Posted by Danielle Berrin
The camera opens on a frazzled Philip Roth.
He is futzing with the horseshoe of hair he has left, rubbing his face and furrowing his unruly brow as a look of supreme unease settles over his face. For a man who recently announced his retirement, he seems a bit stressed. And for a writer who has spent the better part of his life projecting outward, Roth, at first, squirms under the scrutiny of the camera’s gaze.
“In the coming years I have two great calamities to face,” he announces at the beginning of the documentary “Philip Roth: Unmasked” for the PBS “American Masters” series that will air on March 29. “Death and a biography. Let’s hope the first comes first.”
From the outset of his denouement, the newly minted octogenarian — Roth turned 80 on March 19 — has been in the news a lot lately. In November, he told a New York Times reporter, “The struggle with writing is over,” which sent shockwaves through the literary world and effectively commenced his retirement. And over the past few weeks, he made headlines yet again for the many birthday celebrations being held in his honor — in Newark, where he grew up, and New York, where he resides part time, there has been a literary conference, a museum toast, hometown bus tours and even a photography exhibit devoted to his life and oeuvre. Now comes the documentary, also timed to his birthday, which features a chatty and reflective Roth looking back on a life lived through words.
In it, he is as candid, open and charming as ever. Quoting the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, Roth observes the truth of his life: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
It follows then that Roth’s most faithful relationship has been to his work. Other than two brief and really disastrous marriages, he has remained at-least-legally unattached and has never fathered children. In 1983, he told People magazine: “I can’t talk casually about home and family, about good marriages and bad marriages and the relationship between men and women and children and parents. I’ve devoted a life to writing about these things. These are my subjects. I’ve spent years trying to get it right in fiction.”
As many presume is the case with his novels, Roth appears in the film as both narrator and narrative. He is entirely in his element as he recounts tales from his childhood and career trajectory for Italian journalist and French director Livia Manera, and expounds on his foremost passions and preoccupations, which, over eight decades, haven’t changed much: reading, writing, Jewishness and sex continue to ensorcell him. “God, I’m fond of adultery,” Roth says at one point, during a discussion of his 1995 book “Sabbath’s Theater” (his personal favorite). “Aren’t you?”
The author of 31 books, among them at least a dozen bestsellers, is also the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, to name a few. But among writers of contemporary fiction, perhaps no one is more closely associated (or confused) with his characters as much as Roth. “People have always assumed his characters are him,” writer Nicole Krauss observes in the film.
And Roth offers some delicious and illustrative anecdotes: In 1969, with the release of his career-making “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Roth recalls, “Everything people perceived in Portnoy, they then perceived in me.” One day as he walked near his home, a man shouted at him from across the street: “Philip Roth: Enemy of the Jews!”
Roth admits his own life has served as fodder for his fiction, but he prefers to think of this journalistic element as “invent[ing] off of something.” He was influenced in this by another American (Jewish) writer, the incomparable Saul Bellow, who he says, inadvertently gave him permission to draw from his own experience. After reading “The Adventures of Augie March” as a college student, Roth felt free to plumb the depths of his background.
But it wasn’t exactly an exercise in memoir: “I’d have to fight my way to the freedom of drawing upon what I knew,” Roth says. “Life isn’t good enough in some ways. If it was just a matter of putting things down that happened to you, or happened to your friend or happened to your wife, you wouldn’t be a novelist.”
But balancing between truth and fiction can be tricky. He isn’t fond of being called an American Jewish writer, for instance. “I don’t write in Jewish. I write in American,” he says. But that may be a defensive position taken after enduring years of public criticism. From the time “Defender of the Faith,” his first short story was published for The New Yorker, readers held Roth responsible for popularizing Jewish archetypes. “It caused a furor,” Roth remembers of the 1959 publication, “I was being assailed as an anti-Semite and a self-hating Jew. I didn’t even know what it meant.”
