Metamorphoscissors: a video essay

April 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

Halfway through the climactic sequence of Jerry Lewis’ 1963 picture The Nutty Professor, I was slapped in the face with a realisation that made me press ‘pause.’  A physical transformation was taking place on-screen – that of charismatic asshole Buddy Love as he reverts back to sweet but bumbling Professor Julius Kelp – and it was being orchestrated by way of simple cuts. Lewis and editor John Woodcock were able to create – at least for me – a seemingly seamless illusion by flipping back and forth between Love/Kelp and his dumbstruck college audience, patiently introducing fairly obvious but functionally subtle physical changes with each cut.

The very first transformation sequence, in which chemist Julius Kelp – with the help of a comically colourful brew – turns into his dapper and cocky alter ego, is even more perplexing in its effectiveness. Akin to a scene from a German Expressionist silent picture, Kelp’s maiden transformation eschews any attempts at a ‘realistic’ portrayal of physical reconfiguration, aiming instead for something more – well – expressive. Achieved once again through straightforward cutting though much swifter, the sequence’s focus on the mayhem and violence of the process, paired with comically garish staging and makeup, places it somewhere in the realm of horror-comedy. It’s a moment that’s more invested in relaying the emotional toll of despising oneself to the point of self-harm than it is in attaining some kind of visual verisimilitude. These mild horror elements most certainly taint the apparent improvement in Kelp’s physical and social status, a sly comment on the eventual end product of the transformation. Buddy Love may not look like a monster, but in many ways he is, at least according to the process by which he is given birth.

These two transformation sequences seem to occupy a space between the artfully implied metamorphoses found in old-school, low-budget pictures like Cat People (1942) and more visually graphic practices, from the prosthetic contortions of mid-to-late 80’s horror, to the digital deceptions of nowadays. Of course, each of these approaches produces distinct effects, and my decision to explore the use of cuts in The Nutty Professor by visually de-constructing the two aforementioned sequences is a matter of curiosity not preferential advocacy. In fact, this exercise really highlights the vast visual fissures that Lewis and Woodcock manage to breach editorially so as to achieve a sense of seamlessness, in turn deepening my appreciation for the overall effectiveness of these moments as they play on-screen in ‘real time’, or rather ‘film time.’



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