A 50 Year Argument: Scorsese’s take on The New York Review Of Books

A 50 Year Argument: Scorsese’s take on The New York Review Of Books

Bob Silvers in NYRB office 2

Editor Bob Silvers in the NYRB office

A 60-minute film about a literary journal celebrating half a century of publishing seems highly improbable, a less than enticing prospect.  Yet The New York Review of Books: A 50 Year Argument, directed by Martin Scorsese and shown on BBC4 last night was a rich and enthralling account of America’s leading journal of ideas that has been a source of intelligent and controversial thinking about the key issues of our time.  Scorsese opened with stirring footage of the encampment in Zuccotti Park at the height of the Occupy movement – just one example of issues debated in the NYRB that range from human rights, racial discrimination, and the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, to the women’s movement, revolution in Eastern Europe and developments in the middle east.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the New York Review of Books. To mark this milestone, editor Bob Silvers approached Martin Scorsese with the idea of making a film. As it happened, Scorsese had been an avid reader since his college days and eagerly accepted the idea. Scorsese’s film told the story of the journal from its founding during the New York Times’ newspaper strike of 1963, making use of rare footage and photographs to provide historical context,and featuring notable essays by writers such as James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky and Norman Mailer alongside interviews with figures like Joan Didion, Colm Toibin, Yasmine el Rashide, Darryl Pinckney, Mary Beard, and Timothy Garton Ash, to produce a rich and heartfelt portrait of a magazine that has been in the vanguard of provocative ideas and commentary for over fifty years.

Bob Silvers in NYRB office

Bob Silvers in his NYRB office

Scorsese’s film was, as much as anything, an homage to Robert Silvers who, at 84, has been editor of the NYRB since the day he helped found it in 1963.  A truly remarkable man, he has edited every issue since then, scrutinising articles and matching new books to reviewers on topics that can range from domestic politics to the the Israel-Palestine conflict, from to cutting-edge developments in neuroscience to the poetry of Derek Walcott.  The film’s title, A 50 Year Argument, is also a reference to how Silvers has made confrontation and original argument the essential part of the magazine’s DNA, frequently reporting stories ignored by other publications and challenging mainstream or accepted ideas.


Facsimiles of the first issue of NYRB

It only happened by chance: the NYRB was born during the four-month-long printers’ strike at the New York Times in 1963, the result of the coincidence of that event with a group of New York intellectuals meeting over dinner one evening, spotting an opening, and with well-connected ease working their contacts to gather a mind-boggling array of stellar writers to contribute work for the launch issue of a new magazine. Bob Silvers was at the time an editor at Harper’s. Elizabeth Hardwick and her husband, poet Robert Lowell, were having dinner with Jason Epstein, a publisher at Random House, and his wife, Barbara, a writer and editor. Epstein knew how much the strike was hurting publishing – with the New York Times Book Review closed for business, there was nowhere to advertise, and no way of telling readers about new books.

Three years earlier, Hardwick  had written a famous piece – ‘The Decline of Book Reviewing’ – which appeared in Harper’s. Scorsese’s film revealed how Hardwick’s essay was the inspiration for the NYRB . Hardwick had called the New York Times Book Review a ‘provincial literary journal’ full of ‘flat praise and faint dissension’.  It was full of  ‘light, little articles’, a publication where ‘lobotomised accommodation reigns’ and ‘the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory’.

That evening the idea for an intellectually vigorous books magazine was born, with Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers as its founding editors. So well-connected were they that they were able to produce what David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker has called the best first issue of any magazine ever. The New York Review of Books made its début on 1 February 1963 with an issue that featured poets WH Auden, Robert Lowell and John Berryman and essays by luminaries such as Susan Sontag, William Styron, Mary McCarthy, and Norman Mailer.

Silvers 2

Bob Silvers with long timeNYRB co-editor Barbara Epstein in 1993

From the story of its founding, Scorsese tells the story of a publication that for half a century has been determined to ‘reveal the truth in all its complexity’.  He utilises some stirring archive footage – including scenes from Town Bloody Hall, the film that documented a 1971 debate between Norman Mailer and four feminist writers, including Germaine Greer and Diana Trilling. The starting point of the discussion was The Prisoner Of Sex, Mailer’s recently published rejoinder to Greer’s The Female Eunuch. It turned into a fracas, as members of the standing-room audience, including Susan Sontag and Betty Friedan, challenged the combative Mailer.

There are many such thrilling moments that reveal the extent to which the NYRB has helped shape literary, political and cultural debate in a period that has witnessed the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the fall of communism, the Arab Spring.  All of these great issues and more have been urgently debated in the pages of the NYRB, along with the books that have shaped the changing cultural landscape of the period.

Sontag NYRB cover Riefenstahl Feb 1975

Throughout, Scorsese honours the writers and their writing.  Space is given to readings from some of the most significant essays which the journal has published. He lingers over two important pieces written by Susan Sontag: Fascinating Fascism, her powerful critique of Leni Riefenstahl, published in 1975; and her essays on photography, published in 1973 and later gathered in book form, a ground-breaking critique of photography that raises forceful moral and aesthetic questions that have become deeply absorbed into discussions about photography:

We linger unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still revelling, our age-old habit, in mere image of the truth. But being educated by photographs isn’t like being educated by older, more crafted images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around claiming our attention. Daguerre started the inventory, with faces, and since then just about everything has been photographed; or so it seems. This very instability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. The most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as anthology of images.

