Is it ever possible to communicate the value of criticism outside of its immediate context? This is the question that Martin Scorcese’s new documentary The 50 Year Argument – a love letter to, and behind-the-scenes look at, The New York Review of Books poses. Whether or not it intends to pose it – or understands the answer it gives – is a different matter.
Co-directed by Scorsese’s longtime documentary editor David Tedeschi, the film (which screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival in the first week of August) is comprised of interviews with the NYBooks’ eminent editor and founder Robert Silvers, as well as fly-on-the-wall glimpses of the publication’s office environment, talking heads of past and present contributors, footage from a celebratory 50-year anniversary event, as well as clips and ephemera from the publication’s history. But despite taking as its subject one of the greatest organs of critical discourse in the English-language world, the film fails to offer a coherent account of the value of the NYBooks’ cultural contribution.
Instead, it offers a spectrum of back patting for the publication’s most famed articles – liberally sprinkled with quotes and excerpts – as well as anemic observations from its stable of writers. One contributor admits to not often being not an expert on the subjects assigned by Silvers – a charming confession that seems utterly obvious the second it has been uttered. This is representative of the general tenor of what the film has to offer.
Bereft of all but marginal insight into the editorial workings of the publication, its history and development – or even its current administration – The 50 Year Argument is instead a Forrest Gump-ian traipse through what the filmmakers seem to think of as The New York Review of Books’ twentieth century. They flitter from great debate to political controversy, always pausing to clarify that the NYRB had an iconoclastic contribution to make: Mary McCarthy on the Vietnam War; Joan Didion on the Central Park Five; Norman Mailer on feminism (the latter, in a contentious television interview with Gore Vidal, providing the most excruciatingly entertaining footage in the entire piece).
Lacking any concrete or authoritative description of what makes the magazine interesting, Scorsese and Tedeschi instead seem to suggest that the itemisation of Great Moments in Publishing Fortitude amounts to a validation of the Books’ ongoing existence. In doing so, they ask the audience to accept that commentary or criticism on notable topics is itself notable by mere correlation.
The clips and excerpts from these famed pieces (sometimes read, annoyingly, by actors) demonstrate the quality of prose and on which the NYRB has built its reputation, but divorced from both the temporal and political context of their subjects (since the film has time to elucidate neither) as well as the carefully structured arguments of the page, their sentiments waft off into thin air. The result with the result that the NYRB’s reputation seems to sit atop a house of cards.
A similar problem crops up in Life Itself, documentarian Steve James’ hagiography to the life of deceased American film critic Roger Ebert. Ebert was an excellent critic, who wrote in what AO Scott describes in the film as a plain, mid-western style. To read him was to be drawn onside by the clarity of his observations and the openness of his prose. But listening to his criticism re-contextualised in a documentary portrait is to be alienated from the qualities that made it compelling on the page. Read aloud, this writing does not bear the weight of oral argument; divorced from page and purpose, it loses its power of persuasion.
Steve James is only out to convince the viewer that Ebert was an admirable man, which is a simple enough claim to make, given the biographical detail he has at his disposal. But Scorsese and Tedeschi seem to want to convince their audience that the NYRB’s greatness is intimately tied to its reporting on events of note. Joan Didion’s analysis of the response to the arrests of the Central Park Five (five black and Hispanic young men who were thought to have raped a jogger in 1989) is positioned as a great moment of literary insight, a strike against the prevailing racism. But its causal connection to the shift in public opinion in favor of the five, and the later quashing of the conviction against them, is irresponsibly muddied.
When the NYRB ventures to Czechoslovakia to observe the Velvet Revolution in 1989, its presence seem to be depicted by the film as a validation of the movement, with the fact that Vaclav Havel had been published in its pages, evidence of its deep involvement in world events. At this point, one writer pauses to explain that the publication cannot really influence the course of history but can only shape the discourse about it.
This is true, of course, but the excuse comes too late, for the film has been suggesting the opposite since it began. In the conflation of the publication’s private history with the public history of significant world events, it asks the viewer to believe that literary criticism has a direct relationship with the course of the events it interrogates. This is a logically and causally imprecise claim, of the sort that no doubt would be struck from the pages of the NYRB by Silvers, should he ever come across it. Criticism (as observation and analysis) and action are never wholly one and the same. It is impossible to admit an equivalency between the two, yet the film continually asks the viewer to do so. In that respect, The 50 Year Argument is a 96 minute argument against itself.