The 50 Year Argument, Martin Scorsese’s new documentary about The New York Review of Books (NYRB), uses the same opening-sequence footage as another film about life in the Big Apple: West Side Story. In both movies, these aerial shots of the city create a quiet suspense for the activity teeming below. Scorsese, perhaps the quintessential New York filmmaker, alludes to the feud in West Side Story to ultimately portray a different type of big-city spat: the constructive action of intellectual debate. Scorsese and co-director David Tedeschi (editor of Shine a Light and George Harrison: Living in the Material World) present The New York Review of Books as emblematic of a tradition of opinionated, oppositional, and political writing.
The magazine celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013; the film sets the stage for its inception by painting a picture of New York City in 1963. A newspaper strike has left publishers and readers without reviews and reading material. Robert B. Silvers, then an editor at Harper’s Magazine, along with editor Barbara Epstein, writer Elizabeth Hardwick, and publisher A. Whitney Ellsworth, decide to create their own literary magazine, consisting primarily of book reviews but also articles, poetry, opinion pieces, and essays. The goals, as Silvers recounts in the film, were to take more radical positions than existing book reviews (like the New York Times) and to foreground writers’ views. Additionally, the magazine had a political slant: an interest in human rights around the world. “We were skeptical from the beginning about state power,” Silvers recalls.
Turning the history of a magazine into a film is not an easy cinematic feat. Silvers, still the editor of the NYRB after all these years, is the film’s unofficial emcee, explaining his approach to editing, important moments in the history of the magazine, and his relationship with writers. Using interviews with Silvers as anchors, Scorsese and Tedeschi divide the film into a series of chronological world events; for each one, NYRB’s accompanying pieces are chronicled. The pair use a variety of techniques to turn text into cinema: the author of a piece reads it aloud at the magazine’s 50th-anniversary celebration; actor Michael Stuhlbarg narrates in voiceover while the text is shown on the screen; the author of the piece narrates in voiceover while photos or footage of the subject are shown; occasionally, there is historical footage of the author reading the piece. This range of techniques is necessary to keep the film engaging and, with the exception of a slight loss of momentum in the middle, an editing success.
The 50 Year Argument’s biggest strength, however, is portraying the magazine as an integral part of the zeitgeist — if not its progenitor — and demonstrating the way in which specific authors interacted with seminal cultural moments.
Among them are Mary McCarthy’s Report from Vietnam series in 1967; James Baldwin’s “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis” in 1971; in the same year, Gore Vidal’s review of a book titled Patriarchal Attitudes, which leads to incredible verbal sparring on The Dick Cavett Show with Norman Mailer; Susan Sontag’s “Photography” in 1973 issue and “Fascinating Fascism” in 1975, which the film claims almost singlehandedly ended Leni Riefenstahl’s attempted US professional rebirth; Václav Havel’s “Kicking the Door” in 1979; and Joan Didion’s “New York: Sentimental Journeys,” about the assumptions of the press during the Central Park Five case, in 1991. And the list continues.
The 50 Year Argument often feels completely propelled by the personas of those onscreen, but also lacking an essential contextual core. The film portrays Silvers as a brilliant, kind man. His taste clearly dominates the direction of the magazine, and writers recount his ability for unusual, fruitful pairings of books to reviewers. But we learn nothing of his personal relationship to the subject matter at hand. Despite its opening, the film also fails to offer a deeper contextual understanding of New York City at the time of the NYRB’s founding. What cultural factors led to the emotional urgency of political commitment? At the other end of the spectrum, there’s also no mention of the contemporary turmoil of print publishing; has the magazine escaped that? Finally, the writers that came to typify the NYRB — among them Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Václav Havel — all come from specific intellectual and cultural traditions, but this background isn’t expounded upon. The film would have benefited from a deepened personal and cultural context.
The essence that does emerge in The 50 Year Argument is a philosophical and emotional understanding of the power of prose, poetry, and debate. During the NYRB 50th–anniversary celebration, writer Darryl Pinckney reflects on his long relationship with James Baldwin’s work: he reads an excerpt from the first Baldwin book he ever read, Giovanni’s Room; then tells of his initial reluctance to read Baldwin’s essays, because he was trying avoid issues of race for as long as possible; then recounts writing a critical review, as a young man, of the older Baldwin’s Just Above My Head, accusing Baldwin of characterizing the homosexual characters in the novel after heterosexual emotional norms; and then speaks of the regret he felt about that review, written by someone too young and too smug. The film, like the magazine, allows for this expression of changing views on one subject — a breadth and depth of relationship to an author.
The poetry of Robert Lowell was often featured in the NYRB. His “Buenos Aires,” published in the first issue, reads in part:
By their brazen doors
a hundred marble goddesses
wept like willows. I found rest
by cupping a soft palm to each hard breast.
In the film, writer Derek Walcott narrates his own 1984 NYRB piece about Lowell’s passing: “Death felt like an interruption, an impudence. The voice was immortal in the poems and others after me would hear it.” Like Walcott’s memorial, The 50 Year Argument is about capturing and celebrating a kind of life.
The 50 Year Argument screened on HBO on September 29, 9pm.