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Like most people, Roth doesn't like getting old, and losing friends is perhaps the most painful part of it. "If you look at your address book," he says, "it's like walking through a cemetery."

Philip Roth: Unmasked — which opens at Film Forum in New York on March 13 and will air on PBS beginning March 29 — covers a lot of territory, beginning with Roth's recollections of growing up in Newark, N.J., followed almost immediately by his assertion that he couldn't wait to leave there forever.

He makes the case, cogently, that although certain elements of his work have been drawn from his own life, his stories are largely un-autobiographical. ("Life isn't good enough in some ways," he says, in defense of the good old-fashioned tradition of making stuff up.)

Early in the film, he notes that he doesn't like being pigeonholed as a Jewish-American writer. "I don't write in Jewish," he says simply. "I write in American."

Roth says nothing in the movie, and isn't asked, about his recent announcement that he has permanently retired from writing fiction. But he does offer some fascinating observations about how writers cannot operate from feelings of shame — which is different, he notes, from feeling shame as a person — and about the joys of writing about people who misbehave sexually.

He also discusses the point, around the time of The Counterlife, at which politics and history began to play a larger role in his work — sex and death, after all, can take you only so far.

Manera and Karel have shaped Philip Roth: Unmasked simply but carefully, keeping the number of talking heads — other than Roth's own — to a minimum. Roth's detractors may very well hate this documentary. There's no one to carp on-camera about his alleged misogyny, his preoccupation with the male ego and other assorted oldies but goodies.

Yet a Philip Roth documentary that doesn't trundle heavily down those tired old avenues is probably all the better for it. Interviewees include superstar novelist Jonathan Franzen and New Yorker staff writer Claudia Roth Pierpont, both of whom are great admirers of Roth's work. But the most persuasive and passionate of all is novelist Nicole Krauss.

"We don't go to literature for moral perfection," she says. "We go there for moral ambiguity, moral feeling, moral struggle."

Roth hands us nothing on a plate; it's the only way, maybe, to give us everything. (Recommended)

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