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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Q&A with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa (director of Jerry and Me)

Photograph by Robin Holland
A full-time faculty member in the Film and Video Department at Columbia College Chicago, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa is a major voice in the study of Iranian cinema, having written extensively on the subject and collaborated with critic Jonathan Rosenbaum on one of the definitive books about Abbas Kiarostami. She is also an accomplished director, and her new essay film, Jerry and Me, is a cinephilic love letter to the larger-than-life comic talent that came to embody the "essence of America" to her in her teenage years. The film offers a bittersweet, deeply personal examination of issues Saeed-Vafa has grappled with throughout her work as an academic, including gender and national/cultural belonging.

Jerry and Me will screen at BAMcinemaFest on Sunday, June 24 at 4pm along with a pristine IB Technicolor 35mm print of The Disorderly Orderly, starring Lewis and directed by Frank Tashlin. Saeed-Vafa will be in attendance for a Q&A. Here she speaks with us about what drew her to the great comedian, the place of Hollywood in Iranian movie-going culture, and some of her favorite Jerry Lewis gags.

Could you describe your experience of seeing a Jerry Lewis film for the first time?
I liked him right away. He became the icon of an American man for me. He was a sweet, warm, caring, gentle, good-looking young man. He was a man, but he had the persona of a child, very easy to identify with. He made me forget about myself and my world. It was pure fun. The world of his films, especially his Technicolor ones, was a fantastic world. It was an image of America and American houses and towns—very colorful and spacious, a very different world for me. The world of his films was warm and fearless and he was absolutely hilarious.

As a teenage girl, what was your initial reaction to his onscreen persona?
I liked him because he was not like other tough men/heroes presented in American movies. He was non-violent, unintimidating, innocent, vulnerable, gentle and soft, almost feminine. He was always well groomed, in sporty outfits, looking very modern, and his humor was humane, not mean, and so very unique. He expressed everything with his face and his movements. There was empathy, humor, and sometimes sadness.

I liked him more when he was acting like a child or adolescent: imaginative, crazy (out of control), disruptive, as opposed to his adult persona that was powerful, wise, and bossy (like the ending of some of his movies, such as The Nutty Professor.

I understood his loneliness, but he always had the magical power to shift to a happy ending if he wished. He often had a moral message about love and accepting yourself that I could not relate to. (Most of the time, there was a woman who was fond of him and saved him from loneliness. Those were the times when I could not relate to him.) As a teenager, I had a hard time with happy endings.

Jerry and Me beautifully depicts the changes in Iranian movie-going culture before and after the 1979 Revolution. What is the state of movie-going in Iran in 2012?
How has it changed since the 1980s? I’m not quite sure, since I’m not living in Iran. But from what I’ve learned, there are fewer movie theaters running now than before the revolution. This may be due to the fact that there is less audience now for movies than before and/or more strict policies for film production and exhibition. There is also inflation, and critical economic conditions that may be responsible for the recession of film exhibition and its market in Iran.

Right after the revolution, Western and Hollywood movies were almost completely banned. It was less strict for a while during the 90s, but in general, commercial Western films, Hollywood films, and most western European films would rarely get permission for public screening. Mostly due to their “immoral content” and the portrayal of women—the way women appear onscreen, how they relate to men, their intimate/physical behavior toward men, all of which would come in conflict with the moral values set mostly in 1982 by the government. Few American films have been shown in Iran since the revolution. For example, Dances with the Wolves and Seven were shown in movie theaters.

The majority of the films in Iranian movie theaters are domestic productions. A small number of enthusiastic young cineastes get to see foreign films during the annual film festival in Tehran (the Fajr International Film Festival, in early February). Sometimes, you can find pirated DVD copies of contemporary films in black markets. Every now and then, a domestic commercial film that has screening permission is pulled off screens due to religious or political opposition. Movies are still very popular in Iran and seen as a powerful tool to influence the audience, and youths in particular. There are several film magazines that regularly provide news about Hollywood and other Western films.

Has Jerry Lewis’ reputation in Iran changed significantly since the 1979 Revolution?
Is he still as popular today as he was during your childhood? Yes. The younger generation doesn’t know him that well. But older audience still like him and remember the fun times with his movies that were shown each year before the revolution.

Do you feel there’s a place for Lewis’ distinct style of comedy in our contemporary culture? If so, who do you see as his filmmaking descendants?
I think there’s always room for his style of comedy. There’s so much to learn from his films. Although no one can copy him, and only he can perform and act the way he does, many have been influenced by him. For example: Richard Pryor, Jim Carrey, Quentin Tarantino, Jon Landis, Joe Dante, and Jean Luc Godard.

Could you share some thoughts/personal recollections about The Disorderly Orderly, which screens with your film in BAMcinemaFest on June 24?
I saw it dubbed into Persian when it came out. What I loved about the film then, I still love about it now. For example, the scene where he reacts physically to the description of his female patient’s medical problems (leaking gallbladder and kidney) in the hospital’s garden is still hilarious. Also, all the surreal jokes: a “patient” in a full body cast is accidentally pushed down a hill, hits a tree, and is revealed to be hollow; the scene where Jerry has to fix a woman’s snowy TV, and actual snow bursts out of the TV; and the whole final sequence, with shopping carts attacking the store and canned food rolling down the streets—they’re so fantastic.

I also remember small, terrific moments: Jerry is told to carry a couple of skeletons to two different doctors. His superior asks him whether he knows which one is a girl and which one is a boy. Also, Jerry’s hair style as a young high school boy, when he sees his beloved girl kissing another man.

I completely identified with the out of control, crazy world that the film portrayed and how Jerry handled it all. The part that didn’t work for me as a teenager was his great love for his female colleague who finally saves and cures him.

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