Indignation Brings Philip Roth Novel to Life

Just how much of Indignation is, in reality, Philip Roth’s life is a question that will surely be debated once the public views the tale of a Jewish mama’s boy from Newark who discovers a whole new world when he goes off to college in Ohio.

Just how much of Indignation is, in reality, Philip Roth’s life is a question that will surely be debated once the public views the tale of a Jewish mama’s boy from Newark who discovers a whole new world when he goes off to college in Ohio.
The man who gave us Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus decades ago — both stories about Jews who found a lot not to like about their faith and some of its customs — reemerged in 2008 with his latest exploits about life in the early 1950s during the Korean War.
James Schamus, who produced such hits as Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sense and Sensibility, makes his directorial debut, bringing Indignation to the screen at five selected local theaters this weekend. Whether you like it may matter at the box office, but probably not that much to him.
That’s because the 83-year-old Roth likes it and told him: “James, you have made a sensitive and truthful rendering of Indignation, and I thank you for what is the most convincing film yet inspired by one of my books.”
Previously, when Schamus sent Roth the screenplay before he started filming, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I did what you’re supposed to do ethically,” said the 56-year-old Schamus during a recent media tour. “I sent the screenplay to him, which is scary.
“I don’t know what I’d have done if he read it and hated it, but he did the nicest thing you can ever imagine a writer doing for a filmmaker. He refused to read the script. It was a gift.”
That inspired Schamus to follow his instincts. In addition to being challenging, directing for the first time had some surprises.
“What I didn’t expect was the actual living experience of having one thing to concentrate on every day at work,” said Schamus, who started off in print journalism as a copy editor when he attended the University of California, Berkeley, before shifting to film when he moved to New York more than 20 years ago. “When you show up on set as director and get there at dawn and don’t leave until after dark, you’re doing one thing.
“You have to concentrate on what the image is going to be. There can be no distraction or, if there is, you’re not doing your job right.”
If his job as director was to transform a nerdy kid from Newark who worked in his father’s kosher butcher shop after school into a college student with a mind of his own, he succeeded.
The only problem is Winesburg College freshman bookworm Marcus Messner doesn’t quite how to handle it when he encounters a girl who treats him unlike anything he could’ve possibly imagined back home.
Just as Neil Klugman and Alexander Portnoy discovered that sex distorts their perspective in Roth’s earlier novels, so, too, does Messner (Logan Lerman) go through all kinds of angst trying to figure out Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon).
Compounding that are issues with his parents. His mother Esther (Linda Emond) is horrified at the thoughts of her son with a shiksa. His perpetually angry father (Danny Burstein, who’s playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway) does nothing but alienate both of them.
“They’re very Jewish themes,” said Schamus, who spent 13 years running Focus Features, where he did everything but sweep the floors while turning out top films like Milk, The Pianist and Dallas Buyers Club. “Roth goes back to that well a lot.
“But I’m not the expert on the ins and outs of the relationship of Roth to his Jewishness and to American Jewish culture. Those are well-tilled fields, but they keep yielding many different fruits. Roth speaks to a lot of kinds of assimilated American Jews. Certainly, he provokes and elicits a response from people like me that is connective.
“It’s a Jewish connection. However observant or non-observant you are, whatever your issues, he reminds you very clearly of your Jewishness. Clearly it’s part of his inspiration, and he’s never gonna to remove it from the equation. It’s always there.”
Winesburg is said to be Roth’s depiction of Bucknell University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in English. But just how much of Marcus is Roth and was there an Olivia Hutton in his life? Like Schamus said, only Roth knows — and he’s not telling.
Still, while it’s not for everyone, Indignation does send a message that it’s all right to not only explore your sexual identity and your individuality but to question authority. And it’s certainly all right to stand up for what you believe. Just be willing to accept the consequences that may result.
So why should folks care about fictional characters from a fictional school 65 years ago?
“A story’s a story,” replied Schamus, who’s already at work on his next project with famed director Ang Lee about the rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. “Spotlight won best picture this year and best director went to The Revenant. Those are from some time in the distant past, and then there are stories that take place in the future.
“It’s really about character and emotion, trying to say something different.”
There’s just one more thing he’d like.
“I always hope with the films I work on when people leave the theater they want to talk to each other,” said Schamus, who shot the whole thing in less than five weeks. “Often, you go to a movie and say, ‘That was great. Now what’s for dinner?’ and you never think about it the rest of your life.
“I do hope with Indignation the conversation keeps going, because it does seem to provide that sense of connection.”
Of course, with Philip Roth it usually does.
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