To quote Jonathan Miller’s opening line in a review of John Updike’s The Centaur, “This is a poor [film] irritatingly marred by good features.”
In The 50 year Argument, Mary Beard cites this line as one that all writers wish they might have written. She makes this claim in an address to the audience at a 50th anniversary presentation for The New York Review of Books. The film is an add-on, no doubt, to the year-long celebration the magazine held for itself, which began in 2013. The line is also fitting because it appeared in the first issue back in the February of 1963.
A condemning article on The New York Times Book Review was written in 1959 by the novelist and essayist Elizabeth Hardwick. The article “The Decline of Book Reviewing”, published in Harper’s (then edited by Robert Silvers), instigated what would result in The New York Review of Books – a rally against the torpor and sluggishness that Hardwick saw in the critical writing of the time. Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers were recruited as editors of the magazine, and remained so until Epstein’s death from cancer in 2006.
It quickly became known for its author-oriented long-form pieces, which included, among reviews of books, articles on literature, culture and current affairs, with contributions from some (you might say most) of the biggest names in letters, essays, reviews and novels. Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, Isaiah Berlin and Susan Sontag to name a few.
The issues of race, gender, power, politics, war, sex, et al. are all touched upon in the film, as they are in the magazine. The directors David Tedeschi and Martin Scorsese deftly lay out the general shape of The New York Review of Books’ island and explain the contextual grounds that allowed such a magazine to exist – we are primed, ready to enter the belly of the publication with enough background to recognise the main characters and understand the relationships depicted henceforth. For the viewer, what happens next is rather like reading the magazine itself: laborious, and sometimes dense, but always interesting. This analogy holds true in defining the structure of the film as well: it is sectioned by individual stories, recounting, one by one, the most influential articles and writers of the magazine’s history – both contemporary and historical. The space between the proverbial pages is filled with ephemeral glimpses of its long-serving editor Robert Silvers in his day-to-day concerns at the magazine’s West Village offices, and clips of readings, such as that by Mary Beard, from the New York Review of Books’ anniversary celebrations.
As one might imagine of a tribute film, The 50 Year Argument is wholly celebratory in its narrative; it is never critical. This is a well crafted, and beautiful, greatest-hits showreel for, as Tom Wolfe rather disparagingly called it, “the chief theoretical organ of radical chic.”
The quality of the images, most notable in the composition and lighting of the talking heads, is of that which we have come to expect from documentaries influenced by Hollywood: of high production value and, for want of a better word, cinematic. However, they go too far at times in their efforts to augment the footage. In an attempt to, I would speculate, make talking heads more “dynamic”, the camera awkwardly edges closer to, and then further away from, and then closer to the subjects it frames. It ends up serving no other purpose than to distract the viewer and alert one to the effects that are being forced upon the image you are seeing.
The good features I allude to at the beginning of this article are found in the way the film weaves together the disparate themes of the articles. The connective tissue that interlaces critiques of the Vietnam War; the women’s liberation movement (including archive footage of Susan Sontag that can also be seen in Regarding Susan Sontag); the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations; and George W. Bush’s incursion into Iraq is notable by its absence. The transmission of ideas from the magazine to the viewer is clear without being reductive, and it never succumbs to pedantry – as a result it may seem unforgiving at times, but it assumes enough intelligence in the audience to be able to keep up.
Ultimately, there is a missing dimension, a complexity, a critique of The New York Review of Books in this film. Scorsese and Tedeschi clearly believe that the magazine can be portrayed as the sum of its parts; i.e., the articles. But it forgets that to embrace the tribulations, editorial disputes and so on – that do constitute a part of magazine publishing – is not tantamount to undermining its successes and virtues. Even Steve James’s depiction of Roger Ebert in Life Itself, also showing at Sheffield Doc/fest, does not resort to unctuous homage. The esteemed critic is relayed as he was: a man of complication and contradiction. The 50 Year Argument could have benefitted from a similar treatment.