NYRB Didion cover Jan 1991

Perhaps the most powerful moment came when Joan Didion read from her forensic examination of the 1989 Central Park Jogger case – the assault and rape of a female jogger in Central Park which led to five juvenile males, four black and one of Hispanic descent, being convicted for the crime and serving their full sentences.  Didion came at the case from all angles, and took nothing for granted. Her piece questioned the media coverage, the charges, abnd the verdicts when they came:

To those whose preferred view of the city was of an inherently dynamic and productive community ordered by the natural play of its conflicting elements, enriched, as in Mayor Dinkins’s “gorgeous mosaic”, by its very “contrasts”, this case offered a number of useful elements. There was the confirmation of “crime” as the canker corroding the life of the city. There was, in the random and feral evening described by the East Harlem attackers and the clear innocence of and damage done to the Upper East Side and Wall Street victim, an eerily exact and conveniently personalized representation of what the Daily News had called “the rape and the brutalization of a city”. Among the reporters on this case, whose own narrative conventions involved “hero cops” and “brave prosecutors” going hand to hand against “crime” (the “Secret Agony of Jogger DA,” we learned in the Post a few days after the verdicts in the first trial, was that “Brave Prosecutor’s Marriage Failed as She Put Rapists Away”), there seemed an unflagging enthusiasm for the repetition and reinforcement of these elements, and an equally unflagging resistance, even hostility, to exploring the point of view of the defendants’ families and friends and personal or political allies (or, as they were called in news reports, the “supporters”) who gathered daily at the other end of the corridor from the courtroom. […]

The Jogger One defendants were referred to repeatedly in the news columns of the Post as “thugs”. The defendants and their families were often said by reporters to be “sneering”. (The reporters, in turn, were said at the other end of the corridor to be “smirking”.) “We don’t have nearly so strong a question as to the guilt or innocence of the defendants as we did in Bensonhurst,” a Newsday reporter covering the first jogger trial said to the New York Observer, well before the closing arguments, by way of explaining why Newsday‘s coverage may have seemed less extensive on this trial than on the Bensonhurst trials. “There is not a big question as to what happened in Central Park that night. Some details are missing, but it’s fairly clear who did what to whom.”

In fact this came close to the heart of it: that it seemed, on the basis of the videotaped statements, fairly clear who had done what to whom was precisely the case’s liberating aspect, the circumstance that enabled many of the city’s citizens to say and th ink what they might otherwise have left unexpressed. Unlike other recent high visibility cases in New York, unlikes Bensonhurst and unlike Howard Beach and unlike Bernhard Goetz, here was a case in which the issue not exactly of race but of an increasingly visible underclass could be confronted by the middle class, both white and black, without guilt. Here was a case that gave this middle class a way to transfer and express what had clearly become a growing and previously inadmissible rage with the city’s disorder, with the entire range of ills and uneasy guilts that came to mind in a city where entire families slept in the discarded boxes in which new Sub-Zero refrigerators were delivered, at twenty-six hundred per, to more affluent families. Here was also a case, most significantly, in which even that transferred rage could be transferred still further, veiled, personalized: a case in which the city’s distress could be seen to derive not precisely from its underclass but instead from certain identifiable individuals who claimed to speak for this underclass, individuals who, in Robert Morgenthau’s words, “sought to exploit” this case, to “advance their own private agendas”; individuals who wished even to “divide the races”.

The convictions were vacated in 2002 when Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer serving a life sentence for other crimes, confessed to committing the crime alone and DNA evidence confirmed his involvement in the rape. Didion tells Scorsese: ‘I was gratified.  It didn’t get me anywhere being gratified, or the case being vacated.  But being right did’.

nyrb November 2011

There was so much more in this enthralling documentary of ideas. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal clashed over totally opposing views, Yasmine el Rashide questioned assumptions about the overthrow of Morsi in Egypt, Vaclav Havel and Timothy Garton-Ash provided insights into the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, and Darryl Pinckney spoke of his youthful misjudgement of the late work of James Baldwin.

The film was enhanced by voiceover readings of passages from key essays, and the vintage jazz soundtrack added atmosphere to a thematically rich yet wholly accessible film that demonstrated how ideas can open a dialogue that may lead towards social and political change.  Scorsese’s film champions a defiantly radical publication of considerable social, political and cultural importance that was born almost on a whim.

At the end, I regretted just one thing: apart from a couple of years in the late 1970s when Rita had a subscription my acquaintance with the magazine has been only intermittent.  I recall that the subscription was beyond our finances (it’s still pretty pricey) so, apart from occasional issues or the discovery of accessible articles online, much of the NYRB has passed me by.  At one point in the film Zoe Heller says that she likes the NYRB ‘because it educates me’. Seeing Scorsese’s documentary makes me realise that if I had been a regular reader my education would have been so much richer.

The film is on iPlayer for another 6 days, but someone has uploaded it to YouTube; how long it will last there, I don’t know:

See also

Some NYRB articles cited in The 50 Year Argument