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The Nonlinear Editor: Picture Imperfect
Posted Jul 4, 2010 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Few artists have struggled so hard to make use of so much talent as the great American novelist Henry Roth. Not to be confused with the Henry Roth known in the wedding biz for designing "affordable couture" bridal dresses, this Henry Roth was a novelist whose work spans two-thirds of the 20th century-minus the 50 years between his first novel and the quintet of crypto-autobiographical works that poured out of him at the very end of his life, the last of which was published in June of this year. He's best-known for a novel titled Call It Sleep that sank like a stone when it was first published in 1934. It was then resurrected in 1964 thanks to a celebratory and enormously influential essay on the book in The New York Times by famed literary and social critic Irving Howe. It topped the best-seller lists, sold more than a million copies, and has since found its place on most top 100 lists of the best novels of the 20th century. Today, Call It Sleep, which chronicles life on New York's Lower East Side in 1914 through the eyes of a frightened and precocious 9-year-old Jewish boy, is widely acclaimed as the definitive American immigrant novel.

Perhaps even more amazing is that Mercy of a Rude Stream, the very different series of books Roth wrote from 1980 to 1995, at the very end of his life as his body failed him (he was weak, immobilized, and plagued by arthritis so bad that pain radiated from his fingers through his body when he typed), proved even more magnificent than Call It Sleep, though those books have yet to enjoy the popular success bestowed on Call It Sleep during its rediscovery in the '60s.

As you might expect, the 3-decades-late success of Call It Sleep (long before Mercy of a Rude Stream was conceived or even conceivable) was bittersweet for Roth. Having often described the writer of Call It Sleep as a man long dead, Roth didn't welcome his belated brush with fame and the exposure and sense of expectation that came with it. Although he never entirely stopped writing, he spent decades in retreat from the literary world, marking his time variously as a tool and gauge maker, an attendant in a mental hospital, and a waterfowl farmer in coastal Maine.

When Roth did attempt to write over the 50 years following the cool reception of Call It Sleep, the results were disheartening, to Roth himself more than anyone. His first attempt at a second novel, an abortive attempt to fictionalize the life of illiterate Marxist ideologue Bill Clay during the boom of the Communist Party in the U.S. in the late 1930s, proved disastrous, partly because Clay turned out to be a lout and a blowhard and partly because Roth had no taste or acumen for political writing, no matter how much he wanted to do it to please his critics and comrades at the time. In subsequent years, Roth tried repeatedly to craft short stories in the style favored by The New Yorker and other magazines. But he rarely managed to sell them because he simply had no aptitude for tailoring his work to others' specifications.

Everyone who's ever attempted to write about Roth's life has tried to establish a working theory as to why a man with such enormous gifts seemed unable to do much of anything with them for so long. Roth harbored terrible, paralyzing secrets from his adolescence that made it difficult for him to fully embrace adulthood. It wasn't until the 80-ish writer revealed those secrets in the second volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream that he fully exorcised those demons. At a time when other authors were finding ways to make a living in their trade, Roth himself acknowledged that the young writer who was mentored and supported by an older woman in the New York literary scene through the creation of Call It Sleep in the early 1930s never found the stomach to "grub for a living and ... convert his craft into wares" as his contemporaries did. Another theory is that he slid into decades of depression, ennui, and self-loathing that simply rendered him unable to write. Finally, watching Israel fight for its life in the Six-Day War of 1967, Roth was shaken from his stupor, and a desire to preserve, in print, the long-gone (and to him, long-reviled) Yiddish world of his youth was awakened.

All of these factors are certainly part of the fascinating and frustrating mess that was Henry Roth. But it seems to me that the overarching issue was the struggle to find his voice and inspiration. The story of how the slum-bred Roth rose so quickly from a marginal City College of New York student to world-class author began with an almost-magical spark of inspiration drawn from reading a brown-wrapped copy of James Joyce's Ulysses that his mentor had smuggled into the U.S. at a time when the book was banned here: "It was like a junkyard world, stagnating, grimy and drab, in which nothing happened that wasn't a modulation of banality. ... What was there in that diurnal Dublin grubbiness different from his own dreary life in Harlem? It was the alchemy of language that transmuted the sludge into something noble, into a work of art. The tenement backyards of his neighborhood, the dingy cabbagey Fels Naptha soap mopped hallways ... the kids rolling dice under the shadow of the New York Central trestle ... Yossie Bayer's pimply baby brother in his high chair catching a cockroach in his grubby fist, and offering to throw it into his doting ne'er-do-well papa's glass of tea. ... What a discovery! It was all here, right here. It was the language that made the difference, that translated meanness into literature."

