J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Philip Roth at 80


Philip Roth is often described as self-absorbed and sex-obsessed by his critics, including an odd ex-wife here and there.  We will not be hearing from them.  Instead, Roth and his friends and champions take stock of his literary output in William Karel & Livia Manera’s Philip Roth: Unmasked, which begins a free one week engagement this Wednesday at Film Forum (made possible by the Ostrovsky Family Fund), in advance of its March 29th broadcast on PBS’s American Masters.

Perhaps no author is as celebrated or notorious than Roth for using his personal life as grist for his fiction. It certainly impressed Jonathan Franzen.  Not exactly one of the usual suspects amongst media talking heads, his participation in Unmasked is notable in itself.  Yet, Roth often tries to distance himself from his characters (particular Portnoy), essentially arguing he is still “masked” to some extent.

Roth has won just about every literary award there is, except the one that comes from Stockholm.  As his eighth decade approach (in fact, Roth turns eighty on the 19th, the final day of Unmasked free run at Film Forum), the final elusive honor looms ever larger.  However, no awkward topics like this are addressed Karel & Manera’s profile, unless Roth broaches them.  For instance, he discusses his breakdown, but rather obliquely.

Without question, Unmasked’s silence on ex-wife Claire Bloom is most conspicuous.  Given the extent of the media coverage afforded British actress’s in/famous tell-all memoir of their relationship, Leaving a Doll’s House, simply ignoring her is a bit problematic.  It leaves viewers with the impression of a “her or me” ultimatum, whether or not that was the case.

While Unmasked is rather scattershot as biography, it offers a strong, albeit sympathetic Cliff Notes treatment of Roth’s oeuvre.  In truth, Roth is a reasonably engaging interview subject, who speaks with affection for his working class family and the Newark of his youth.  Intriguingly, he also sounds a note of restraint regarding the perceived content of The Plot Against America, suggesting it is all well and good if the novel resonated with people, but it really was not intended as an allegory of the second Bush administration.

Those hoping to hear the author discuss his work will find Unmasked quite satisfying, like a 92nd St. Y lecture with a field trip to Newark.  However, those not already firmly in the Roth choir will constantly notice the tightly controlled presentation.  Essentially for the novelist’s admirers, Philip Roth: Unmasked still has the virtue of screening for free, starting this Wednesday (3/13) at Film Forum, with a 3/29 American Masters airdate following shortly thereafter for the rest of the country.

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