The documentary The 50 Year Argument is a celebration of one of literature’s most influential institutions, but could have benefitted from a more critical gaze.

Live Ø. Danielsen
Danielsen is permanent film critic in New Time.

«All writing is political. » Susan Sontag’s words from an interview scene in the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag (2014), could describe the very publication where she, for years, was one of its most prominent contributors. The New York Review of Books was from the outset more than a mere literary publication – despite what its moniker may indicate to the uninitiated; always with a critical gaze, above the written work itself, it saw its position as an alternative to society as a whole. This way it also distanced itself from the perception of literary review as pure consumer guidance.

Its creation was also borne out of cultural-political motivation. It began in 1959, when the critic Elizabeth Hardwick published the benchmark essay «The Decline of Book Reviewing» in Harper’s Magazine, where Robert Silvers was co-editor. Hardwick put into words the general dissatisfaction with contemporary literary critique, resulting in Silvers, Hardwick and a group of friends meeting to discuss its future and potential. In 1963, as the four-month long newspaper strike hit, circumstances seemed right for Silvers, along with co-editor Barbara Epstein, to introduce The New York Review of Books to an audience starved of any publications.

Earthy and mystic. Martin Scorcese is among those who have been vocal in their support for The New York Review of Books. When the publication celebrated its 50th anniversary, Scorcese was asked by editor Silvers to make a documentary about this cultural institution. Together with creative partner David Tedeschi he created a film which bears witness of his own – and most others’ – enthusiasm for the publication. By combining footage from the busy office – all book-covered walls and desks filled with mountains of paper – with historical archive images together with audio extracts of the essays, Tedeschi and Scorcese portray the publication as an institution of both earthy and mystic qualities.

These aspects are unified in the presentation of the actual main character in the documentary; founder and editor Robert Silvers – or Bob as he is consistently called, who thanks to his clear intentions and friendly guidance, is still able to squeeze the material he wants out of his writers.

The power of language. The enthusiasm is not hard to fathom either. Some of the biggest philosophers and authors of our time have at some point contributed to the publication: Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Hannah Arendt, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow, to name but a handful. The documentary’s frequent use of archive photos of these writers further strengthen the film’s near-mythological admiration for its subject. This is particularly apparent in the scenes where the participants debate one another, giving the impression of a kind of intellectual clash of the titans, providing the film with some very entertaining sequences.

One such example is Gore Vidal being confronted by an extremely indignant Norman Mailer at a TV-studio. Mailer has read Vidal’s writing on him in The New York Review of Books, where he is portrayed as a logical precursor to serial killer Charles Manson due to his many misogynistic utterings. He implores Vidal to withdraw his description. Mailer’s offended expression is a joy to behold, and reminiscent of William F. Buckley’s similar reaction to Vidal’s harsh statements in comparable scenes from last year’s documentary, Best of Enemies, which portrayed the two polemicists in a ferocious political debate. In both scenes, language itself is placed at the core of the debate, along with the participants’ fear and respect for its natural ability to categorise and define.

“The New York Review of Books could be introduced to an audience starved of publications.”

This aspect is also evident in another scene where Susan Sontag asks Mailer to consider the implications of deeming someone a «lady writer» – female author. «Words count, we’re all writers, we know that, » she says, and introduces a point which (sadly) feels as relevant today. It was last brought up in Chris Rock’s Oscar-speech on the illogical manner award categories are divided into female and male actors: «It’s not track and field; you don’t have to separate them. » If the act of writing is political, this also says something about the abilities of language, and on the importance of being conscious of the relationship between the society we live in, and the language it both uses and reveals itself through.

Homage. Joan Didion, almost 80 years’ old at the time of recording, is one of the writers who has really taken language to task over its ability to manipulate and create false narratives. In 1989, as New York was shaken by the so-called ‘Central-Park-jogger-case’ where a woman was brutally assaulted and left to die in Central Park, Didion chose to take up a critical position through her essay «Sentimental Journeys». Five, young poor men were convicted of the assault, but by showing the way language had intervened in and manipulated the actual case, Didion created doubt in the question of guilt – a doubt which in 2002 was vindicated as the actual perpetrator emerged.

Didion’s willingness to look closely at legal and media narratives resonate well with the documentary’s message about a good journalist is to delve below the surface of what is generally accepted, the official statements.

The problem arises when a film deeply concerned with honouring critical gaze and deviant opinion, appears rather uncritical in the treatment of its own material.

The aforementioned article which heralded the inception of The New York Review of Books, Hardwick’s «The Decline of Book Reviewing», asks the question «who reviews the reviewers? » The peculiar flaw in The 50 Year Argument is that the film’s implicit answer to this is «no one»: A publication which has always been quite concerned with exploring breadth of thought and its own function, deserves – or demands – more than an uncritical celebration. The explanation for this single-minded homage is most likely to do with the occasion: In Scorcese terms, more than anything, this is The New York Review of Books’ own version of the Last Waltz: a final tribute to an institution nearing its end, If Silvers’ age indicates that a conclusion for the publication as we know it is imminent. And it could well be.


-