Monday, March 18, 2013

Philip Roth: Unmasked

Remember the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life in which the Jimmy Stewart character is shown what Bedford Falls would be like if he weren’t part of the world. Imagine what your Jewish doctor, dentist or lawyer would be like had he never decided on the profession and had become a famous writer instead. You’ll have more of an appreciation of William Karel and Livia Manera's Philip Roth: Unmasked, the documentary currently playing at Film Forum (the showings are all free by the way). It might sound like a prejudicial statement, but Roth is by his own admission is Homo Hebrais. In fact, during the film he describes how when he was in college he wrote pathetic short stories about sensitive characters, invoking Salinger’s name with a note of wistful disparagement. Then he read Joyce who left Dublin and never stopped writing about it. Bellow’s Chicago, Malamud’s Brooklyn, Hemingway’s Michigan and Faulkner’s Mississippi are all invoked in the same breath. By the way, Roth reveals that he writes standing up which is something that Hemingway also did. So what is your dentist like in this alternate universe where he is filling your mind rather than your cavities? The film is more about Roth’s work than his personal life, though Roth does describe his first marriage as being “lurid” and “derailing” him. He quotes I.B Singer who was also accused of giving defamatory portraits of Jews, in talking about the reaction to Portnoy’s Complaint, “What should I write about, Portuguese pimps?” And he describes the effect of the psychoanalytic treatment he underwent after his disastrous first marriage and what it did for his imagination realizing that, as a writer, he had all the “permission a psychoanalytic patient has” to say anything. There is a wonderful vignette about how he prepares his parents for the reception of Portnoy’s Complaint, finding out later that on the way home to New Jersey his mother was crying “he has delusions of grandeur” and how after the book came out people would call out to him on the street “hey Portnoy leave it alone.” Later in life Roth shows himself struggling more with death than sex in both his life and work. He gets to know a gravedigger and tours a cemetery in order to pick out his own gravesite. “I don’t think that one’s for you,” he’s told after selecting a plot near his parents’ graves. “There no leg room.” “Well that important,” he quotes himself as responding. “I’m going to be there for a long time.” Roth is as great extemporizing as he is working in the more premeditative mode of actual writing and the film is filled with wonderful nuggets. Roth does say in the very beginning of the film in answer to a question about being a Jewish American writer, “I don’t write in Jewish. I write in American,” but countervailingly everything began for him when he realized he could triage his own condition writing about Newark and Jews, pathology and anatomy. Come to think of it, despite the curmudgeonly soul described by the actress Claire Bloom (Roth’s second wife), in Leaving a Doll’s House: A Memoir the portrait of the writer that emerges partakes
 of the family doctor, dentist and divorce lawyer all rolled into one.

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