One of the greater pleasures of watching “The 50 Year Argument,” a new documentary about the history of the New York Review of Books, is anticipating its HBO premiere on Sept. 29th and imagining just how torturous this saga of a venerable literary journal might be for anyone who chanced upon the channel hoping to come across an episode of “Taxicab Confessions.” The closest thing TV viewers will get to a true confession is Joan Didion admitting that she both knew very little and cared very little for national party politics when the magazine implored her to go write about a Democratic convention. Hard to believe they got this chick to sign a release after that, right?
But seriously, the most likely reason this particular documentary is getting a prime-time berth on HBO —or that it saw its American theatrical premiere at the Telluride Film Festival over the weekend— is Martin Scorsese’s name in the credits as co-director, alongside that of David Tedeschi (who moves up to equal status after being credited as editor on Scorsese’s previous docs about George Harrison and Fran Lebowitz). Although it’s hard to believe Scorsese would ever subscribe to a magazine that turns up its nose at carrying film reviews, the filmmaker is said to have collected copies of the New York Review since it was was founded 51 years ago, so perhaps he really does have as much passion for Susan Sontag as Douglas Sirk.
The principal character is beloved editor Robert Silvers, who has been with the magazine since its very beginning in 1963, as we quickly learn at a party being held to celebrate the New York Review’s 50th birthday at the beginning of the film. A half-century in the editor’s chair? This ain’t no Conde Nast, and it’s not just the lack of a feared human resources department that distinguishes the New York Review, but Silvers’ continuing dedication to commissioning think-pieces and even reported articles on troubling current affairs as well as the more obvious raison d’etre, book reviews.
The most delicious vintage clip is an excerpt from “The Dick Cavett Show” that finds Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal savaging one another over a Vidal review of Mailer’s work that cheekily compared him to Charles Manson (when Mailer strolls over to Vidal to collect the page of the New York Review and quote from it, you’re pretty sure he’s going to belt him). But aside from the inevitable exceptions involving Mailer, there’s not that much author-on-author conflict revisited in “The 50 Year Argument.” As one interviewee notes, there was rarely “blood on the floor” after an issue was put to bed, since the New York Review never made publishing pans its stock in trade and never invited contributors to combat each other, only to sanction debate over … ideas! It’s a very genteel 50-year argument.
Talking heads like Didion, Michael Greenberg, and Michael Chabon share memories of their favorite pieces from the magazine’s history —text from vintage reviews sometimes spill out onto the screen as well as in voiceover— or speak worshipfully of working with Silvers as an editor. If “The 50 Year Argument” has a fault, it’s that we don’t spend more time getting into Silvers’ life as a quirky character as well as his ability to determine that civil rights struggles, the “wilding” controversy and the Occupy movement were subjects worth writing about. In introducing the film at Telluride and conducting a Q&A with Silvers, frequent contributor Mark Danner managed to tell more fun anecdotes about the magazine and its editor than we ever see in the movie, like the fact that he’s been known to call one of his writers on Christmas Day to discuss a comma. The movie is so determinedly high-minded that it fails to consider that audiences might rather find out what makes Silvers tick as a person than be reminded that Vietnam was important. Neither is any particular attention paid to the nuts and bolts of putting out a semi-monthly publication (which still enjoys a healthy circulation of 150,000, the kind of fact with which this doc is resolutely unconcerned).
Still, if you love books, the people who write them, and/or the people who write about the people who write them, there’s little not to like about “The 50 Year Argument.”
Auteurists will be hard-pressed to find much in the visual stylization that betrays Scorsese’s participation, but God bless him for lending his imprimatur and passion so we could spend an hour and a half pretending that men and women of American letters still matter in mainstream culture the way they did in the ‘60s. Matter, schmatter: Maybe it really is the insular community of inveterate readers that’s significant here. As one interviewee says, speaking about the need for literary types to not spend all their time looking at a page or screen, the New York Review represent “community, in a realm that depends on silence.” Argument is a testament to the power in finding family — or at least gentle sparring partners — among others devoted to that quiet voiceover in their own heads. [B]