Following his films on cinema and his films on music artists, Martin Scorsese is now in a period of films on writers, whether that’s intentional or not. In addition to this year’s Life Itself, which he produced, there’s the 2010 Fran Lebowitz doc Public Speaking and now the New York Review of Books profile titled The 50 Year Argument.
What sounds like a total puff piece and one that’d be limited in reach given its highbrow subject matter is in fact a surprisingly accessible and appealing appreciation of the NYRB. Celebratory, yes, intellectual, yes, but The 50 Year Argument is neither too soft nor one bit snooty. Co-directed by David Tedeschi (editor of a handful of Scorsese’s docs, including Public Speaking and Shine a Light), this is one of the best-looking and one of the least subjective nonfiction films from Scorsese, enough that it’s not really clear what his interest was here. Normally he’d appear or provide a little voiceover explaining that he’s been reading NYRB since it began, or he’d insert himself as a talking-head, maybe. And at least with his music docs, we’d known beforehand that he was a Dylan and Rolling Stones fan. For all I know, he went into this like I did, totally unfamiliar with the magazine. Doubtful, but plausible.
The 50 Year Argument is one of a few recent films addressing the sad state of journalism today, but Scorsese and Tedeschi’s doc is hopeful in its implication that great writing will prevail somewhere, at least, and that there are truly admirable editors still out there, namely Bob Silvers. I know that a lot of what I like about the film is personal, as a writer and editor. I feel like I learned a lot about and from Silvers through the doc, although mostly I wished that more of us were able to be of his caliber or at least work for someone like him. It’s not often you hear about an editor who urges for articles to be added to rather than gutted (given the regular jokes about the lengths of Scorsese’s films, it’s funny and fitting that he should like an editor who does this). If he’s imperfect in any way, we don’t hear about it.
While not so candid, The 50 Year Argument shares a lot with Life Itself, particularly in that both cover about the same half century. Like the Ebert doc, Scorsese’s film is also sort of an adaptation, albeit not of a memoir. Life Itself features a few adaptations of parts of Ebert’s own reviews, read aloud and accompanied by footage from the movies being praised. For The 50 Year Argument, the translation is similarly from print articles to screen. Giving much attention to the NYRB’s non-book-review journalism, the film offers up typical documentary footage of, say, Occupy Wall Street while we hear some of Michael Greenberg’s coverage of the movement. Yasmine El Rashidi appears to talk about her writings for the magazine on the Egyptian Revolution and how every other news publication was getting it wrong, in part by sticking to what the New York Times was reporting.
There is much of that patting the NYRB on the back, a lot of it from the NYRB itself, which makes sense because the doc was filmed in part during the magazine’s 50th anniversary celebration at Town Hall last year. There, writers read from their most notable pieces, and some of those had their own way of highlighting the significance of the NYRB. Darryl Pinckney acknowledges, in a commemorative essay for the NYRB, the publication’s early coverage of the work of James Baldwin, as well a 1971 essay in the NYRB by Baldwin himself, which led to Pinckney reviewing Baldwin in the NYRB and ultimately writing and then reciting the new essay. That’s the most spiraling and complacent of all the anecdotes and readings, and because it’s so eloquent even that doesn’t come off as arrogant as it might sound.
In a way, though, The 50 Year Argument might wind up being a strong advertisement for the magazine. Not that Public Speaking didn’t make me go out and buy books by Lebowitz, and I wouldn’t be surprised if George Harrison: Living in the Material World didn’t sell some viewers on the ex-Beatle’s solo work — many docs are ads for their subject matter, even those that don’t mean to be. Scorsese and Tedeschi make the NYRB seem more approachable than many might believe it to be. The doc showcases a lot of important literary figures who are wonderful on screen, especially Joan Didion, who discusses being sent to cover the Democratic and Republican national conventions in spite of having no interest in domestic politics. The intellectual world is filtered enough to be digestible to a wider audience yet remains brainy enough for the true NYRB crowd, as well.