Even author Jonathan Franzen admits he had a “moralistic response” when he first read Roth. He thought, “Oh, you bad person, Philip Roth,” though he added, “I eventually came to feel as if that was coming out of envy. I wish I could be as liberated … as Roth is. Here’s a person who’s decided he does not care what the world thinks of him. He is not shame-able.”
The widespread perception of the wanton sexuality associated with many of Roth’s novels is a source of some frustration for the author, who spends some time on camera defending specific characters who have been charged with being “sex obsessed.”
“In nine books,” Roth begins, outlining the plot of each one, “there is virtually no sexual experience.” And yet, the characters, he says, “are described repeatedly as sex-obsessed. Well, that’s because Roth is.”
In matters of sexual appetite, at least, his art imitates his life. To that end, he recounted his favorite line from James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which comes during a scene when the character Leopold Bloom walks to the waterfront to watch a girl and masturbate. “Joyce tells you what’s going on, but you don’t get it — until the next paragraph, Joyce goes: ‘At it again.’ I loved it. I think it should be on my tombstone.”
As Roth wrote in the 2001 novella, “The Dying Animal,” “Sex is all the enchantment required.”
Roth’s candid and sometimes contradictory take on himself, is given added context by friends and colleagues, from fellow writers like Franzen and Krauss to actress Mia Farrow. But the most intelligent and insightful comments come from his biographer, New Yorker critic Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation), whose book “Roth Unbound” will be published in November.
It was Kafka, she points out, who said, “We should read only those books that bite and sting us,” adding that, for her, Roth is that perfect dose of painful pleasure. “If the book you’re reading does not rouse you with a blow to the head, then why read it? I think that Roth writes books that are meant to rouse you with a blow to the head.”
Roth’s pugnacious prose, however, is fueled by a rather ordinary and peaceful private life. He splits his time between New York City and a country home in Connecticut, where, when he is writing, he writes “every day,” standing up, with “lots of quiet … lots of hours … lots of regularity.” At night, surrounded by his books, the faint silhouette of trees swaying still visible through darkened windows, he likes to read for several hours and listen to music. Once or twice the camera intrudes upon him as he listens to opera or Mahler’s Third Symphony and listens intently, with his whole body, much the way he reads. And it is sheer delight when the camera invites us to watch and listen as Roth reads passages throughout from some of his best-loved works, adding new volume to the voice on the page.
His quieter moments are more frequent now, as Roth confronts his mortality. He says he is afraid of death, but not enraged by its coming. What is hard is that he suffers from chronic back pain, and, like other great writers before him — Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi — he admits he has contemplated suicide. “Writing turns out to be a dangerous job,” he says. But, “I don’t want to join them.”
Before he dies, though, he plans to reread the authors he admired growing up, among them Conrad, Hemingway, Faulkner and Kafka. And while he swears he’s through with writing himself, hardly any of his friends — or fans — believe him.
Near the end of the film he tells of a recent walk he took near his Connecticut home when he happened upon a wooden sign in a tree that said: “BRING BACK PORTNOY.”
“It was wonderful, hilarious moment,” Roth recalls. “I actually thought about it for rest of walk: Why don’t I do that?”
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February 23, 2013 | 11:28 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
When did Michael Moore anoint himself the broker of Middle East peace?
I wondered this as I sat in the audience during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ “Oscar Celebrates Docs” night on Feb. 20, as an evening that began with laudatory reverence for “nonfiction cinema” devolved into Israel-Palestine couples therapy with Moore as shrink.
It would not surprise anyone that knows of Mr. Moore to learn that he was hardly impartial. A real couple would have divorced.
Among the five documentaries nominated -- including “The Invisible War” about rape in the military, “How To Survive a Plague” about the AIDS crisis and “Searching for Sugarman” about a musician resurrected from obscurity -- Moore mostly wanted to talk about the two indictments of Israel.
