Pedestals and Platforms: The 50 Year Argument
by Kiva Reardon
I don’t call myself a writer. When I’m asked what I do — a frequent inquiry from people living in my industry-geared and status-obsessed city — I reply with one of the following answers: “I work in film;” “I write about movies.” If I’m feeling the urge to be particularly cagey or flirtatious, “I watch a lot of movies.” These are all true facts, and they are also all action statements — I use verbs to describe what I do, not nouns. I hesitate to say “I am a writer” because in my mind a writer isn’t just someone who gets paid to put words to paper (or a screen) as I do, but someone whose words provoke revolution, tears, laughter, orgasms, and other things that make life worth living.
A tall order, perhaps, and one that’s assuredly tied up in my own shaky self-esteem, but it’s more steeped in the reality of growing up in a house of full of books. My mother’s bedside table was always stacked high with the latest fiction and classics (my middle name is “Jane” after Jane Austen). My father’s collection of texts is a full-on library, organized by subject, then by the author’s last name. As an only child, I spent a lot of time culling over the spins of these object, familiarizing myself with names I wouldn’t know for many more years: Joyce, Benjamin, Arendt, Márquez, Yeats. Growing up, books weren’t just read and discussed, but reverential objects that were cherished, as were their authors.
Naturally, in a house like this, the New York Review of Books was a frequent guest. And it was an intimidating one. By this I mean: I was putting writers on a pedestal even as a preteens, and the NYRB was the most prestigious platform.
In The 50 Year Argument, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, directors Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi aren’t concerned with de-bunking the mythic nature of this publication, but reveling in its intellect; they’re less preoccupied with the NYRB’s linear history, and more so with the ageless nature of powerful prose. Their reverence is made clear in the opening sequence of the documentary, which is comprised of aerial shots of New York and a quote from Oliver Sacks: “Our only truth is narrative truth.” It is a documentary that sets out on the difficult task of documenting the abstract — ideas — and, rather uncommonly, celebrating them rather than expounding them.
Centered on the Review’s 50th anniversary Town Hall in New York City on February 5, 2013, Scorsese and Tedeschi opt for what seems to be a standard approach to doc-making: talking head interviews mixed with observational footage from the NYRB’s half-centennial celebrations, as well as the review’s offices. With desks and floors pilled high with books, the quarters are anxiety-inducing for those with the proclivity towards alphabetical ordering such as myself. Rather than give an overview of the publication’s creation, temporality is structured with what the NYRB is known for: their writers.
Tracing time with key essays, from the 1960s to present day, contributors discuss the work of writing and intellectual rigour. Amongst these interviews, co-founder and editor Bob Silvers remains the core figure, as Barbara Epstein, the NYRB’s other half, passed away in 2006. She does, however, haunt the film, appearing in many anecdotes and pictures; she also still has a presence in the review’s office — a quick shot reveals her to still be looking over Silvers’ work from the vantage point of his desktop background. Being that Silvers and the contributors are engaging, to put it mildly — they include the likes of Joan Didion, Colm Tóibín, Zoë Heller and Yasmine El Rashidi — this might have made for a fine enough doc. A doc where a lot of smart people talk about smart things and the audience can bask in all this said smartness.
Scorsese and Tedeschi’s clever move, however, is that they don’t just let the contributors speak, but allow their written words to as well. With narration by Michael Stuhlbarg (best-know for playing Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man), famous essays are read aloud over archival news footage and contributors’ personal photographs; on-screen text often appears, highlighting a particularly perceptive passage from the essay at hand. This places the essays in the context of the wider world, directly linking the pages of NYRB to lived history, be it the civil rights movement, feminism, or Occupy Wall Street.
It also has the effect of creating a nearly overwhelming amount of concepts being tossed around, and my own notes from the film are a series of quotations (“A long time ago, I decided I would only write about something when I was witness to it,” El Rashidi) and texts to read (Robert Lowell’s Life Studies). But beyond the broader contextualization, the choice to mix voiceover, on-screen text, and still images manifests as Scorsese and Tedeschi’s greatest service to their subject matter: even in a visual medium, words come first.
Following the screening there was a rather uninspired Q&A; with Scorsese, Tedeschi, Silvers and producer Margaret Bodde. Even with these figures in the flesh before me, my mind wandered back to what I’d just heard in the doc; I remained distracted by the likes of Derek Walcott and James Baldwin, by Isaiah Berlin, Susan Sontag and Mary Beard. It was both awe-inspiring and humbling to witness the vast depth of such intelligence. But the takeaway from The 50 Year Argument isn’t a sense of intellectual self-deficiency, but the realization of what an engaged, creative mode of existing can be. What, under the best of circumstances, the act of writing can do: change the world. A tall order, again, perhaps. But one I’d be willing to argue is worth aspiring to live up to.