Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Watch: Ellen Page And Kate Mara Are 'Tiny Detectives' In Hilarious 'True Detective' Parody Watch: Ellen Page And Kate Mara Are 'Tiny Detectives' In Hilarious 'True Detective' Parody 10 Female Directors Who Deserve More Attention From Hollywood 10 Female Directors Who Deserve More Attention From Hollywood Miles Teller Says Role In 'Divergent' Made Him Feel "Dead Inside," And He Took Movie "For Business Reasons" Miles Teller Says Role In 'Divergent' Made Him Feel "Dead Inside," And He Took Movie "For Business Reasons" First Look At 'The Dying Of The Light,' Paul Schrader Quits Film Over What Nicolas Winding Refn Calls "Artistic Disrespect" First Look At 'The Dying Of The Light,' Paul Schrader Quits Film Over What Nicolas Winding Refn Calls "Artistic Disrespect" New Images From 'Interstellar' Arrive, Christopher Nolan Says The Film Is A "Mirror" Of 'Inception' New Images From 'Interstellar' Arrive, Christopher Nolan Says The Film Is A "Mirror" Of 'Inception' Watch: New Trailer For ‘Kingsman: Secret Service’ Starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson & Taron Egerton Star Watch: New Trailer For ‘Kingsman: Secret Service’ Starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson & Taron Egerton Star Chilly New Banner For Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar' Explores A Cold New World Chilly New Banner For Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar' Explores A Cold New World 15 Films That Failed To Hit The 2014 Fall Festival Circuit 15 Films That Failed To Hit The 2014 Fall Festival Circuit Watch: Steven Soderbergh Re-Scores And Changes Steven Spielberg's 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' To Black-And-White Watch: Steven Soderbergh Re-Scores And Changes Steven Spielberg's 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' To Black-And-White Watch: Have A Threesome With Very NSFW Clip From 'Maps To The Stars' With Julianne Moore & John Cusack Watch: Have A Threesome With Very NSFW Clip From 'Maps To The Stars' With Julianne Moore & John Cusack First, Mostly Rave Reviews Arrive For David Fincher's 'Gone Girl' First, Mostly Rave Reviews Arrive For David Fincher's 'Gone Girl' Watch: New Hilarious Red-Band Trailer For 'The Interview' Starring Seth Rogen And James Franco Watch: New Hilarious Red-Band Trailer For 'The Interview' Starring Seth Rogen And James Franco Fantastic Fest Review: Hitman Thriller 'John Wick' Starring Keanu Reeves, Willem Dafoe & Adrianne Palicki Fantastic Fest Review: Hitman Thriller 'John Wick' Starring Keanu Reeves, Willem Dafoe & Adrianne Palicki 'Deadpool’ Spin-Off With Ryan Reynolds Is Finally Green Lit, Set For A Winter 2016 Release Date 'Deadpool’ Spin-Off With Ryan Reynolds Is Finally Green Lit, Set For A Winter 2016 Release Date 10 Films We Haven’t Yet Seen That May Be Serious Oscar Contenders 10 Films We Haven’t Yet Seen That May Be Serious Oscar Contenders The Best Documentaries Of 2014 So Far The Best Documentaries Of 2014 So Far The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The Best Films Of 2014 So Far... The Best Films Of 2014 So Far... From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki The 10 Best & Worst Movie Sex Scenes The 10 Best & Worst Movie Sex Scenes

Telluride Review: Martin Scorsese's 'The 50 Year Argument'

The Playlist By Chris Willman | The Playlist September 1, 2014 at 11:33AM

One of the greater pleasures of watching "The 50 Year Argument," a new documentary about the history of the New York Review of Books, is anticipating its HBO premiere on Sept. 29th and imagining just how torturous this saga of a venerable literary journal might be for anyone who chanced upon the channel hoping to come across an episode of "Taxicab Confessions." The closest thing TV viewers will get to a true confession is Joan Didion admitting that she both knew very little and cared very little for national party politics when the magazine implored her to go write about a Democratic convention. Hard to believe they got this chick to sign a release after that, right?
0
The 50 Year Argument

One of the greater pleasures of watching "The 50 Year Argument," a new documentary about the history of the New York Review of Books, is anticipating its HBO premiere on Sept. 29th and imagining just how torturous this saga of a venerable literary journal might be for anyone who chanced upon the channel hoping to come across an episode of "Taxicab Confessions." The closest thing TV viewers will get to a true confession is Joan Didion admitting that she both knew very little and cared very little for national party politics when the magazine implored her to go write about a Democratic convention. Hard to believe they got this chick to sign a release after that, right?