“The Gatekeepers” which features a compilation of interviews with former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency has been called “a damning censure of Israel's occupation of the West Bank,” as my former colleague Amy Klein described it in the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. Maybe so, but it is nonetheless eye-opening and brutally honest and does not deserve censure for being censorious.
“5 Broken Cameras” is one Palestinian man’s account of life in the West Bank village Bil’in where he has both witnessed and experienced horrors at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Emad Burnat, who is both the subject and the chronicler of this film would pass his footage “over the wall” to his Israeli collaborator, Guy Davidi, for editing.
Neither paints a pretty portrait of Israel, because, like every other country or nation-state in the history of the world, it is flawed. But collapsed into the space of one evening with only these two films as reference points, any talk of the Israeli Palestinian conflict becomes sorely misguided. And disturbingly lacking in context.
But for Mr. Moore it was an opportunity to congratulate the Israeli filmmakers for being so very, very “brave” in daring to portray their country in its realness, and accept complicity in its crimes. “This has been a painful process,” Davidi, the co-director of “Cameras” said of receiving the nomination. “The image you get of having an [Oscar] nomination, you think it will be a moment of joy, but moments of joy and moments of destruction are all tied up.”
Moore was also inclined to grant “Cameras’” Emad Burnat, who was unceremoniously detained at Los Angeles International Airport the evening prior, a soapbox with which to vent his prolix grievances about Israeli occupation: “For me to go through this,” he began about his LAX ordeal, “they stop me for questions [and] this moment reminds me of where I live, where I come from. I live under occupation. I live under Israeli control. For me it’s become a normal life.”
Moore referred to a scene in the film where an “Israeli soldier purposely shoots a Palestinian civilian.” “What makes this film so powerful,” he added, “is that it shows non-violent resistance is the way to do this. And I think that’s what [the Israeli government] is so scared of -- because non-violence will work.” He suggested that “the day 5,000 or 10,000 Palestinians sit in the road and don’t get up” might just do the trick.
Moore’s strutting, stunning lack of sense about the depth and scope of this conflict was discomfiting to watch. If one didn’t know better, it was as if the troubles between a powerful Israel and a powerless Palestine began with the 2010 Gaza Flotilla raid. “I think if every American watched these two movies, there’d be a sea change,” Moore naively suggested. “That’s what makes [these films] so dangerous.”
That’s it! If only Americans would watch two documentaries, the ancient conflict over the Holy Land would be resolved. Moore’s calls for peace now were absurdly oblivious to the travails of history -- God forbid he ask Burnat what he felt when PLO President Yasser Arafat rejected Israel’s offer of 95% of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip during the Camp David Summit in 2000, for instance, or of any of the other numerous occasions when Israel was indeed ready to End The Occupation but came up against Palestinian intransigence.
Moore would do well to learn more about that for which he so vociferously advocates. But the sort of nuances that history requires would hardly serve the Hollywood penchant for clear-cut villains and vagabonds.
February 19, 2013 | 8:04 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The year is 2063. In a Los Angeles classroom, a group of history students awaits the day’s lesson on the Civil War period. The teacher announces that instead of reading from a textbook, the class will watch the movie “Lincoln,” by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. The lights dim, a calm descends and a 13-inch transparent, retractable screen emerges from each student’s desk. With one touch, the ancient myth of a president who lived two centuries prior comes streaming to vivid life.
Over in an adjacent, upper-school building, 10th-graders are studying the more recent history of the United States’ War on Terror. The teacher announces that to supplement their reading of “The 9/11 Commission Report,” they are going to watch the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Or is it? What sense might the students get of the time in which these films were set, or of when they were made? What social or political values will they glean from those narratives? In choosing to show “Lincoln,” certainly the first history teacher had more in mind than a basic lesson on the voting records of a 19th century Congress. Surely Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), who, way back in 2013, called on Spielberg to correct an error that put his state on the wrong side of the slavery vote, would agree with that. Well, one can only hope.
