Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 12, 2013 11:08 am 
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Upper class underdog

Bobby Kennedy said he would rather be his friend George Plimpton than himself. And that made sense, since Bobby was assassinated young, Plimpton at hand to disarm the assailant, whereas George died quietly in his sleep at 76, after a life arguably as full and enjoyable as any. Death came for him just after his 40th reunion with the Paper Lion team, and just short of the 50th of The Paris Review. He headed the famous literary journal honorably from its inception at the behest of his longtime friend Peter Matthiessen. This breezy little documentary about Plimpton, a decade after his death, is the usual mix of archival footage, voiceovers, and talking heads, but it hits the right note, recounting a tale that's light but layered. It tells us of a patrician writer whose most successful pose was that of everyman, diving into challenging fields, doing poorly, then writing about the experience from the point of view of the average guy. He was disapproved of by his demanding father, a dilettante in some eyes. He was an ultimate social insider who yet felt enough the reverse even among his own people to bring that sense of not fitting in each time to his many original stunts of reportage, to which he returned tirelessly. In doing so he displayed both courage and grace. He seemed narcissistic and neglectful as a husband and father at times, yet was clearly much loved by his two older children.

The film makes clear that George Plimpton's background was very aristocratic by American standards, with important people generations back, and the posh accent to go with that. Though not mentioned, his father Francis T.P. Plimpton founder of a great Wall Street law firm, was once designated as the "head" of the "American Establishment" by Esquire Magazine. It is shown that the town of Walpole, Massachusetts, was virtually a Plimpton principality. George flunked out of Phillips Exeter before graduation. He had been a poor student and also washed out of every team he tried for, only getting to play the drum in the band. The Paris Review , when it came along, was a godsend. He had graduated from Harvard, one of several experiences, including military service, that the film skims over. The Paris Review published an extraordinary roster of then or future writers of importance. But its fame come from the "Art of Fiction" interviews with notable authors: the very first one was E. M. Foster. Plimpton, always connected and a charmer, not only gained an interview from Hemingway, who hated giving them, but won "Pappa's" respect and fariendship. He had myriad friends; eventually, with fame, all the pretty women he wanted, though this skill as a playboy he deployed with a light touch, "a class act," in the words of an expert, Hugh Hefner.

The main story of George Plimpton's life is his famous "participatory journalism" (part of the 70's New Journalism named by Tom Wolfe whose other practitioners included Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, and Truman Capote) by which he entered various arenas, mostly of sport (circus acrobat, standup comic, extra on set with John Wayne, and symphonic musician other roles briefly assumed), gaining full, if temporary admission on teams, famously football, baseball, hockey. He generally did poorly, which he later affirmed was only right: to have shone, even by accident, would have shaken the public faith in the essential gap between the amateur and the professional. Repeatedly failing in public was not easy. At the same time Plimpton handled these performances with unfailing grace. It didn't hurt that he was tall, erect, handsome, dashing, with a nice mane of hair into old age, easy with people, in his football team days resembling Frank Sinatra; with a broad smile and an ability to gain the confidence and approval of team members, loving to hear and tell stories and conveying sense that everyone interested him. All this the film shows and tells us.

The important extra ingredient is that George conveys the fear of messing up (or being hurt) and the dismay when he comes off as buffoonish or clumsy, as he seems to have often done. Yet doing badly, he looks good doing it. In the case of Paper Lion, describing his stint with the Detroit Lions, his description of being on the field with a major football team was so accurate the book became a permanent bestseller, read according to the film by anyone interested in the literature of the game.

Meanwhile, Plimpton didn't publish his own writing in The Paris Review. Some thought he cheapened himself and diluted his writing by appearing so often in silly TV interview shows (Leno, Charlie Rose, etc.), eventaully even hawking garage door openers, cars, and the like in commercials to earn money for the magazine, always in the red; its office, long moved from Paris, a part of his own apartment on East 72nd Street in Manhattan. The George Plimpton Upper East Side digs must have been roomy, since we're shown footage of some of his famous parties, numbering 150 invitees and attended by pretty young women along with luminaries of the New York literary world: Vonnegut, Roth, Capote, Vidal, and Maler are among those glimpsed. James Lipton says on screen that if something had wiped out the apartment on these evenings, America would have become a second rate literary power. He had been good friends with Jack and Jackie; early on invited his future wife (the first of two) to dinner at the Kennedy White House. It was a glittering, glamorous existence. All that may have detracted from serious literary activity. But not from productivity: Plimpton penned 30-odd books and over a hundred articles, many of those as a writer for Sports Illustrated, whose editors helped him get the team positions. Passages read aloud in the film remind us that Plimpton wrote, as well as acted, with considerable grace.

Plimpton knew so many people, and did so many things (appearing in some 20 Hollywood films, apparently). As a man evidently he could be described as broad rather than deep. His sister tells the camera he wasn't someone you got to know well. On the other hand, his son, Taylor Plimpton, who gives him high marks as a dad, clearly his greatest fan, provides the film its most touching moment reading a passage by his father about a "wish list" of things he'd still have liked to do. In a short review of the film Taylor describes it as "a joyous and inspiring reminder of what an adventure life can be," and that's a good place to end.

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, 89 minutes, opened in NYC in late May 2013, in LA in June.

┬ęChris Knipp. Blog:

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