Philip Roth Unmasked Reveals Our Most Wicked Writer as a Charmer

Here's a tale that explains everything: A young Philip Roth, trying to shove his teen brain through Ulysses, is struck by a passage about Leopold Bloom's public masturbation. Watching a girl watching fireworks, Bloom manipulates himself through a hole cut in his trouser pocket, the act gilded with Joycean rhapsodies — her skirts' "wondrous revealment" and the like. But then comes a burst of colloquial understatement that makes it entirely clear what is happening: "At it again?" someone asks.

In one of the many disarming interviews conducted for Philip Roth Unmasked, Roth describes that passage as making a serious impression upon him. The question is vintage Roth, suggesting both shame and pride in habitual perversion and also that such bad habits — even the everyday ones — connect to the feeling of pinwheeling heavens, with all this expressed in the sharpest vernacular. Roth is still so taken with the phrase that, all these years later, he suggests that maybe those are the words that should be carved in his tombstone.

That inevitable grave looms over Philip Roth Unmasked just as it looms over his recent brace of novels. Unlike The Humbling and Indignation, however, this Roth is still loose and charming, never far from a joke, the darkest of which seem to lighten his mood. He reads to the camera Sabbath's Theater's uproarious paean to adultery, and his eyes dance — he's at it again.

Philip Roth
Philip Roth

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Written and directed by William Karel and Livia Manera. Not rated.

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Philip Roth Unmasked is an American Masters production for PBS, so the specifics of Portnoy's Complaint and Sabbath's Theater — all that high holy kink — get elided. That's a compliment: His work still kicks too roughly for public broadcasting, even after it's been mothballed in those Library of America volumes. Still, the doc does illuminate aspects of the books it's shy about. The best and most sepulchral of Sabbath's Theater's dirty jokes echoes the Joyce anecdote: Mickey Sabbath turns up at the cemetery for his ritualistic jerk-off over the grave of a dead lover of distinguished filthiness. Problem is there's another of her exes already at it.

Co-director Livia Manera's interviews yield other revelations. Roth workshops his first full draft of each book with friends who date back to his college years. He worries that he might have played a part in the coarsening of the culture. He packed his parents off on a cruise to shield them from the press shitstorm unleashed by Portnoy's Complaint, but his proud father brought copies that he distributed to the people he met, all autographed — and not by the son. That even today he's still not quite clear on how much of his own life we should see in the books: "That's my story," he says of the first four Nathan Zuckerman novels, the shadow-autobiography that opened with that gem The Ghost Writer. But he also argues the books aren't about him, and he points out the cardinal difference between Roth the writer and Roth the nice-seeming man who is friends and neighbors and Tanglewood symphony buddies with Mia Farrow: that the man feels shame the writer is freed from.

Not a word is spoken of his recent retirement. Nobody brings up the claims of misogyny that have dogged him for years. (The other familiar gripe, that he might be bad for the Jews, now seems as distant as the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.) Farrow appears as a talking head and occasional muse — her childhood polio informs Roth's Nemeses. But don't get your hopes up that there might be talk about what exactly their relationship is. Or talk of Woody Allen, who played the worst of all possible Roths in Deconstructing Harry, one happy to be an actual monster rather than an explorer of monstrous impulses. Perhaps Allen was sick of being compared to his more honest, less needy lit-world analogue. Or maybe it was retribution for Roth's blind-item swipe at Allen and Diane Keaton, spotted dining at Elaine's in Zuckerman Unbound: "That is the auteur, the half-wits' intellectual. The guileless girl is his leading lady, the intellectuals' half-wit."

Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander turn up to attest to Roth's mastery. Jonathan Franzen hails him for giving the novelist the freedom to be a dick. Outside of these encomiums, William Karel and Livia Manera's film makes no claims. Instead, the directors do the smartest thing they could have: plant a camera in front of Roth and get him talking. To smooth over edits, they show us book covers, old photos, and in the case of Roth's moving Patrimony, both. He was dashing, charming, a little dangerous, a college friend tells us, but she doesn't need to say it. It's manifest, and it's still true. The film is especially recommended to anyone who thinks they hate him.

 
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