Although opinions will inevitably vary as to the historical value of these films — or any film, for that matter — there is little doubt that the popularity of Hollywood movies can leave an indelible imprint on our understanding of history. It is probably already true that more Americans have seen Spielberg’s fictionalized “Lincoln” than read the Doris Kearns Goodwin biography upon which it is based. If this indicates the impoverishment of our culture, it is still a truth. But it is the “truth” in fiction that has prompted a wave of persnickety bickering around many of this year’s Oscar contenders. It’s an anxiety that is no doubt tied to the power of the historical film.
During a year in which the only shared theme among Oscar contenders is a concern with the attributes of history — both distant and contemporary, and the individuals (“Lincoln”), events (“Argo”), settings (“Django Unchained”) and issues of our time (“Zero Dark Thirty”) — parsing how Hollywood marks the historical record seems a worthy exercise. Over the past few months, an Oscar-campaign drama has played out among filmmakers and politicians, artists and philosophers over the historical value of this season’s spate of movies. Public consternation has focused on an almost neurotic obsession with factual accuracy, which, at least for some, seems like the silliest debate.
“Using movies to learn your history is a disastrous course,” New Republic film critic and historian David Thomson told me during an interview. “But we’ve all done it.”
Historian Robert Rosenstone has called learning history from movies a sign of a “postliterate” age, a time when “people can read, but won’t.” In an essay for Harvard University Press published in 1995, Rosenstone explained why historians distrust the historical film: “Films are inaccurate,” he wrote. “They distort the past. They fictionalize, trivialize, and romanticize people, events, and movements. They falsify history.”
But academics’ discomfort with Hollywood’s hold on the popular imagination likely stems from anxiety about their own lack of control. Who are the real custodians and transmitters of history? In our time, that privilege seems to rest with the greatest storytellers, the ones who can hold our spirits captive through the sheer power of their gifts. This is as true of Hollywood writers and directors as it is of a biographer like Robert Caro, whose much-lauded biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson provide both a fount of data and an abundance of drama. The problem with Hollywood, of course, is that it is bound by a different set of formal and practical constraints than written history.
For one, “they’re there to make entertainment; they’re there to make money,” Thomson said. “And most of the time, they will use what they think are the facts and turn them into the best dramatic advantage they can think of.”
When Courtney accused playwright and “Lincoln” scribe Tony Kushner of botching Connecticut’s voting record on the 13th Amendment, Kushner took to the Wall Street Journal to admit his error but defend his decision. “These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote,” Kushner explained. “The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell.”
Kushner went on to justify his position by revealing his personal writing criteria, one that distinguishes between history and historical drama.
“Here’s my rule,” Kushner wrote. “Ask yourself, ‘Did this thing happen?’ If the answer is yes, then it’s historical. Then ask, ‘Did this thing happen precisely this way?’ If the answer is yes, then it’s history; if the answer is no, not precisely this way, then it’s historical drama.”
That facts often get kicked to the curb for the sake of a sexier story was best expressed in John Ford’s 1962 film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” In one of its final scenes, a newspaper publisher and editor famously insists, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!” An apt mantra for Hollywood, it suggests a discomfiting reality: that the public has a larger appetite for myth and fantasy than for truth. Truth, after all, is stranger than fiction — and proof that even a false version of events can gain ready acceptance.
It is somewhat peculiar, though, to say nothing of a minor hypocrisy, that the same artists who so easily enjoy the stature a historical movie affords will not hesitate to cherry-pick history. As Patrick Goldstein, former entertainment columnist for the Los Angeles Times put it to me: “The same filmmakers who will go to such exquisite lengths to have the costumes correct, the production design accurate, the cars and clothes and everything else historically perfect, when it comes to story, they go ‘Oh, well, I had to condense it because the Connecticut lawmakers didn’t fit the story.’ ”
Filmmakers try to have it both ways, Goldstein complained. They want the credibility of facts and the license for legend. “They do all this enormous research to make sure that the movie is accurate, then they go ahead and say, ‘Oh yeah, but’ when somebody calls them on it. That’s when I part company. Lots of filmmakers tell great stories and use history as a launching pad the same way Philip Roth does in his novels, but Roth would never dream of saying, ‘My novels would stand up to any historian’s criticisms.’ He’s a novelist.”