But seriously, the most likely reason this particular documentary is getting a prime-time berth on HBO —or that it saw its American theatrical premiere at the Telluride Film Festival over the weekend— is Martin Scorsese’s name in the credits as co-director, alongside that of David Tedeschi (who moves up to equal status after being credited as editor on Scorsese’s previous docs about George Harrison and Fran Lebowitz). Although it’s hard to believe Scorsese would ever subscribe to a magazine that turns up its nose at carrying film reviews, the filmmaker is said to have collected copies of the New York Review since it was was founded 51 years ago, so perhaps he really does have as much passion for Susan Sontag as Douglas Sirk.

The 50 Year Argument

The principal character is beloved editor Robert Silvers, who has been with the magazine since its very beginning in 1963, as we quickly learn at a party being held to celebrate the New York Review’s 50th birthday at the beginning of the film. A half-century in the editor’s chair? This ain’t no Conde Nast, and it’s not just the lack of a feared human resources department that distinguishes the New York Review, but Silvers’ continuing dedication to commissioning think-pieces and even reported articles on troubling current affairs as well as the more obvious raison d’etre, book reviews.

The most delicious vintage clip is an excerpt from "The Dick Cavett Show" that finds Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal savaging one another over a Vidal review of Mailer’s work that cheekily compared him to Charles Manson (when Mailer strolls over to Vidal to collect the page of the New York Review and quote from it, you’re pretty sure he’s going to belt him). But aside from the inevitable exceptions involving Mailer, there’s not that much author-on-author conflict revisited in "The 50 Year Argument." As one interviewee notes, there was rarely “blood on the floor” after an issue was put to bed, since the New York Review never made publishing pans its stock in trade and never invited contributors to combat each other, only to sanction debate over … ideas! It’s a very genteel 50-year argument.

The 50 Year Argument

Talking heads like Didion, Michael Greenberg, and Michael Chabon share memories of their favorite pieces from the magazine’s history —text from vintage reviews sometimes spill out onto the screen as well as in voiceover— or speak worshipfully of working with Silvers as an editor. If "The 50 Year Argument" has a fault, it’s that we don’t spend more time getting into Silvers' life as a quirky character as well as his ability to determine that civil rights struggles, the “wilding” controversy and the Occupy movement were subjects worth writing about. In introducing the film at Telluride and conducting a Q&A with Silvers, frequent contributor Mark Danner managed to tell more fun anecdotes about the magazine and its editor than we ever see in the movie, like the fact that he’s been known to call one of his writers on Christmas Day to discuss a comma. The movie is so determinedly high-minded that it fails to consider that audiences might rather find out what makes Silvers tick as a person than be reminded that Vietnam was important. Neither is any particular attention paid to the nuts and bolts of putting out a semi-monthly publication (which still enjoys a healthy circulation of 150,000, the kind of fact with which this doc is resolutely unconcerned).

Still, if you love books, the people who write them, and/or the people who write about the people who write them, there’s little not to like about "The 50 Year Argument."

The 50 Year Argument

Auteurists will be hard-pressed to find much in the visual stylization that betrays Scorsese’s participation, but God bless him for lending his imprimatur and passion so we could spend an hour and a half pretending that men and women of American letters still matter in mainstream culture the way they did in the ‘60s. Matter, schmatter: Maybe it really is the insular community of inveterate readers that’s significant here. As one interviewee says, speaking about the need for literary types to not spend all their time looking at a page or screen, the New York Review represent “community, in a realm that depends on silence.” Argument is a testament to the power in finding family — or at least gentle sparring partners — among others devoted to that quiet voiceover in their own heads. [B]

Browse through all our coverage of the 2014 Telluride Film Festival to date by clicking here.

This article is related to: Telluride 2014, Telluride Film Festival, Reviews, Review, Martin Scorsese, The 50 Year Argument


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


E-Mail Updates