Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi’s fond documentary “The 50 Year Argument” (airing Monday night on HBO) looks back on five decades of the venerable New York Review of Books, a twice-monthly journal of reportage, analysis and, yes, very long book reviews. The film is notably and happily absent some usual wails of agony; unlike most documentaries about journalistic enterprises, it doesn’t spend time chronicling the demise of the printed word.
Instead, “The 50 Year Argument” celebrates the magazine’s continued good health and relevance, tying its reporting on the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Egyptian revolution to the gems in its archives on civil rights and the war in Vietnam. Everything at the New York Review of Books — at least through Scorsese and Tedeschi’s lens — looks to be humming along just fine in the digital era, thank you very much.
Writers love the New York Review of Books because it gives them the space and freedom to publish articles that would be difficult to place anywhere else (especially where their peers will see); readers have loved it for its ability to shape and influence conversations about culture and politics, as well as its ability to serve as the preferred venue for the occasional literary feud — Gore Vidal vs. Norman Mailer; Mailer vs. Susan Sontag; Mailer vs. just about anyone. There’s great footage here of some of these dust-ups as they came to a froth at public forums and readings and on talk shows.
Author Michael Chabon expresses a love for the NYRB (as it is commonly referred to by readers) that triggers a memory of the periodicals that his parents subscribed to in suburban Maryland, a telling accouterment of a household that considered itself well read and intellectually aspirational. That sentiment gets to what is perhaps the NYRB’s most unheralded attribute: People like to have it around, conspicuously so; even when it gathers dust, the latest issue might make you smarter by osmosis.
“The 50 Year Argument” is a tough sell — who wants to curl up with a nearly 100-minute mash note to a 135,000-circulation magazine that is read mainly by writers and academics? Fans of James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Noam Chomsky, Joan Didion, Oliver Sacks, Zoe Heller and Robert Lowell — for starters — are an ideal audience.
But, like any good documentary about little-known subcultures, the film does a thoughtful and appealing job of opening up the rarefied literary realm of the NYRB to a viewer who may have never heard of it.
Both the film and the magazine hinge on the work of Robert B. Silvers, who co-founded the NYRB in 1963 and remains, at an indefatigable 84 years old, its editor. “The 50 Year Argument” is as much as an ode to him as it is to the words he so carefully scrutinizes in freshly arrived manuscripts. “We’re not commanding anything,” Silvers says of an editor’s relationship to his writers. “We’re asking. And hoping.”
This is Scorsese’s third documentary project for HBO, and it carries some of the telltale chumminess of his meandering 2011 film about George Harrison (“Living in the Material World”) while displaying some of the playful regard in his 2010 film about inveterate New Yorker and humorist Fran Lebowitz (“Public Speaking”).
Here, Scorsese (with Tedeschi’s help) has found a more worthy sweet spot between introducing viewers to a whole other world and simply making film tributes to people he knows and likes. What’s best conveyed in “The 50 Year Argument” is the talismanic power a publication can have over its devoted readers, even when its actual reach and influence are a bit illusory.
As Irish novelist Colm Toibin puts it, the NYRB helps one imagine, in the silent and lonely acts of reading and writing, that “you must, must have the idea that other people are reading the book you’re reading. And that other people will read the novel you’re writing.”
(98 minutes) airs Monday
at 9 p.m. on HBO.