This year, criticism has been lobbed primarily at “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” both of which are proudly presented historical movies. It was only after public discussion began that they sought to cover their tracks with caveats. In the case of “Zero Dark Thirty,” which opens with a long, unsparing torture scene, the implication is that torture played a role in intelligence gathering during the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. Whether or not this is really true (the veracity of this claim is still being debated among members of the CIA, the Senate Intelligence Committee, senior White House officials and outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta), the filmmakers have coolly demurred from confirming the film’s basic premise. “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge,” director Kathryn Bigelow told the New Yorker last December. “I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.”
“That’s absolute nonsense,” Thomson told me. “They want to use torture in the film for its dramatic values and, equally, they want to sit on the fence and say, ‘Well, no, no, no; we weren’t saying that the CIA really used torture — it’s all fabricated.’ ”
According to Rosenstone, a California Institute of Technology emeritus history professor, a historical film must present a moral argument. In crafting a history-based narrative, “You’re faced with an infinity of details, and at some point you have to cut them off and say these are the ones that I think are important. Well, how are you making that choice? You’re making a choice to give a certain set of political, philosophical and moral beliefs about what’s important.”
Even the most rigorously researched histories are vulnerable to dispute. “All history is debatable, the books as well,” he told me. “You have to choose. And filmmakers have to do the same thing.”
“Argo,” a story of the rescue of American hostages during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, has suffered far fewer indictments over its reliability than “Lincoln” or “Zero Dark.” “It was an entertainment from the minute it started to the minute it ended,” Goldstein said. “There was nothing about the tone or style of filmmaking that led me to believe it was a serious historical tract. It allowed me as a viewer to say ‘I’m on a ride.’ ”
Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in “Argo.” Photo by Claire Folger/© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
But where its history is concerned, “Argo” has been bolstered by a vigorous speaking campaign undertaken by retired CIA operative Tony Mendez, the inspiration for the character played by Ben Affleck, which has provided the film with a certain authenticity (and likely added to its acclaim). At the same time, critics and historians agree that there can be a distinction between factual accuracy and truth: Take “Argo’s” climactic, final airport scene. As the hostages make their escape, they encounter a series of hair-raising attempts to thwart their passage, which climaxes with a heart-pounding chase sequence as their plane is pursued down the runway — none of which actually occurred.
“The end is apparently completely preposterous,” Goldstein said. Yet the dramatic tension of the final scenes serve a deeper truth: that a daring agent with a dumb plan actually did rescue six American hostages from behind enemy lines.
Even the most devoted historians acknowledge that history concerns more than the accumulation of data. “The accuracy, the individual details and facts of history are not what history is about,” Rosenstone said. “One of the greatest works of history, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ ” — the 18th century work by English historian Edward Gibbon — “is riddled with errors. The issue we should be talking about is the overall portrait these films give of a period, even though particular details may be wrong.” “Lincoln,” then, finds historical value in its “fascinating portrait of political maneuvering; and how, behind our idealistic visions [of democracy] also lies this system that we have to work through.”
The application of “Lincoln’s” themes to our present experience bespeaks the notion that all film is essentially a time capsule. As Thomson put it, “If you want to know what 1939 felt like, the movies of 1939 are valuable.” The “history” films of our day may tell us more about the time in which they were made than the time they seek to explore.
