Of Rothian Proportions

Documentary chronicles the balancing act between public and private that is central to Philip Roth’s art.

03/06/2013
Special to the Jewish Week
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After having read all of his novels and autobiographical books, you might be forgiven for thinking you know Philip Roth. As novelist Jonathan Franzen says, Roth “exposed parts of himself no one had ever exposed before.”

You would be wrong, of course, but that is the heart of the novelist’s craft and art, a kind of psychological striptease in which misdirection gives readers the false impression of candor, but also the false impression of concealment.

The new documentary “Philip Roth: Unmasked” merely reinforces the illusion. That Roth can still maintain some air of mystery after more than 30 books, countless interviews, essays, analyses and this 90-minute documentary, while still conveying a quite sincere air of candor, is part of his charm and the heart of his genius. Written and directed by William Karel and Livia Manera, the film opens on March 13 at Film Forum and runs through March 19, Roth’s 80th birthday.

Roth announced his putative retirement from fiction writing recently. It’s hard to say which was more surprising, the announcement coming from one of our most prolific and persistent authors, or that it did not engender more end-of-career retrospectives. Perhaps nobody believes his stated intentions; most of us are hoping the announcement was a perverse practical joke. “Unmasked” doesn’t mention it, so one assumes the film was completed beforehand, but there is a strong foreshadowing of the announcement in the its wry but unmistakably elegiac final moments, and hints of retirement are sprinkled throughout.

“Between books it’s easy to think you can’t do it again,” Roth confesses with a smile. And the film ends with his deadpan meditation on his own demise, “I’m not worried, I’m sad. ... The time is running out. I can’t do anything about it.”

That air of rueful resignation is consistent with the shadows that have grown around his fictional protagonists over the past 20 years. Maybe we expected more fight from the man who created Nathan Zuckerman, Alexander Portnoy, David Kepesh and Micky Sabbath. If there is one thing that “Unmasked” makes abundantly clear, it’s that Philip Roth is utterly his own man, highly conscious of his effect on his readers, his fans, his multitudinous detractors, but unperturbed by the occasionally tsunami-like splashing in his particular pond. He’s the kind of guy who will take his parents to dinner before the publication of “Portnoy’s Complaint” to warn them of the disturbances on the horizon (with a hilarious response from his mother that he recounts in the film), but is prepared to ride those big waves himself with panache.

If there is a central theme to the film, other than the sheer pleasure of watching Roth talking about his work, his methods and his life — and he is a wonderful talker — it is the constant balancing act between public and private that is central to the great novelist’s art. What can you do when the city of Newark, where he spent his childhood, renames the street where he was raised “Philip Roth Plaza” and declares the family’s pleasant but otherwise unexceptional three-story house an “historic site?”

Roth is understandably detached from the furor surrounding “Portnoy” 40 years on, and it is hard to recall the shock of the book in an age in which stand-up comics regularly riff on more scurrilous behavior on broadcast television. Happily, Karel and Manera offer Nathan Englander’s explanation of the book’s power to shock someone who, as he did, grew up out of earshot of that national shouting match; coming to the novel from his sheltered Orthodox upbringing, Englander experienced the force of its full-frontal ribaldry.

The film, however, is a determinedly chronological affair, for better and worse, workmanlike and a bit dogged. Portnoy’s shenanigans receive no more screen time than some of Roth’s other books, and while controversy is a frequent topic, it doesn’t dominate. The film is about Roth the author more than Roth the celebrity. Although he speaks with admirable sincerity about a nightmarish first marriage, to Claire Bloom, there is remarkably little said about his personal life, perhaps to underline and support his adamant, understandable and undoubtedly truthful disclaimers about the fictional nature of his creative enterprise.

To that end, it strikes this observer that the key moment in the film comes early, when Roth talks about the thrill he got from first reading Saul Bellow’s breakthrough novel, “The Adventures of Augie Marsh.” Roth says, “It gave me freedom, the freedom to use your own background” in writing fiction. To that point, he had been writing stories that he characterizes as “very bad,” trying to imagine himself into the genteel world of upper-class WASPs or English gentry. Now, he could write about Jews from Newark who grew up in ordinary houses, little suspecting that they would become landmarks.

In short, his new freedom allowed him to be Philip Roth, and we are much the richer for that transformation. The last line of the film is Roth saying, “Let that be the end.” If it is, I am almost as sad as he, but at least we will be able to read and re-read the books after his final curtain.

“Philip Roth: Unmasked” will play at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.), Wednesday, March 13-19. Thanks to a grant from the Ostrovsky Family Fund, admission to the film will be free to the public for the duration of that run. For information, call (212) 727-8110 or visit www.filmforum.org.

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