William Styron is just bonkers about Virginia ham. Cooking one "is a creative act," he says. "It's sort of like giving birth to a large child."
That's the big revelation in tonight's profile of the man who also cooked up "Sophie's Choice," "The Confessions of Nat Turner" and three other novels (Channel 26 at 10). If it seems a rather meager insight into one of America's most controversial writers, well, Styron admits near the end of this lethargic doodle that "it seemed to me that there was an implicit absurdity in someone doing an hour-long documentary of my life or whatever it is." Of course, he acquiesced (literary egos are not microorganisms). But he was definitely on to something.
Producer/director/editor Joel Foreman, however, is not. Although he is an English professor at George Mason University, Foreman relentlessly refuses to engage the author's mind, preferring instead to deluge us with dozens of handsomely shot scenes of Styron in and around his Roxbury, Conn., home: petting the dogs; prattling self-consciously with his wife Rose; shopping for cigars, "good, cheap Scotch" and the special brand of yellow pads on which he writes with a pencil; piloting his Audi through the Cheeverish boscage; disporting himself like the complacent "bourgeois squire" he says he is at his dinner party for Arthur Miller, Francine du Plessix Gray & Co.; and fussing incessantly over that damnable ham, the virtual co-star of the show.
Yet even this hog-wallow of banality turns up some truffles--each of which Foreman resolutely ignores. "I am rebellious," Styron intones, "filled with hatreds and vindictiveness." Why? Foreman does not bother to ask. "I was force-fed a lot of dopey religion as a kid" and mesmerized by the sonority of the King James Bible, "but it's all bull----." What? Foreman moves on. Styron speaks often of "the bewilderment I have vis-a -vis life." Huh? Forget it. We'll never know--although we are shown the intimate details of his kitchen utensils, the precise proof of his vodka, the exact digits of his license plate.
Not that Styron is reticent. Answering the few rare questions about his books (which Miller, pussyfooting hard on camera, calls, uh, "very admirable organizations of material"), he is clearly good copy. Asked about the black backlash against his portrayal of Nat Turner, Styron is adamant on fictional license: "I could have made him a soft-shoe tap-dancer and a transvestite, and I still would have been home free--it's a novel." But Foreman finds it more revealing to watch Styron ambling through a graveyard, maundering into fatuity ("You see the sense of mortality which pervades this hill"--as opposed to, say, the sense of a head cold?) or working away on that ham.
Foreman regards this deceased porker as his central metaphor, "a device for revealing Styron's southern heritage and his humor," and "the transition that made the whole 60-minute program hang together." But as the long hour wanes, it turns out to be a pig in a poke, and the only thing left hanging is the viewer.