Wednesday, December 15, 2010
TV's Fascination With Mordecai Richler
Mordecai Richler was made for television.
The arguably greatest Canadian writer of his generation, his rumpled nastiness could really shake up any TV program he was on. He challenged every assumption, took no prisoners and TV helped him sell thousands of his books.
Now TV repays the favor with an incisive and surprisingly affectionate portrait of the late, great novelist titled fittingly Moredcai Richler: The Last Of The Wild Jews.
The premiere is on Bravo! Sunday Dec. 19 at 8 and is especially welcome in this festive season of perennial TV reruns.
Veteran Quebec filmmaker Francine Pelletier (whom I once interviewed on the fifth estate set) really captures the essence of Richler's personality by firmly placing him in the context of his volatile upbringing in Quebec in the Thirties and Forties.
Pelletier and Charles Foran co-wrote the script which jams in a whole lot of information in its hour format.
Context is everything here as Pelletier sees Richler (1931-2001) as part of a Canadian branch of strong North American Jewish writers who flourished after World War II and included Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer (and on stage Lenny Bruce).
She has really combed the archives to come up with some essential old black and white TV documentaries made when Richler was beginning to be famous in England where he wrote screenplays for a time.
And these clips while interesting are the jumping off point for a discussion of the real Richler who in private was a devoted husband and father. The most intensely personal revelations come from his devoted wife Florence who had to endure his often painful silences.
She provides the key to his personality by saying he stopped smiling when he was a young boy.
Also interviewed: Margaret Atwood, Adam Gopnik, and fellow Canadian Ted Kotcheff who directed the fine version of Richler's classic novel The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz. Montreal cartoonist Terry Mosher tells how often he gleefully used Richler's bulking presence in playful newspaper illustrations far more than the big politicians of the day. However, there's nothing from his sons --maybe they are busy making their own tribute?
All the archival stuff is fun but the biggest bang comes when Richler revisited his old high school Baron Byng in 1980 for a reunion and viciously attacks the quality of the entertainment. Then he goes back to his chair and continues drinking.
Where Pelletier falters, I think, is in misjudging Richler's reaction to the Quebec separatist movement. He clearly saw racist elements present and wrote about it in the New Yorker which became the book O Canada! O Quebec!. The way he skewered Quebec's often absurdist language laws surely mortified nationalists who howled in outrage. But he had seen through their pretensions.
Maybe he over-reacted but he had a right to be concerned because of the way Montreal's Jewish community had historically been treated under premier Maurice Duplessis.
Richler convincingly argued that he was just as Quebecois as anybody else although he was Jewish and wrote in English and he had a point.
Is it a coincidence that this flavorsome biography is going to air just days before the new movie of Barney's Version comes out.
Richler mostly used his TV appearances to sell his books. So I'm hoping this profile gets more younger Canadians interested in his novels. Watch this hour and you'll certainly want to read Foran's recent biography Mordecai: The Life And Times.
MORDECAI RICHLER: THE LAST OF THE WILD JEWS PREMIERES ON BRAVO! SUN. DEC. 19 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.