Philip Roth Unmasked: TV Review

Philip Roth - P 2011
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Philip Roth - P 2011

It's mostly Roth on Roth in this absorbing but barely R-rated look at the brilliantly uncensored author. 

The great novelist speaks with PBS's "American Masters" about psychoanalysis, sex-obsessed characters and turning 80 for this invigorating doc.

Philip Roth may be unmasked but is only partially revealed in this very personable documentary portrait of one of the leading American literary figures of the past half-century. This co-venture between France CineTeve and Channel 13 ran for a week at New York's Film Forum before its American Masters PBS telecast March 29.

More than anything, the film is worth having for the opportunity it provides to spend time with Roth himself. Although a household name since the publication of Portnoy's Complaint in 1969, Roth never became a public personality per se like such near-contemporaries as Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote or George Plimpton, as he was not a talk show regular, political pundit, literary brawler or gossip column subject. Quite the opposite, in fact; for years he has projected the image of the vaguely anti-social recluse holed up in the writing shed at his rural Connecticut home turning out 31 books of a mostly very high order.

So it's a fresh, invigorating experience to hear this acutely intelligent, direct, reflective and amusing man, in full command of his faculties as he approaches his 80th birthday (on March 19), summon up memories of his life and, in particular, reflect on an exceptionally prolific writing career that might have dipped in quality for a while but bounced back impressively in the late innings (Roth recently announced that he's officially retired from composing fiction).

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While insisting that, “Most of the events in my books never happened,” Roth nonetheless employed at least four major alter egos over the years to express different aspects of himself and the author, who spent 10 days being interviewed by the French writer-director team of William Karel and Livia Manera, engagingly describes the distinct periods in his life. Drolly allowing that, “In the coming years, I have two great calamities to face: death and a biography,” Roth persists in objecting being described as “a Jewish-American writer.” He recalls his mostly agreeable upbringing in Newark, N.J. (where there is now a touristic Philip Roth bus tour), fruitful college years at Bucknell and the University of Chicago, his stint in the Army (where he began to write seriously, at night), success at 26 with Goodbye, Columbus, his disastrous first marriage, when he felt he was “derailed” and “in hell,” and the psychological liberation that occasioned the writing of something as utterly uninhibited as Portnoy.

Roth absorbingly charts the literary path that led him there. Having grown up in a home without books, he gravitated to James Joyce (Ulysses, he says, “changed everything”) and was unavoidably influenced by J.D. Salinger: “I wanted to be sensitive too.” But his big hero, dating to his Chicago days, was Saul Bellow, who taught him that, like Joyce, who left Dublin when young but never stopped writing about it, “You can go anywhere and express your background.”

What sprang the genie out of the box was psychoanalysis. Seeing a shrink several times a week, he found his full voice when he learned how to write as explicitly and honestly as he spoke to his analyst. Freeing himself to “say anything” is what produced Portnoy, and after that international sensation, he never looked back. “Shame isn't for writers,” he proclaims. “When I sit down to write, I'm free from shame.”

Although his college friend Jane Brown Maas insists that “Philip's shocking” and neighbor Mia Farrow loves his “provocations,” Roth bristles a bit at being considered a sex-obsessed writer. Admitting that he needs a real-world basis for what he writes, that his stories are not made up out of whole cloth, he stresses that Zuckerman, who figures in nine of his books, is “not sexual,” though Kepesh and Mickey Sabbath very insistently are. The endlessly lecherous latter character is at the center of Sabbath's Theater (1995), which New Yorker writer Claudia Roth Pierpont, who's writing a book about the author, feels might be his greatest achievement.

In any event, Roth himself won't go down that road to compare himself to his major characters, nor does anyone else venture into his private life, as if it had been placed off-limits as a condition of the interview being granted. Significantly, Roth's second wife, actress Claire Bloom, who wrote an unflattering memoir of their marriage, is not as much as mentioned, and there is no indication of how such a disciplined, often isolated writer balanced his dedication to his work with what one must believe has been a very active, peripatetic wolf's life. The Roth “unmasked” by the documentary is a very solitary figure who, during a period of severe back pain accompanied by prescription drugs that disoriented him, admittedly was suicidal. He even reels off a who's who of writers who committed suicide but allows that he doesn't want to “join the list.”

He doesn't shed much light on his artistic methods or how he develops his narratives, though he admits to unhappiness when he's not writing. As Hemingway did, he writes standing up, claiming it frees his mind to spin off into welcome realms of the imagination. Incisive comments from a wider array of other writers and cultural figures would have strengthened the documentary, but it still shines to the extent that one can bask in the warm vigor of this supremely talented octogenarian horndog.

Production: Cineteve, American Masters for Thirteen
Cast: Philip Roth, Mia Farrow, Bob Heyman, Jane Brown Maas, Martin Garbus, Claudia Roth Pierpont, Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander
Writer-directors: William Karel, Livia Manera
Producers: Fabienne Servan Schreiber, Lucie Pastor
Executive producer: Susan Lacy
Director of photography: Francois Reumon
Editor: Stephanie Mahet