Words on Pictures

Posted by on Oct 13, 2014 in Art and Entertainment, criticism, Media

By Oliver Morrison

“The 50 Year Argument” Directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi

The New York Review of Books has been a titan of the American intellectual world for the last 50 years. Some of the best minds have sharpened their most provocative ideas in its pages. But the movie Martin Scorsese made with David Tedeschi about the magazine can’t get out from under its intellectual weight.

The primary challenge was to craft meaning out of the many millions of words from the magazine’s famously erudite, long-winded pages. They chose to catalogue its greatest writers and their most controversial works. So we hear Joan Didion talk about her essay on racially charged murders in Central Park; we see archival footage of Gore Vidal eviscerating Norman Mailer’s chauvinism; and watch Mary McCarthy explain the manipulative cowardice behind the war-speak of Vietnam.

But this movie is a homage to the magazine itself and not just to its writers. So the long-time editor Robert Silvers is casted as the master-puppet who can turn intellectual giants into more than sum of their individual pens. He gives established writers unusual assignments that stretch them; rather than editing by committee, Silver’s singular voice gives writers room to breathe.

But the only real new footage, in his office, makes it impossible to believe that the snails-pace of Silver’s old age can profitably steer the publication much further. And while the film twice mentions his co-editor of 43 years—the late Barbara Epstein—the movie doesn’t make clear just how important their relationship was: they both used to read every single piece that they published.

The magazine still publishes some trenchant commentary, as evidenced by voice-overs from a recent essay on Occupy Wall Street. And it has always wrestled with important ideas, such as the conflict between the universal values of liberalism (e.g. Democracy) and the demands of pluralism (e.g. undemocratic Muslims).

But the filmmakers don’t convince us that the magazine mattered. The words of its essays slide over archival footage—literally appearing and sliding across the screen. But we never get much sense of whether those words shaped the course of the historical images they’re slapped on top of.

So one frequent contributor concludes: “Magazines don’t change the world…influence goes like the knight in chess, one move straight and then diagonally. It doesn’t go in straight lines.” Indirection seems to be an organizing principle of this movie as well.

The movie hints at one important final argument that isn’t being had. There is a brief mention of writers composing in longhand for the magazine’s blog and the title of a book in Silver’s office says, “Social Media is Bullshit.”
Silvers was on the right side of Vietnam and Iraq. So it’s as if the digital revolution in media is just another wrong-headed incursion to be resisted. But this stubbornness could conceivably imperil the magazine he spent his whole life working on, and the filmmakers apparently never brought this up.

Although the magazine’s history is rich enough to stimulate thought, the movie ultimately wasn’t satisfying. Its ideas would be just about to grab you when they disappeared into the images of the next scene. Perhaps an essay on the magazine’s history and future would have been the homage it deserved.