With the rise of internet journalism, it seems par for the course that documentaries are emerging that aim to showcase nostalgia-infused tributes to the age of print. Andrew Rossi’s Page One, a documentary about The New York Times struggling to move into the digital world, would seem to be the most relevant contemporary for The 50 Year Argument, co-directed by David Tedeschi and Martin Scorsese, yet the films have completely different aims. Page One mostly looks forward whilst The 50 Year Argument channels the past. Where The New York Times chronicles in the moment, The New York Review of Books provides measured analysis that stays pertinent and surprisingly relevant decades after the date of its first publication. By looking at the history of The New York Review of Books, the film aims to paint a picture of American intelligentsia and the process of editing prose, the focus of the film as much on literary luminaries as it is on Ben Silvers, the editor of the NYRB.
It’s unusual for Scorsese to have made a film that almost never revels in visual flourish or cinematic form but here the restraint creates a clearer focus.1 Tedeschi, an editor by trade, had previously cut Scorsese’s documentaries on The Rolling Stones (Shine a Light) and George Harrison (Living in the Material World) and the film feels more the work of an editor than a director. There’s a contradictory formalism, while it consists mostly of archival footage and talking head interviews, its structure rambles, only half-heartedly using the 50th anniversary event readings to anchor the film and this is actually to its benefit, with the film resembling a real flow of conversation rather than something artificial in nature.
A question to be raised is why the film was made now, if it was merely as a result of the 50th anniversary or if the film actually had something probing to say about modern literature.2 It seems more likely the former, as touching on Occupy Wall St doesn’t entirely place the NYRB as a bastion of evolution in media, even discussing the Central Park Five case, recently documented by Ken Burns, is only superficially modern.3 That said, the film does manage to make compelling a narrative of the people involved in the creation and maintenance of the NYRB. With a litany of famed contributors – Sontag, Didion, Mailer and Vidal among them – the editors and their process of influence tends to go unnoticed. How often we take for granted such an institution, as merely an access point for information and insight without thinking of the inner workings of the outlet itself. That is what The 50 Year Argument is about, not the 50 years but the arguments.
We see the reviews of books morph into position papers, Susan Sontag’s evisceration of Leni Riefenstahl in a review of her book of photography stands out as an example of this. Just as the “New York Review” in the title becomes significantly larger than “of Books,” so too does the film move from examining literature, per se, to ideas and personalities. The film examines and records cultural history while forcing the viewer to make note of articles for later. We move from debates on political discourse and feminism (in which Sontag allows Mailer to dig a massive hole for himself at a panel event and Mailer and Vidal go toe-to-toe on that subject at a later point) to the revolution in the Czech Republic. The film manages to deal with a multitude of issues, perhaps to the detriment of its energy as a whole, yet it always treats its subject matter with a sense of full attention, mirroring Silvers’ apparent ability to find any article or subject compelling regardless of general concept. The film, to paraphrase Zoë Heller on the NYRB itself, educates us.
Despite its repetitive nature with regards to framing and cinematography – one could say it is often bland – there are some very striking compositions, most notably the stage itself during the readings on the 50th anniversary event. We see a stage, empty save for a row of chairs behind a lectern. The chairs are all empty bar the leftmost one, in which NYRB editor Ben Silvers sits, watching the writers read their famed pieces to the audience. It seems less This American Life than a piece of theatre itself, a re-reading of past statements clearly a recital moreso than relived literary audition for Silvers. Silvers and the writer, then, face the audience in solidarity, if not united by one idea then by the potential and impact of ideas more broadly. When Michael Chabon reads the opening to his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, enunciating with rhythm and feeling, we see Bob Silvers in the background of the frame, nodding along as if to the jazz of the film’s score but the scene is scoreless– he nods to the beat of the text.
The most moving element of the film is a sequence that bookends it. Longtime staffer and writer Darryl Pinckney delivers a speech (the only piece not a reading of prior work) about his relationship with the NYRB through his tracking of the career of contributor and novelist James Baldwin. It touches on issues of sexuality and race tied up in both individual and collective identity, the idea of creation and criticism and the way in which every lover of literature invests a part of themselves in the texts and authors they worship. It is a beautiful, subtle speech and, though the film only rarely hits those emotional highs – mourning poet Robert Lowell is one of them – it always maintains an air of interest in how we think and how we feel. In that vein, The 50 Year Argument both presents a history and provokes deeper exploration on the part of the viewer. It compels you to know more, read more, think more. The viewer should take up that challenge.