There are two moments in Judith Halberstam’s pretty tremendous new book The Queer Art of Failure that don’t really matter much in her larger argument but nevertheless stuck in my throat.

One is a trite, even trifling concern on film genre. Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet 2008) is not “the extraordinary French documentary about a year in the life of a high school in the suburbs of Paris” that Halberstam identifies it as. It’s a piece of fiction. In most ways, this doesn’t matter. But having taught that film last semester, there is something to the film’s formal approach that does matter. In that spirit, I want to turn Halberstam’s mistake around a la Borges: what if Dude Where’s My Car? were a documentary? I don’t know if anything in her argument would be substantially altered.

In 2007 or so, Judith Halberstam was the graduate-student-chosen Rheney Speaker at Vanderbilt, and her talk had the best goddamn q-and-a I’ve been a part of. At one point Halberstam, in the span of about three minutes, put forward the argument of the first four chapters of The Queer Art of Failure to illustrate a series of other points. From that, I stole the “Pixar = Communism” idea that took up a quarter of last semester’s CINE 202. She also went into immensely funny detail about Dude Where’s My Car?, becoming the Academic I Want To Be When I Grow Up to most of us. One thing she did not do during that spiel was take easy shots, which brings me to my second point (a minor one, I grant): the ease with which “Jerry Lewis” acts as a synonym for “bad.”

On page 57, she writes, “Stupidity in men is represented as, well, disarming (Adam Sandler), charming (Jerry Lewis), comforting (George W. Bush), or innocent (Will Farrel in Elf, Tom Hanks in everything).” But not even a page later she returns to Jerry Lewis: “in the end [Sideways] is no different from any other buddy movie, recalling the dumb cute guy and smart ugly guy couples of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Butch Cassidy and Sundance, even the much more appealing Jesse and Chester in Dude, Where’s My Car?” (58).

I could reconcile these by noting that on the one hand, Martin and Lewis were described as “a handsome man and a monkey” (in that order), while on the other, Jerry as a solo act traded on the charmingly stupid persona. It’s certainly the case in The Nutty Professor, which gives us the handsome but dumb Buddy Love and the smart but ugly Julius. The Bellboy might be the best example of such a view, so long as we ignore the Real Jerry’s appearance. This approach, however, doesn’t stand up against Cinderfella, which concludes not with Jerry’s charming stupidity winning out but rather his immense frustration at everyone’s assumption that he’s stupid. Much the same sentiment appears in The Errand Boy and, in the end, in The Family Jewels. Then there’s The Patsy, in which Jerry is both the handsome dumb guy and the ugly dumb guy. Shit, in The Patsy he’s also the ugly smart guy who, in falling out the window at the end, brings the Real Jerry – a fairly handsome and smart cat – in to finish the film.

In the end, I’m mostly arguing over the how-to-get-there portion of Halberstam’s argument. I would wager that digging into Jerry, stupidity, and failure would fit nicely into Halberstam’s larger argument as the history Jesse and Chester build on. But if there’s one thing that brings me down it’s when an otherwise superb book takes a hackneyed road to a fine conclusion.

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