The 50 Year Argument (2014)
Editor’s Note: The 50 Year Argument opens in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on January 23.
It’s pretty easy to claim to know what you want, but fully knowing is another creature entirely. In this way, some films appear to have a vague idea of what they are about. They put together an enticing trailer, have a synopsis that gets right to the point, and their intent is something easy to communicate to others. But intent and execution are not one and the same. To actually come through on what it is you promise and remained focused on your specific subject matter can be a bit more difficult. It’s the difference between saying you want a sandwich and then being faced with a gargantuan list of possible sandwich combinations and being forced to pick. This is The 50 Year Argument’s downfall, just too much to choose from.
Directors Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi transport the audience to the walls of these New York apartments as we strain to keep up with the insightful discussions within their walls.
In our time where anyone with an internet connection is able to have some semblance of a voice, it is easy to take the bevy of options for granted. While there are more than a few that decry this democratization of writing, believing that when everyone is given a voice that no one can be heard, there is something to be said for the trial by fire of the internet itself. The subject of The 50 Year Argument is from a different time entirely. The New York Review of Books arose in response to the limitation of voice. In the 60s, when The New York Times was the only true game in town, the lack of competition led to what many saw as a degradation in quality. The NYRB came out of a desire for better. It was, and is, a celebration of the intellectual, so its birth as something of rebellion is more than intriguing.
The birth of NYRB is not a problem for The 50 Year Argument. In fact, as the documentary turns towards its subject’s inception, it is at its most focused. For at this time, it has a story to tell, and a surprisingly interesting one at that. Directors Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi transport the audience to the walls of these New York apartments as we strain to keep up with the insightful discussions within their walls. They paint a picture of New York City that I can only claim to be familiar with from Woody Allen’s proclivity for its setting. It is a fully realized space, overflowing with people who possess an intelligence that just makes you feel bad about yourself. Luckily for us, Scorsese and Tedeschi have an ability to keep the human element involved, allowing any pretension or affectation to breeze by unnoticed.
Unfortunately, as its title would suggest, the NYRB has been around now for quite some time. More to the point, the NYRB has been producing exemplary and often groundbreaking content for its entire tenure. So to capture all that the magazine represents without shorting any of its shiny bobbles flirts with doing a disservice to the subject. With the film’s somewhat lean runtime, clocking in just over 90 minutes, how could one possibly capture 50 years of thought while not feeling just a bit rushed and glossed over? Resultantly, the documentary often comes across as little more than a collection of greatest hits. It collects something of the best and most memorable stories and with only a modicum of fanfare offers snippets to the audience. For those that have been with publication for its lifetime, which I’m sure both of the directors can attest to at least most of, it may act as a sweet reminder. But to the new arrivals, you only receive an incomplete picture, a peak at something far greater in depth and style.
…the documentary often comes across as little more than a collection of greatest hits.
You are never unsure of the directors feeling towards the NYRB. The publication is heaped with such a great deal of praise that, at times, it becomes tiresome. In a 50-year lifetime, not every article could have been a hit. There must have been missteps, but perhaps this isn’t the film to reveal them. The talking heads are all NYRB veterans, and typically contributors, so it ends up hewing closer to a celebratory victory lap than a true examination of the magazine. This is not to say that every documentary, or even any film for that matter, needs to present a balance of viewpoints. However, the lustrous sheen that the publication receives is just a bit too sparkly to be believed. Drama and intrigue arises from discord, so with nothing but glad-handing and self-congratulation it begins to push the limits of palatability.
Nestled within this collection of highs is buried something more interesting than the film has time to ponder. While the publication has been a vehicle for brilliant voices, one man has guided them all. NYRB editor Bob Silvers is highly featured in the film, but typically in a reflective sense, thinking back on the particular pieces being talked about. What is more interesting is how this singular man has helped find and guide these great minds to produce exemplary prose. Bob Silvers is the lifeblood of the NYRB and the film often flirts with this notion, seemingly unable to just come out and say it. The tacit story within this documentary speaks to the necessity of great editing in great writing, and while the film isn’t afraid to celebrate the magazine itself, perhaps it is Silvers that deserves more attention. But that brings us back to the greater issue with the documentary. The 50 Year Argument comes bearing the gift of an intriguing subject of high regard and intellectualism. However, its glut of content and unending praise of the magazine are its downfall, leading to an incomplete picture of something that we can only imagine is much greater.
The 50 Year Argument comes bearing the gift of an intriguing subject of high regard and intellectualism. However, its glut of content and unending praise of the magazine are its downfall, leading to an incomplete picture of something that we can only imagine is much greater.