Tomorrow, Philip Roth will celebrate his 80th birthday, a milestone that has already launched a thousand tributes to the most decorated and well-regarded living American writer. From high and low, they’ve appeared in print, digital, tourism initiatives and now, most notably, film. (For an academic flourish, Tablet’s own Liel Leibovitz and Adam Kirsch will be anchoring a Roth panel tonight.)
If you suffered through Elegy, The Human Stain, or any of the ersatz film adaptations of Roth’s books, you’d be right to fear anything peddling itself as a celluloid representation of Roth or his work. In spite of any possible Post Traumatic Roth Disorder, Philip Roth: Unmasked is here and worthy of a fan’s time.
The film–playing now at New York’s Film Forum, but soon to debut on the PBS American Masters series on March 29–is the joint project of William Karel, a French filmmaker, and Livia Manera, an Italian journalist. And how, you might ask, can the legacy of America’s greatest living writer possibly be entrusted to two ineffably European pairs of hands? The same was asked about Blake Bailey, whom Roth chose as his biographer despite being, as Roth himself mentioned, a gentile from Oklahoma. Bailey responded to the suggestion with this bon mot:
“I pointed out that I’m not an aging bisexual alcoholic with an ancient Puritan lineage and I still managed to write a biography of John Cheever.”
Karel and Manera don’t require such defenses. Their voices are completely obscured in the 90-minute film and they were clearly knowledgeable enough to convince Roth to give them access to both him and some of his good friends, all of whom appear prominently in the film. As a result, you are treated to Roth relaxed and inspired, the unexpected star of his own tribute.
Roth runs you through his career from his early discovery of literature to penning Goodbye, Columbus and straight through to his recently announced retirement. For those unfamiliar, Roth describes the amazing fury that surrounded the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, which catapulted Roth beyond the literary ether and into the American firmament. A word cloud of Roth’s contributions to the film would probably yield a lot of “death” and “shame,” but despite the macabre talk, it’s tough not be charmed watching Roth having such a good time.
Others chime in too: Friends like actress Mia Farrow, a Roth neighbor and confidant, as well as Bob Heyman, Jane Brown Maas, and Martin Garbus, who befriended Roth in high school, college, and the army respectively. They appear to construct a composite Roth–warm, self-lacerating, frighteningly sharp, and fiercely loyal. For the many unable or unwilling to differentiate Roth from his charged fictitious alter egos, each anecdote works to strip away from–or unmask as it were–what’s commonly assumed about the man.
The documentary also tasks critics and writers like Jonathan Franzen, Claudia Roth Pierpont, Nicole Krauss, and Nathan Englander with demystifying Roth’s fiction itself. Long accused of single-note sexual fixations, misogyny, and misanthropy, the panel collectively absolves Roth of literary wrongdoing and praises his status as literary lion, provocateur, and American mischief-maker without really addressing the charges against him. Roth also jumps in with a classic litany, in which he dispenses with the perception that his most famous alter ego Nathan Zuckerman was something of an oversexed monster by running through all the Zuckerman books and concluding that Zuckerman may never have been laid.
I was a bit surprised to see the frequent charge of Roth misogyny handled so elliptically in the film as if the presence of impressive female defenders spoke for him alone. I dropped a line to Claudia Roth Pierpont, Roth’s most eloquent advocate in the film, and asked her opinion about Roth’s women characters. Here’s what she said:
I think Roth’s work contains a tremendous variety of female characters, of every moral and emotional persuasion. It’s impossible to generalize about them any more than it is about Roth’s men – they’re strong, vulnerable, smart, not so smart, wise or shallow: they’re human beings.
She added that a book coming out later this year called “Roth Unbound” will tackle the subject more thoroughly.
What the film doesn’t dwell on much is a topic of fascination among many Roth fans, critics, and two generations’ stock of graduate psych students: Roth’s personal life. There’s passing reference to Roth’s tumultuous first marriage and eery nothing about his second marriage to actress Claire Bloom who infamously dished a pu pu platter of heavy allegations against Roth in her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House. As the film goes, you come to know Roth as much as he seems willing to be known, loading the future burden more on Blake Bailey.
By the end of the film, you feel as if you’ve just left an anodyne dinner party with Roth and some disembodied literary spirits where the mood was light and the conversation polite. You’re full and happy. You might have hoped for a little more, but you probably wouldn’t be a fan of Roth’s if you didn’t always hope for a little more out of the world.