Blindspotting #8 – Our Hospitality and The Family Jewels

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If you’re wondering what Jerry Lewis’ decidedly non-classic The Family Jewels is doing on my Blind Spot list, well, you can easily be forgiven. I blame the NetFlix gods for unceremoniously turfing The Nutty Professor from the ranks of their streaming library, so I took a flier with his 1965 effort that (just like The Nutty Professor) was also written and directed by Lewis (and additionally produced in this case). The intent was to watch and compare two of the top comedies from a pair of brilliant physical comedians who also worked behind the camera. One of them (Buster Keaton) is a personal favourite while the other (Jerry Lewis) is someone whose filmography has barely been scratched by me. Keaton, of course, is the great Stone Face: a gifted and slightly bonkers physical comedian who did insanely dangerous stunts, but whose characters on screen rarely showed any emotion. Lewis, on the other hand, drew strongly on his elastic facial expressions to double down on the physical gags of his films. My preference has always been with Keaton (knowing Lewis just from clips off TV, etc.), but a viewing of one of Lewis’ earliest films called The Bellboy made me reconsider digging into his film career.

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Therefore The Nutty Professor was the obvious next step for investigating Lewis – it’s typically his highest rated film (among those he directed and starred in), is rife with potential for slapstick and is essentially part of general pop culture at this point. The Bellboy was an excuse to squeeze numerous skits and ideas together into a non-plot film, but it succeeded in impressing me along several lines. Lewis showed he could actually be subtle and very inventive while being a complete goofball. The Nutty Professor will have to wait, but I had some high hopes going into The Family Jewels that I’d get at least more of the same and build further anticipation to his other films. How did that pan out? Well, let’s review my first sentence of this post again…Barring several moments of reasonably inspired absurdity and several deftly timed bits by Lewis, the film flops and flounders as it haphazardly wanders through its plot mechanism: a 9-year-old heiress (first time actress – and boy does it show – Donna Butterworth) gets to spend 2 weeks with each of her five different uncles (all played by Lewis) to see who she prefers to be her guardian. The family chauffeur Willard (also Lewis) is her best friend and escorts her to each new candidate. He also happened to accidentally stop an armoured car holdup at the start of the movie which is not forgotten by the gangsters he thwarted.

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A Martin Scorsese Marathon

Basically, you make another movie, and another, and hopefully you feel good about every picture you make. And you say, ‘My name is on that. I did that. It’s OK’. But don’t get me wrong, I still get excited by it all. That, I hope, will never disappear.” – Martin Scorsese

For the better part of the last three decades, I have been a fan of Martin Scorsese. My admiration first took bloom in the summer of 1985, and happened to coincide with what I consider to be the discovery of my young adult life; set off the main drag of the town I grew up in, I found a small video store. Now, this in itself was no great revelation; in the years before Blockbuster came barreling into my area, forcing all the smaller video chains out of business, there were at least half a dozen such stores within a 3-mile radius. But the moment I walked into this particular video palace, I knew it was special. Where most were lining their shelves with numerous copies of the ‘hot new releases’, this one had titles like Midnight Cowboy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, films that the others simply didn’t offer. For me, this store was a treasure trove, and I returned there often, sometimes 3-4 times a week, uncovering classic after classic, films that, to this day, I consider some of the finest ever made.

And it was here that I first found Mean Streets.

Tough and unflinching, Mean Streets was like a punch to the head for a 15-year-old from the suburbs; a marriage of images and rock music, violence and pain the likes of which I had never seen before, offering a glimpse into a lifestyle that I found all too real, and a little bit frightening. I must have rented it at least six times that summer, and as a result, Mean Streets fast became my favorite movie. More than this, it was my jumping-off point into the career of Martin Scorsese. After Mean Streets, I moved on to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, two more shots to the head. Through these three films, I realized just how deep, just how down-and-dirty, and just how moving the cinema could be. They marked a turning point in my development as a film fan. Movies were no longer limited to the land of make believe; they would also be a window overlooking the real world.

Now, almost 24 years after I first walked into that video store, I’ve decided to take my admiration to the next, perhaps the ultimate, level. Over the course of the last several weeks, I sat down with everything that home video has to offer of Martin Scorsese’s work behind the camera, 26 films in all, and what I uncovered on this love-fest of mine proved to be just as enlightening as that first viewing of Mean Streets all those years ago.

As I sat watching one Scorsese movie after the other, I found myself asking, “What exactly is it that constitutes a Martin Scorsese film”? It was a question I had to pose, because I quickly realized that most of my initial beliefs, the pre-conceptions I had built up about the man and his career, only told part of the story.

For one, there was my presumption that the recurring trait in every Scorsese film was a down-to-earth quality, where the genuine, the realistic, would be favored above all else. Well, this is certainly true in some of Scorsese’s finest films, especially those where actual events served as a foundation (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Aviator). However, it was wrong of me to discount the role that fantasy played in Scorsese’s work. The opening scene of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore looks as if it was lifted right out of Gone With the Wind, and the musical numbers of New York, New York were obvious nods to the Hollywood big-budget spectaculars of the 40’s and 50’s. There is the dreamy romance of The Age of Innocence, and the hilarious bad luck of Paul Hackett in After Hours; in short, films that have little or no basis in reality whatsoever, proving that the fantastic plays just as important a role in the great director’s work as reality does.
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