Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Meet Philip Roth--digitally, but for free!--at NYC's Film Forum in this new documentary

The title may be PHILIP ROTH: UNMASKED, but since we're watching a documentary made for the uber-prestigious American Masters series for Channel 13 in tandem with Cinétévé, we know damn well that we're in for another worshipful view of someone who's been chosen to represent high art in whatever form s/he works. This time it's fiction. Unmasked? My eye. While there's plenty of history here, and family (in photos, at least) and a friend or two -- mostly Mia Farrow, who is charming and lovely, as usual -- almost nothing truly personal makes its way from the doc to its audience.

Not to say that the movie is a waste. Not at all. It covers Roth's life a propos his writing, and as such makes a lot of interesting connections and tells a number of fun stories about the man and his work. This is fascinating stuff -- but almost completely impersonal. Roth himself comes across as avuncular, very intelligent and well-spoken (no surprise there) and a man supremely comfortable in his skin, his life and his success. He seems happy to talk, and the filmmakers equally so to film and listen. (That's one of them, Livia Manera, shown with Roth, above; the other is William Karel.) Yet everything here is so graceful and easy, with not a subject raised nor a moment shown that in any way rankles, that one has the sense early on and for the duration that certain ground rules have been set and any deviation will not be tolerated.

The press kit for the film calls Roth "arguably America's greatest living novelist," though TrustMovies has never felt that way. But clearly a lot of folk do. I've read but four of Roth's works, and one of the things that this documentary might very well manage is to send viewers, myself included, back to the novels and stories themselves -- which I should think will please Roth immensely.

Interestingly, we get reams of information about Roth's early life, which if we believe psychologists, sets the tone for the man to come. And if we take the writings and his male characters as extensions of himself, this Roth is quite a sexual being. Or not. (The writer tells us that his Zuckerman character may or may not be his alter-ego.) "Shame isn't for writers," he tell us at one point, along with "I love to write about sex. It's such a vast subject." Indeed.

One of the more charming and funny tales is that of the cab ride the author once took, not long after the publication of his most successful (sales-wise) book, with a cab driver whose last name was, yes, Portnoy. In reference to the dark side, we are told, "You don't have to go looking for suffering if you are a writer. It will seek you out soon enough."  True. As it will all those non-writers, too.

In addtion to Ms Farrow, those interviewed about Mr. Roth include writers Jonathan Franzen and Nathan Englander, attorney Martin Garbus, a couple more friends and The New Yorker's Claudia Roth Pierpont. All have interesting points to make which, again, may send you back to the work itself.

But "unmasked"? Hardly. Instead, Roth and his filmmakers seem to have crafted a second skin to place over the subject and then suck the air out of so that it adheres perfectly to the man, in the process creating a kind of, yes, mask....

Philip Roth: Unmasked opens this Wednesday, March 13, at Film Forum in New York City, prior to its American Masters broadcast on March 29 at 9pm on PBS.  And yes, as the headline above notes, these Film Forum showings are free to the public, thanks to a grant from the Ostrovsky Family Fund. Tickets will be available at the box-office on day of show only, on a first-come/first-served basis. For more information, click here.


thedevilcorp said...

Good site. Great pictures.

James van Maanen said...

I'm posting your comment, the devilcorp, simply because what you're saying reads like it ought to be seen and heard by as many people as possible.