Pradeep Sebastian

Fifty, going strong

<i>The 50 Year Argument</i> will have its official release this October.  

For those of us whom — literary readers, that is — once combed the sidewalks of our cities (Shivaji Nagar, Daryaganj, Luz Corner, Free School Street, Abids Book Bazaar) for pavement hawkers selling old copies of what we rather familiarly called NYRB (the New York Review of Books) will be pleased to know that The 50 Year Argument, Martin Scorsese’s film on the journal, is an engaging and elegant tribute to 50 years of a justly celebrated literary paper. I remember it well: our astonishment in college that reviews of books could be so capacious. These were 5000-word essays standing as reviews; big name writers took down or went up against other big writers, the subject of the book was only a starting point for the reviewer to roam around in ideas and polemics. What we were looking at was argumentative, challenging long-form journalism, but we just didn’t know it then.

Scorsese himself sought out old runs of the magazine when he was in college, and admits to being addicted. When NYRB was turning 50, its indefatigable long time editor and co-founder, Robert Silvers, approached Scorsese with the idea to make a documentary to mark the anniversary. Scorsese was intrigued: how to make cinema that can make such a richness of writing and ideas come alive? Speaking on the film, Scorsese said, “I have learned so much over the years from The New York Review of Books — it’s given me so much that I jumped at the chance to make this film... a film about the adventure of thought, and, as Colm Toibin puts it, the sensuality of ideas.”

The 50 Year Argument will have its official release this October, though it has already opened in a few film festivals, and is set to make its debut on HBO in September. The film moves through several years and several settings; the most charming of them unfold in editor Robert Silver’s book-crammed office. Rare archival footage dramatizes the arguments and feuds of some of its most famous contributors: Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Edward Said, and Noam Chomsky. The polemics are fun, going off like fireworks. Vidal is the most fascinating of all, as he takes on nearly everything and everyone.

Scorsese (and co-director David Tedeschi) animate the proceedings further by having present- day contributors read from their best pieces: Joan Didion, Yasmine El Rashidi, Michael Chabon, Timothy Garton Ash, Mary Beard, Colm Toibin, Zoe Heller, Michael Greenberg, to name only a handful. Scorsese has been alternating splashy Hollywood features with more personal documentaries — on Bob Dylan, George Harrison and, the best of all, on Fran Lebowitz the fascinating public intellectual ( Public Speaking).

Public Speaking is not to be missed. Fran Lebowitz is the Susan Sontag of talking; what Sontag was to cultural criticism in writing, Fran Lebowitz is to criticism in talking, in conversation. She gestures with her hands when talking; it’s a quick, snappy movement, like a magician snapping his fingers before your face. It’s also mesmerising. The hands come out, gesture in the air, disappear at her sides after she’s made her point, and back up again, twirls, and in her pocket as if it was Clint Eastwood or Terrence Hill twirling pistols and snapping them back in the holster.

Coming back to NYRB, from the start the journal was not content to be a disengaged literary magazine, but plumed history, culture, and politics even as it maintained its high standards of reviewing, becoming a bastion for the contemporary intellectual. With print journalism becoming so threadbare, how did Silvers and his magazine keep the lengthy pieces coming? Scorsese makes all of this interesting, and connects the journal’s writing to its bold take on political issues over five decades: from reporting on Vietnam to Bush’s invasion of Iraq to events unfolding at Tahrir Square and the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. In an interview, Silvers said, “When we started the paper, we weren’t seeking to be part of an establishment. We were seeking quite the examine the workings and truthfulness of establishments, whether political or cultural.”

It’s unusual to have a film explore the inner workings of a cultural journal and the relationship of its legendary editor with his contributors. (Thinking of famous literary magazines and their legendary editors, I’m surprised a film hasn’t yet been made on the New Yorker and William Shawn. That though, I’m sure, isn’t far off). For print magazines committed to long-form journalism, and readers who cherish such writing, the vibrant life and health of this journal as celebrated and portrayed by The 50 Year Argument should prove inspiring and stimulating.

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 7:05:08 AM |

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