Philip Roth: Unmasked, the latest entry in the long-running American Masters series, arrives just after the Newark-born author’s 80th birthday. The documentary, premiering on PBS tonight, is fascinating for its relatively unmediated portrait of the normally reticent Roth. Yet, as written and directed by French documentarian William Karel and Italian journalist Livia Manera, it is a deeply puzzling and contradictory piece of filmmaking. Fans of the author (and even critics) will likely find something of value in Roth’s surprisingly direct statements on his life, work, and mortality. And yet everything surrounding those moments seems to have been placed there by filmmakers uninterested in venturing past the surface or in exploring what their subject is actually saying.
Watching the film, for which Roth sat for ten hours worth of on-camera interviews at his homes in Manhattan and rural Connecticut, is a bit like being a fly on the wall during a Paris Review Writers at Work interview. Roth works seven days a week, he says, spending one year on short books, two or so on longer ones. For him, the chief question when beginning a book is “Where should I lift the curtain … to begin the story?” And, as he says, it’s never worth shielding yourself from criticism … too much. “There’s something to be gained” from getting comments from friends on drafts of his novels. “Even if I think they’re wrong.” The filmmakers linger lovingly (perhaps too lovingly, and too often) on shots of Roth in the midst of composing – here his mouth drops a little, there he half-smiles as he revises a line – and you can almost see his mind working.
Intercut with these scenes are a series of talking head commentators — and distinguished ones at that: novelists Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander; New Yorker writer Claudia Roth Pierpont; and actress and close Roth friend Mia Farrow. It’s an odd, motley bunch, like the filmmakers either put out a bunch of feelers and came up short or just went with the first half dozen people they could find. At one point, Farrow describes Roth as “there, rock solid, as a friend.” Great. Shrug. Good for her. The trio of novelists come off better, but weren’t Michael Chabon or Gary Shteyngart available? They would have been even more appropriate choices and possibly more entertaining. Still, Krauss, who gets more than her fair share of screen time, is the sharpest of the chorus, stating, “We don’t go to literature for moral perfection, we go for moral ambiguity … And I think that is Roth’s territory.”
The ability to work in the gray zones is definitely one of Roth’s strengths, but the film alternates between two stark approaches: the incurious – not addressed in any way are the many, many criticisms of his work as misogynistic or, really, anything potentially negative beyond the flack he received from the Jewish community for his early work, most notably his first story in the New Yorker and Portnoy's Complaint – and the contradictory. Given that most biographies, filmed or not, that involve the participation of the author end up taking it light on their subject, it’s the latter that’s most confusing. The film opens with Roth’s statement that he has “two great calamities to face: death and a biography. My only hope is that the first comes first.” What follows? A 90-minute biographical film. Ironic/funny? I’m unsure.
Later, we find out that Roth dated many women throughout his time in college – by the testimony of Jane Brown Maas, one of his college friends, he dated only the most attractive women at Bucknell. And yet, by his own testimony, “I didn’t have success, I had what everyone else had, which was nothing.” And yet, and yet: His old friend insists that Portnoy’s Complaint, his groundbreaking ode to masturbation as a palliative for Jewish-American sociopolitical discomfort, couldn’t possibly have been inspired by his college days. Roth lists many books in which sexual activity is almost absent — and yet the film implicitly portrays him as a sex writer, foregrounding the great success of Portnoy’s Complaint — and revealing that one of his favorite lines from Joyce’s Ulysses is “at it again,” uttered by Leopold Bloom as he’s fondling himself while watching a girl playing on a beach. Roth is as interested in sex as anyone else is — and why shouldn’t he be? Yet, sex is, as he puts it, “a vast subject,” one among many, and the fact that it is focused on so much here, and comes up repeatedly, is lazy — nothing we haven’t heard about Roth before.
The documentary isn’t any less problematic when it’s describing Roth’s relationship to Jewishness. He states, from the outset, that he would rather be considered an American writer than a Jewish writer, that he wrote about Jewish characters simply because that was in his background. As he says, “I don’t write in Jewish, I write in American.” And yet, one recurring thread of the soundtrack sounds vaguely like Klezmer music, complete with a lilting clarinet. What are we to make of this? Are the filmmakers being ironic? If so, the irony doesn’t work; the film doesn’t juxtapose these elements in an overt enough way, so the irony floats away wispily.
Is it possible to judge entries in the American Masters series too harshly? My colleague, Vulture’s TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, tore to shreds the series’ recent entry on David Geffen, while also pointing out the series’ original sin:
Most American Masters specials fawn over their subjects. This is partly because the series doesn’t profile people it doesn’t deeply respect (why should it?), and partly because it prizes artists’ work over their lives and wants to explore it with definitive thoroughness. The best way to be definitive about an artist’s work is to gain access to the artist’s inner circle, private correspondence, and personal material. You can’t get all that without depicting the subject sympathetically, and sometimes deferring to his or her wishes when deciding what to dwell on and what to gloss over. I can’t think of any American Masters special about a still-living subject that wasn’t a love-fest.
That immersion that Seitz refers to above, that burrowing in, may have taken place during the research project — we know, at least, that Manera read all of Roth’s books before starting the project. However, it seems also that a deeper immersion in Roth’s time and place, or at least a grappling with the complexities of his life, did not happen. So, in the end, we get a half-baked and suspiciously off-kilter portrait of a man who’s smarter than the film in which he appears.