Roth, on Film

We all know that Stanley Kauffman, that grand icon of American film-reviewing, has been with The New Republic since 1958. But did you know that he was preceded immediately by a young punk of a wannabe novelist named Philip Roth? In June 1957, Roth — then a 24-year-old instructor at the University of Chicago — began his nine-month stint with the magazine, where he reported on the latest Hollywood and television offerings. I read through all of his reviews this morning and stumbled upon a few nuggets.

First, Roth the critic. Despite a general antipathy toward “ideology” that has characterized so much of his work over the years, Roth gets surprisingly political in his critique of Studio “message” films, particularly those that treat America’s race problems with, in his words, “Mother Goose simplicity.” His reviews of Island in the Sun and Something of Value — the former a Harry Belafonte vehicle, the latter a Sidney Poitier picture — chastise the filmmakers for surrendering to empty sentimentality and senseless moralizing. Referring to the climax of Something of Value, in which Poitier dies tragically, leaving his child to be carried off by Rock Hudson, Roth writes:

The next generation, the picture seems to cry, for them it will be better! But I keep wanting to know about this generation. . . . [I]sn’t it possible to live with a man when he is not like your brother? What I want to know is when we’re going to be ready to make that picture.

Roth’s finest moment as a film critic, though, comes in his assessment of A Bridge on the River Kwai. I say “finest,” perhaps, because his ambivalence toward Lean’s “masterpiece” mirrors my own:

The Colonel, then, does not appear to have actually chosen to blow up his bridge, nor does he live to see it destroyed. And thus he is robbed of that final agony and awakening that might have made of him a tragic figure. He does, of course, have an awakening: “What have I done?” he finally asks. But what kind of question is that? What must I do now? — that is what the tragic hero asks, that is the painful question. He must do something. To have the hero fall across the dynamite switch because he is wounded permits the final destruction to arise not out of the agony of choice but out of mere physical circumstance. What had begun as a drama of character ends unsatisfactorily with some misty melodramatic statement about Chance and the Ironies of Life.

Of course, in 1957 Roth was also busy writing fiction, including the stories that would be collected in Goodbye, Columbus and that would make of him a National Book Award winner at 26. That brash young talent is on display in a few of his reviews. In his coverage of the televised Miss America pageant, for instance, he wanders off into a remembrance of his boyhood barber, a “sixty-year-old Turkish Jew who had preached hedonism to me long before he’d begun to shave my sideburns; his admiration for his adopted country was limited for the most part to its long-legged women.” The old barber would be right at home in Roth’s early stories — a friend of “Epstein,” maybe, or Ozzie’s neighbor in “The Conversion of the Jews.”

Special mention also goes to Roth’s review of 20th Century-Fox’s The Sun Also Rises, which he delivers in the style of Hemingway and in the form of a conversation between himself and a “street-walker” who he meets outside the theater. It ends:

We left it at that.

Finally she looked up. “I hear they are filming A Farewell to Arms,” she said.

“I know.”

“It will have Rock Hudson,” she looked up hopefully; it was a drunk’s kind of hope. “Maybe it will be better?”

Someone came into the bar and from across the street I could hear silver clinking on the box office window.

“Yes,” I said, “isn’t it pretty to think so.”

As far as I know, Roth’s reviews have never been collected. I had to scour through a few rolls of microfilm to find them all. They’re well worth the effort, I’d say. Kauffman, by the way, posted his review of The Human Stain a few days ago and concludes:

Thus The Human Stain, for all its page-by-page rewards, is a smaller book internally than most of Roth’s work. It is no compliment to the art of film to say that the book’s quasi-mechanical structure, plus that social issue, recommended it for adaptation, but I’d guess that this was what happened. These facts also explain why the film’s shortcomings are not all Meyer’s: most of them are in the novel.