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Watch Three Hours of Documentaries on Philip Roth

Written by on May 23, 2018 


This is not an obituary for Philip Roth. It is first true that the late author’s influence and ubiquity is such that those are, today, nearly impossible to miss, and thus the number of readily available, worthwhile details eventually winnows down to nearly zero; it is also true that this writer’s love of the Newark native reaches an extent that renders the time necessary to pay proper tribute so, so long, and in the face of an overwhelming discourse at that. More valuable, not to mention fitting, a use of this format is pointing devotees and neophytes alike towards the finest available filmic material.

There are numerous ways in which Roth makes a good documentary subject. If there’s one constant, it’s the man himself: charming and funny, yet also deadly serious and clear-minded in his elocution, he speaks of a lifetime’s work in level-headed, practical, unfailingly honest terms, as just about any biographer would hope. That doesn’t mean a documentary on him is de facto good, mind — 2013’s dreadful Philip Roth: Unmasked defies its title by situating exclusively within familiar interview tidbits and Wikipedia bullet points — but the ones that hit the mark have powers not unlike a Zuckerman or Kapesh for entering Roth’s mind, all the while without the ickiness of debating what does and doesn’t constitute autobiography.

Most intimate in the fusion of scope, mood, material, and format is a 1993 Arena special, the short-ish length of which does more to represent its chaff-cutting than anything like compromise. Perhaps more strait-laced, but more up-to-date and a suitable companion all the same is 2014’s Philip Roth Unleashed. Though it does not live up to the promise of its title (assuming you also think it implies the sight of Roth tearing open his shirt and charging at the camera), the two-hour piece benefits also from widening the scope to include contemporaries and, set to readings of his prose, effective archival footage. None are perfect substitutes for reading his work — with which it is, of course, never too late or otherwise inopportune to start — but these alternately make a case for and enrich what’s there. Taking into account the depth of his books’ power, that’s an achievement all its own.

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