Clown Cried. But man, how I’d love to get the chance. But the Subterranean Cinema website brings us as close as I would have imagined possible…and this is only one of the tantalizing tales on there. Folks, there are six million stories in the naked city of cinema, and this has been one of them. Now, what I’d really love is an angle on James Toback’s second film, Love And Money, which I’ve never known to be screened anywhere in my vicinity. How far underground is that by now?

(PS as of November 10, 2010 - you can read my article on Schrader's Cat People here. And I finally found Love And Money on DVD - I'll be watching it real soon. So maybe there's still hope for the Clown...)

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