It begins in the same way that Portnoy’s Complaint, Indignant, Everyman and scores of other Philip Roth novels grab you with a hook; it’s right there in your face. He’s across from you, as if in a studio or library, and he just starts talking. It’s as though you’ve been in the middle of a conversation, and he went out to make a phone call, and now he’s back and only too happy to shed some light on whatever it is you enquired about. It seems that Roth, in “Roth on Roth”, is the Roth he wants you to finally understand, and there’s an urgency surrounding the telling that I always assumed he would be far too confident to project.
In a brief and touching interlude in which he discusses technique, Roth says that a writer must always shade in a character the way you shade in a colouring book; this is also what is achieved by the filmed testimony. We come to know his sensibilities in a very essential way. This is not a man who wastes words. He knows the value of them and wants his readers to know the value too. The words used to convey his perceived ongoing obsession with sexual experience are not merely fluff- there is reason to them, and yet he is eternally justifying his themes. His persona here doesn’t serve only for the audience to nod and say, “oh yes, that’s why I love him”, or “my, isn’t he self-aware.” Rather, we have to grapple with him, and that is the whole point of the kind of literature which tries to distill its own time and place.
When he talks about suicide, and the depression that exists in growing old, he’s on the beach and in his vast garden. These shots work beautifully to underscore the brooding and darkness that can enter a writer’s mind when they are solitary and in nature. We also see him being interviewed from his cottage towards the end of the film, emblematic of where he will live out his days. (For the majority of the film he is interviewed in what could be a study in Manhattan; in these scenes I felt like a lucky and singled-out colleague).
With each minute, the burning questions I have (Why haven’t you been more ostracised? How much are you affected by your family relationships?) are slightly satiated, somewhat answered. He’s there, seated calmly, and for 52 minutes he doesn’t have anywhere else to be. It’s exciting to finally get some face-time with the writer who was most recently in the press for being awarded, in his late 70s, the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction on the world stage. I’d expected that my concluding remarks on this pretending-to-be-niche documentary would be “For fans only”, but Roth is so surprisingly warm, so unaffected and true throughout the shoot, that he becomes… relatable. Who knew. ‘Roth on Roth’ is therefore for a larger pool of people; anyone who loves an anti-hero, and anyone who likes to see their literature on screen.
Roth on Roth (2011, 52 min) screens Thursday, May 10 at 4:00 p.m. at Sheppard Cinemas and Sunday, May 13 at 1:30 p.m. at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. For the full TJFF schedule, visit tjff.com.