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The Weekly Blague

Old School

A younger Philip Roth in Newark, NJ. Photo from Philip Roth: Unmasked © Bob Peterson.

Philip Roth: Unmasked, the new documentary by William Karel and Livia Manera, is playing for free this week at the Film Forum, in Manhattan, so I went around the corner last night and saw it. (It will be broadcast March 29, on PBS.)

Having had Portnoy’s Complaint blow my mind at a tender age; having then read about half of Roth's prodigious 30-book output; and having been profoundly influenced by his writing, I found the film mesmerizing and instructive. Roth is as witty and compelling in person as he is in his books. Listening to him talk, for 90 minutes, about his early life, his parents, his process, his work habits, and the reaction to his books, made him seem like the kind of entertaining fellow I'd enjoy hanging out with, which I suppose was the point. Roth knows how to perform for the camera.

His tale of a cab driver named Portnoy picking him up soon after Portnoy’s Complaint became a scandalous sensation is typical of the stories he tells throughout the film. Roth asks the cabbie, who doesn’t recognize him, if people have been giving him a hard time since the book came out. Portnoy tells Roth that everybody who gets into the cab makes some kind of joke about his name. “I want to kill the son of a bitch who wrote that book,” he says. When the ride ends, Roth tells him that he wrote the book. “You son of a bitch!” Portnoy says. “I thought it was you.” Roth gives him a $20 tip.

Though Roth retired this year, one of the most striking things about the film is how old school he is. Not once does he mention the Internet, e-books, tweeting, blogging, or any of a dozen other things that working 21st century writers must contend with. There’s exactly one shot of a computer—it appears to be an early-1990s model—but you don’t see Roth using it. He writes with a pen, standing up at a podium-like desk, in his Connecticut house. Writing standing up, he explains, makes it easier to think, and anytime he gets stuck, he just walks around his study until the ideas flow again.

Most of what Roth says further illuminates aspects of his life and career I already knew about. I didn’t know, however, that he dated Mia Farrow (she discusses their “friendship”), and that chronic back pain nearly drove him to suicide. A shot of Roth hobbling along a path in a cemetery drives home just how frail he is, and that his 80th birthday is impending. He says that the idea of death makes him feel “sad,” but it doesn’t worry him.

One bit of practical advice I got from the film: Roth says that any time a writer is born into a family, the family is “ruined.” He then explains that you can’t publish a book like Portnoy’s Complaint without preparing your parents. Which reminded me that I’ve got some of my own preparing to do, and that it would be a very good idea to do it before I publish any future volumes.

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