“The 50 Year Argument,” their third HBO doc collaboration–after “Public Speaking” and Emmy-winner “George Harrison: Living in the Material World”– is a must-see. The co-directors talked to me about their new movie as well as Quentin Tarantino’s fight for 35 mm, “The Silence,” “Sinatra” and other upcoming projects.
The movie is an embarrassment of cultural riches. The semi-monthly newspaper New York Review of Books, founded 51 years ago by veteran editor Robert Silvers during a protracted 1963 newspaper strike, is based on the rare notion that smart writers can cover anything well, with freedom to explore a subject and strong editing behind them. This is not the kind of journalism so many of us have had to endure, where editors think they know the story before a writer has the chance to find out what it really is. NYRB doesn’t just publish book reviews, by the way. “No one could stop us,” Silvers recalls. NYRB reminded people all over the world, including articulate Irish novelist Colm Toibin, that “ideas were maybe sensuous.”
It’s exhilarating to watch Silver take to the phone as news breaks around him, dispatching reporters to trouble spots from Vietnam to Zuccotti Park. Yasmine El Rashifi’s reports from the ground in Egypt contradicted mainstream conventional wisdom on what was actually going on there. When Cuban poet Heberto Padilla shoved a sheaf of papers into Silver’s hand in 1969, the editor gave five poems to Mark Strand to translate and then published them. Padilla was imprisoned by Fidel Castro and had to sign a confession before being allowed to leave Cuba. As Noam Chomsky memorably wrote: “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies.”
The movie reveals how many pivotal cultural arguments were started at the NYRB, which Scorsese admits helped to educate him –along with many others. Using the 50th anniversary celebration showcase of readings by star writers including John Banville, Mary Beard, Michael Chabon, Joan Didion, Daniel Mendelsohn, Darryl Pinckney and Mark Danner as a spine, the movie visualizes and captures videos of the period to remind us of some of the great debates over the decades.
None is more entertaining than intellectual heavyweights Gore Vidal vs. Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett Show going mano a mano over Mailer’s treatment of women, or the young Susan Sontag and Germaine Greer vs. Mailer at the infamous meeting at New York’s Town Hall.
The list of NYRB writers is impressive indeed: James Baldwin, poets Derek Walcott and Robert Lowell, Hannah Arendt, Russell Baker, Zoe Heller, Francine Prose, Stephen Jay Gould, Ian Buruma, Isaiah Berlin, Mary McCarthy…and the list goes on. Silver is still going strong, even without his former co-editor, the late Barbara Epstein. See the film trailer and my interview below.