Friday arts: Plimpton at his creative best

The new documentary about the life of George Plimpton won’t be in wide national release as it’s slowly rolled out this summer, so many of us will be reading more about the film and the man.

Playing at the Film Society at Lincoln Center through next Thursday, Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself doesn’t appear to be a standard biographic profile (although there is a standard Gray Lady review).

Then again, Plimpton’s unique brand of participatory journalism redefined what had been stodgy old boundaries and has not been replicated.

Although the founder and longtime editor of The Paris Review, Plimpton rose to greater fame largely through his sports exploits, including the 1966 publication of “Paper Lion,” based on his brief quarterbacking stint with the Detroit Lions.

plimpton movie_posterAs Leo Braudy wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the “highbrow populist” was eager for plenty more:

While it wasn’t quite Hemingway at Pamplona, Plimpton took the lumps as well as the glory, as he would again some 10 years later (again for Sports Illustrated) trading punches with Archie Moore, an interesting showboat in his own right, who had been Light Heavyweight Champion of the World.

With Paper Lion Plimpton became not just a person but also an eponymous noun, joining the ranks of Captain Boycott, the Earl of Sandwich, and many others. As Plimpton! records in loving detail, he consulted with Woody Allen and then tried standup comedy, swung on the trapeze at the Ringling Brothers circus, sat in as goalie for the Boston Bruins, played basketball with the Celtics, and inserted himself into a host of other experiences, always the inept but game participant, eventually becoming a guest on The Simpsons. In the meantime he made TV advertisements for Intellivision, Mattel’s early game console, and popped up in the movies as well, most memorably in Howard Hawks’s last film Rio Lobo, where, as the credited “4th Gunman,” he is shot by John Wayne before hardly saying a word. A TV special called Plimpton! Shoot-Out at Rio Lobo quickly followed.

Plimpton’s ease moving between these worlds, even as a happy dilettante, confounded some within those separate spheres. As Luke Poling, a writer/producer/director for the Plimpton film, told NPR:

Those who write and appreciate great literature perhaps don’t appreciate sport as much, and vice versa. And so George was kind of stuck in this between world where both sides admire him to an extent, but maybe don’t fully grasp the greatness of what he was able to do.

He did have some literary admirers. Plimpton’s first sports book, “Out of My League,” published in 1961, cultivated his omnivorous appetite for experience, even after his dismal outing pitching against Major League All-Stars. Ernest Hemingway called the book “beautifully observed and incredibly conceived, his account of a self-imposed ordeal that has the chilling quality of a true nightmare.”

In writing about his 1959 “bout” with Moore for Sports Illustrated, Plimpton described his predeliction as “sympathetic response.”

As The New York Times noted upon Plimpton’s death in 2003: Paper Lion

As a “participatory journalist,” Mr. Plimpton believed that it was not enough for writers of nonfiction to simply observe; they needed to immerse themselves in whatever they were covering to understand fully what was involved. For example, he believed that football huddles and conversations on the bench constituted a “secret world, and if you’re a voyeur, you want to be down there, getting it firsthand.”

And he didn’t always fall on his face.

But there were some Plimpton admirers who thought he took his approach too far, especially when it came to shilling products on television commercials. What they don’t mention is that he plowed the money earned from that work back into The Paris Review.

The film also has prompted some in the literary community to reassess what’s been called Plimpton’s “apolitical legacy.” At The Awl, Brendan O’Connor seems frustrated that Plimpton’s heirs at The Paris Review in fact relish that legacy: “Distance from the politics of the day enforces those politics.”

At least he relents long enough to let Sadie Stein, the magazine’s deputy editor, sum up the enduring appeal of Plimpton:

“He liked people, he liked learning, and he liked to share what he learned. That’s a guiding spirit that motivates the site far more than any political agenda.”

Last summer, as the Plimpton film made its world premiere, The Paris Review examined how it was put together.

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