“In a general sense, it is always true that history serves the present,” Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman said during an interview. “The historian is choosing and arranging and interpreting from the perspective of the time in which [their work is] written. ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Django,’ to a degree, are movies that clearly come out of Obama’s first term, and that’s how they’ll be seen ultimately; as certain things which came to the fore during Obama’s presidency that the American people had to chew on — issues of race and the history of race as well as presidential power and greatness are sort of rehearsed in these movies.
“Our Lincoln” – the one played by Daniel Day-Lewis — Hoberman added, “is not the same Lincoln of 1940, when [Raymond Massey] played him.”
Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Photo by Jonathan Olley/©2012 Zero Dark Thirty
Retelling the most contemporary history, however, may be laden with the most challenges. “Zero Dark Thirty” relays a sequence of events so eerily recent and familiar that the film itself seems to function as a quasi-documentary. For most audiences, the film conveys an amount of reported detail that for most Americans was previously unknown. The writer, Boal, who is also a journalist, has said countless times that his telling is based on real reporting. “I think he thought this movie would be kind of a scoop,” Hoberman said.
But the public was deeply disturbed by the revelation of its contents. “Sometimes filmmakers raise what we call an uncomfortable truth,” Hoberman said. The film’s disclosures and its implications struck raw nerves and open wounds. Osama Bin Laden’s death is too recent for the critical distance that understanding his place in history requires. And the confrontation with our country’s use of torture is still unfolding. “Zero Dark Thirty” has helped uncloak dark chapters in our nation’s history, but the response to it suggests that history is better understood when it’s over.
The problem with historical movies is the problem with all histories: They are approximations, interpretations or imaginings of what happened. “Even professional historians, when they come to write, begin to do the things that movies do,” Thomson said. “Not as crudely, but you select and present; you tell a story.”
If written history is considered more reliable, explained Gary Gutting, endowed chair of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, it is because it presents “the reasoning behind things, the evidence for it, how certain positions are established.” It provides footnotes, arguments and counter-arguments. It presents facts as evidence for certain historical conclusions. “A movie has the problem of its very vividness; it’s always going to be presenting more than we can possibly know.”
Movies can at best probe elements of history and evoke them with the tools of its trade: color, character, scene, drama, emotion.
“When you’re writing about history you have to consider what the audience already knows and then use that to your advantage,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin explained of his craft. Sorkin has won much acclaim for his highly detailed renderings of “real” life — from the White House television drama “The West Wing” to his Oscar-winning portrayal of the creation of Facebook with “The Social Network” to his latest study on modern media with HBO’s “Newsroom.” Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about translating reality into fiction without compromising verisimilitude. “It can be exhilarating when the audience knows more than the characters do. In ‘All the President’s Men,’ Robert Redford is woken up by a call to go cover a petty burglary. We know his life and the country are about to change forever. We also know how it ends. The movie is going to live in the places where the things we know meet the things we didn’t.
“Tony Kushner had to make Abraham Lincoln talk,” Sorkin added admiringly. “He humanized a guy most of us only know from the penny.”
Feature films, in the end, are about the magic of invention. Realistic, but constrained by the need to entertain and the impulse to inspire. Sorkin, for one, often describes his work as “idealistic,” and history is anything but. But he is right that movies are better understood as dreams and fantasies, illusions and ideals, mysteries and beliefs. As Hoberman exquisitely put it: “I don’t think that there can be absolute history. When you have a dream, you create a narrative when you remember it.”
Like the Bible, movies are not diminished if devoid of literalism. On the contrary, their stories gain relevance and meaning through the prism of interpretation.
“I think we owe it to those whose stories we tell to be as accurate as possible,” the Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis wrote to me in an e-mail. “[But] we are dramatists, not documentarians. We shape the truth not only in what we write, but what we don’t. We need to tell the truth as we see it, through our characters’ eyes. And if we do our job well, we will reveal the truth of our subject and characters, even if those truths are uncomfortable, and perhaps not what our subjects would have liked to have seen, should they be sitting in the audience.”