Film explores funnyman Jerry Lewis' personal impact

10/31/2012 10:00 PM

Phil Morehart
Contributing Writer

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Jerry Lewis’ The Bellboy will screen before a documentary about his influence on an Iranian filmaker.

Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa found escape in cinema.

The Iranian-born filmmaker and Columbia College film instructor spent her youth in Tehran during the 1950s and 1960s devouring American movies. Psycho, The Searchers, West Side Story and more opened her to worlds, people, and attitudes not found in her confining homeland and home life. Of all of the films, however, those made by and starring Jerry Lewis made an impact above all others.

Saeed-Vafa’s new film, Jerry & Me, which screens Saturday, Nov. 3 and Wednesday, Nov. 7 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, charts her lifelong fascination with the funnyman, detailing how his films — and film as a whole — shaped her identity. It’s both a penetrating exploration of cinema and self, as well as an interesting survey of contemporary Iranian history.

The film details Saeed-Vafa’s life from her childhood in Tehran to the present day, using clips from classic American films to augment moments in her life. Cinema was an escape for the young Mehrnaz. It presented idealizations; lives and worlds that differed from her fractured home life and the modern, but still chauvinistic Iran.

Clips from the films are presented as Saeed-Vafa would have seen them as a youth, complete with Persian voice dubbing. They’re absolutely fascinating to watch, especially in instances when supplemental dialogue is added. Hearing John Wayne praise Allah in a classic Western was a surprise.

Even more fascinating is the footage of Iranian movie theaters that were operation in the ’50s and ’60s. These theaters were opulent, modern structures with beautiful multi-colored, illuminated facades reminiscent of classic Las Vegas-style resorts and casinos.

Witnessing their destruction after the 1979 Iranian Revolution is heartbreaking.

Jerry Lewis’ films spoke to Saeed-Vafa. A self-professed awkward girl, she identified with the on-screen Lewis. He was an outsider, but one who was comfortable with himself. He was both dorky and cool.

Lewis’ self-acceptance, coupled with a worldview gained from Western cinema, drove Saeed-Vafa to pursue film professionally. She traveled to London to study film, where she was exposed to the poetic cinema of Robert Bresson. Returning home after school, she made films and taught cinema (famed filmmaker Jafar Panahi ranks amongst her students) before immigrating to the United States.

Jerry & Me is a love letter to cinema and its impact on Saeed-Vafa’s life, but it does not wear rose-colored glasses. The film is an honest, open book.

Saeed-Vafa details the troubles that she has faced throughout her life, from her father’s adulterous ways to her son’s father abandoning her and their child, using cinema as an explanatory backdrop. As for film, she’s critical of its often-reckless and wanton depictions of sex, which repelled her as a youth despite opening up her views on female strength and sexuality. Her idol Lewis does not escape criticism, either, particularly after he made a bigoted comment towards “Arabs” while at a Columbia College speaking event. Saeed-Vafa’s unbiased eye on matters personal and professional makes the film all the more strong.

Jerry & Me is a short film, running 38 minutes tops. The abbreviated running time is a shame — Saeed-Vafa’s story is feature-length material. The Siskel screenings will be preceded by Jerry Lewis’ 1960 directorial debut, The Bellboy, screened from an archival 35mm print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive. Saeed-Vafa will be present for audience discussion.

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