‘Philip Roth: Unmasked’: Wasting an opportunity

March 11, 2013

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Philip Roth may be our greatest living writer. So why would he give himself over to filmmakers who would make a movie as dull, superficial and pedantic as “Philip Roth: Unmasked”?

The film, which receives a special theatrical run starting this week at Film Forum in New York, will be shown as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series on March 29. Which would tend to lower the average quality of that series as well.

Roth is a writer whose work has sparked controversy from the very beginning of his career. He has provoked scandal both for the way he depicts Jews in his stories (leading to charges of anti-Semitism and to his being called a self-hating Jew) and for his early discussions of sex, especially in the best-selling “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

Yet he went on to amass a fascinatingly diverse and impressive body of work, as remarkable for breadth of his subject matter as for the steady, increasing quality of his writing. If there is an American candidate for a Nobel Prize in literature, it has to be Roth.

Very little of which comes through in “Philip Roth: Unmasked.” This is as trite and flat a documentary as you’re likely to see, one that fritters away access to a subject who obviously has a lot to say about his life and his work, but rarely grants that access.

The things he talks about – and the way he is obviously reframing the documentarian’s questions with his answers – makes it obvious that the interviewers could only offer the most obvious of queries. Though Roth comes up with gems among his answers, they are buried in the verbiage of lengthy, rambling answers.

Obviously, Philip Roth doesn’t need to talk in soundbites. But a filmmaker with any sense of what a documentary should be – and the editor who works with him – would know to trim his answers and to break up his longer speeches. The same is true of one of the experts being interviewed here, New Yorker writer Claudia Roth Pierpont, apparently no relation, who is apparently as in love with the sound of her own voice as the director seems to be. He lets her ramble when most filmmakers would have excised her from the film.

The inclusion of Pierpont is the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the other voices and other images that director William Karel includes in this film. While his goal may have been to let Roth speak for himself as much as possible, the other witnesses he pulls in seem both random and of little real interest. Writers like Jonathan Franzen and Nicole Krauss, along with actress Mia Farrow (who is referred to as a “friend”), seem to have almost nothing to do with Roth, other than the fact that they’re fans who claim to have been influenced by him.

The film never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity, as they say. “Portnoy’s Complaint,” for example, ignited a cultural furor when it was published in 1969. We hear about that but never see it, whether in TV reports, archival footage or even clips from the ill-fated film of the book.

Nor are there clips from the other films made from Roth’s books, from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “The Human Stain” and “Elegy.” Roth himself never comments upon them. Neither are his marriages really recounted, nor his bout with prostate cancer.

There are entire swaths of Roth’s books that are ignored, including sections of the 1960s and 1970s. While it obviously would be impossible to discuss each of his more than two dozen novels, mentioning a few more of them would not have been out of order.

Indeed, while he talks at length about writing and the subjects that interest him (and the reactions he receives), we learn very little about Roth himself. It’s less a scholarly approach than a narrow-minded one, as if the filmmakers felt too reverent toward Roth to look more than an inch or two beneath the surface.

“Philip Roth: Unmasked” makes you long for the Philip Roth movie that could be made by a real filmmaker – and not someone interested in Roth hagiography.

And trust me – there’s nothing remotely cinematic about this movie, nothing that demands to be seen on a big screen. Even though it’s playing for free at Film Forum starting Wednesday, it’s not worth the subway fare. If you’re really interested, skip Film Forum and wait for it to show up on PBS. Even then, you’ll be lucky to last through to the end.

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