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‘Plimpton!’: A Fond Look At A Man Of Letters

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
May 23, 2013

If ever there was a man who made a virtue out of failure, it was George Plimpton.

He played quarterback with the Detroit Lions without even knowing where to put his hands to take the snap. He had his nose bloodied by knockout king Archie Moore. He sweated through performances as a triangle player for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Tennis great Pancho Gonzales properly destroyed him in a singles match, and Plimpton once threw a pitch at Yankee Stadium that was pounded into the third deck.

But what Plimpton did do exceedingly well was to relate to readers how it felt to be an amateur among these professionals — to be a mere mortal sneaking into the realm of gods. It’s hard not to be drawn to a man who was not only so willing to let himself crash and burn for our benefit, but who wrote with such wit and eloquence about the descent. Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, is a documentary obviously made by people under this man’s unique spell.

Plimpton was constantly on the move, relentlessly trying on new professions for size, and there’s a difficulty in trying to paint a portrait of such an endlessly moving target. Directors Tom Bean and Luke Poling attempt to get underneath the surface of the man, but find it hard to get beyond his work and his persona.

Various associates and various wives appear for the requisite talking-head interviews, describing impulsivity, speculating about darkness within, offering thoughts on Plimpton’s difficulty being a supporting character in anyone else’s narrative.

But who he was beneath his patrician mien — that immediately recognizable way he carried himself, a factory prototype of the New England man of letters — remains elusive.

That doesn’t really work to the film’s detriment, though: Even a skin-deep biography of Plimpton is more fascinating than a deep dive about most people. Indeed, just hearing Plimpton lecture or read from his own work — which happens throughout the film, hence the subtitle — is engaging enough for a documentary of its own.

The directors spend much of the film’s first half running chronologically through Plimpton’s impressive CV: founding editor of the Paris Review; author of popular books and articles on his misadventures in the sporting life; friend to the Kennedys and one of the men who tackled shooter Sirhan Sirhan at the scene of RFK’s assassination; star of an eponymous series of TV specials; advertising spokesman for everything from video game consoles to microwave popcorn.

It’s these latter ventures that cause some consternation among Plimpton’s colleagues and contemporaries. Despite the loving tone of the film as a whole, the directors do address the question of how much damage the prime-time specials and the corporate shilling may have done to his reputation. In an interview, novelist James Salter goes even further, confessing that though he may have been unfair to label Plimpton a dilettante in his younger days, “he was writing in a genre that really doesn’t permit greatness.”

If Plimpton’s chosen genre didn’t permit greatness, Bean and Poling make the case that the totality of his unique career and legacy certainly did. Whether it’s the importance of the Paris Review in tapping talented new writers, the explorations into the creative mind that he navigated in his interview series for the magazine, or his role as one of the early pioneers of participatory journalism, the film portrays Plimpton as someone devoted to illuminating how talent and creativity work — both for himself, and for the rest of us. [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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