And there it was, all there: vision, validation, inspiration. The magic in the details. A portrait of an artist born. It's interesting to me to think about Roth's struggles to find his voice, his purpose, and his subject matter in the context of what drives people in our industry, what sustains their passion, and what sustains their businesses. For those event filmmakers who do recognize the artistry in what they do and who do see it as commissioned art rather than simply product, the question of how you "grub for a living" and "convert your craft into wares" isn't even really a question; that's an everyday part of what you do, after all, and my kudos as ever to those who preserve the art in the craft as we all slog through the worst depression since the one that found Roth living hand-to-mouth for the latter half of the '30s. (Incidentally, Roth's "new" book, An American Type, is, in part, a gripping road novel of the Great Depression, replete with a rattletrap Model A Ford, freight-train hopping, hobo jungles, and more.)

But the irony to me is Roth's initial obliviousness to the potential for great art in portraying the slums in which he was raised. A century later, that seems like a natural. My challenge in connecting with the wedding films I see on a daily basis is almost the opposite: namely, my ingrained resistance to wealth depicted on screen, to the notion that rich people at their most extravagant can experience real emotion. I know that's an unfair bias bordering on bigotry. Be that as it may, it takes a lot for a lavish film of a lavish wedding to win me over. But I do find myself moved, again and again. And I think it's all about the details that the best wedding films capture, the ones that hint at the cracks and the seams in these human existences-the things beyond the limos and the spinning rings and the gorgeous destination locations that, in spite of all that luxury, make them human and real.

I think wedding filmmakers often overstate the story arcs in their work. But maybe we're just calling it something different; what I'm always fascinated to see in these celebratory films is the liminal stuff, the shots that any wedding filmmaker bound by formula would probably leave out of the final cut; the misstep or the anxious glance, moments that remind you that all the perfect moments that you do see are happening to imperfect people who lead imperfect lives.

There was a fascinating thread on VideoUniversity.com the week I wrote this column initiated by Bill Grant, who's best-known in video circles for Boneshow, a music video series that captures musicians performing in their natural environments with an understated and compelling documentary style (www.youtube.com/boneshowsc). Bill started this thread to explain why he was abandoning the "cinematic" style of wedding video for a more documentary-oriented approach: because he wasn't good at it and because it didn't ring true to him. Responses ranged all over the map, from defenses and denigrations of the cinematic style to questions of how you define it and reflections on whether cinematic/documentary has to be an either/or thing. But increasingly, as this wonderful and informative thread wore on, the theme shifted to the importance of establishing your own style, following your vision, and finding a way to make it viable in your market, and the importance to adhering to your own vision if you hope to do honest and meaningful work.

That said, if you're in this business for real, working full time and supporting a family with it, there's something to be said for having the flexibility to make some compromises here and there to support the work you really want to do. But if your business leaves no room for work that represents the things you believe your films should represent and all you're doing is pandering to the perceived demands of your market, there are much easier ways to make a living, and ones that wouldn't so much contradict your vision or beliefs as simply sidestep them. As Rick Nelson said, "If memories were all I sang, I'd rather drive a truck."

There's a lovely moment near the end of Henry Roth's just-published An American Type in which Roth's fictional alter ego, Ira Stigman, marries his fiancée, M (representing Roth's real-life wife, Muriel) at City Hall in the presence of her parents and her sister. M's father asks the doorman "to admit them to the flowery privacy of nearby Gramercy Park, so he could take moving pictures. Nursemaids watched, and little kids drive by on their tricycles." Of course, the first thing I thought of when I read that was how much I'd love to see that long-lost wedding movie from 1939 and the indelible moment it captures.

But what makes it most powerful is what happens next. Ira flash-forwards to his acrimonious split with M's parents over something fairly trivial that a less prickly man than Ira would have risen above (again, pretty much what actually happened in Roth's life) and then pulls back: "But all this was in the future, the long filament of years spooling out in front of M and Ira on their wedding day. Time collapsed back on Ira, left him solidly in this happy moment."

There it is: the perfect moment made all the more powerful by the imperfections of the people in it, and the imperfection of the life spooled out in front of it. One thing we learn from An American Type about the impossible, conflicted man who was Henry Roth—who regretted and resented his artistic talent because it was so often inaccessible to him—was that amid all the raging storms in his head, his career, and his life, he really had a wonderful marriage-all the more reason I'd love to see those scant minutes of film his father-in-law captured that day in Gramercy Park.

Stephen Nathans-KellyStephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EventDVLive and programming director of EventDV-TV.

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