NEW YORK (Reuters) - Film director Martin Scorsese knew making a documentary about a revered literary review would be a challenge, so he approached “The 50 Year Argument” like a piece of music, using interviews and archival footage to convey the emotion.
In the film, which airs on premium cable channel HBO on Monday, Oscar-winner Scorsese and co-director David Tedeschi take a behind-the-scenes look at The New York Review of Books, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year and has influenced generations of writers and readers alike.
“I remember discovering it on the newspaper stand in ‘63 when it first came out,” Scorsese said. “It still has an impact on me.”
“The 50 Year Argument” details the review’s founding through a series of timely coincidences - a New York newspaper strike, dissatisfaction with how books were being written about and a dinner party conversation.
Poet Robert Lowell and his wife, literary critic and author Elizabeth Hardwick, discussed the idea with editor and publisher Jason Epstein and his wife, Barbara. They turned to their friend Robert B. Silvers to edit it. Barbara Epstein, who died in 2006, joined him.
“We were not seeking to be part of the establishment; we were seeking to examine the establishment,” Silvers, 84, who is still the editor, says in the film.
Although it began with the intent of reviewing books and championing writers, during its five decades it has grown into an institution, reporting on the arts, politics and major news ranging from Vietnam to Iraq with commentary from leading writers and thinkers.
“It really was a challenge,” said Scorsese, “how to make it exciting and interesting to a young generation when information is immediate to them and opinions are everywhere.”
Scorsese found the emotional and visual impact he needed in the people interviewed for the film, including Silvers in his cramped, book-filled office; linguist Noam Chomsky and Irish playwright Colm Toibin as well as archival footage of writers Susan Sontag, James Baldwin and others.
“I thought maybe to structure it like a piece of music and the music would be the words and the people’s faces, and then the words themselves up on the screen,” Scorsese explained.
In the film, author Zoe Heller speaks about the review’s honesty and bravery in publishing stories that other newspapers would shy away from. Toibin talks about the sensuousness of ideas and attests to the review’s impact on him and the lives of residents of far-away Dublin.
Writer Michael Greenberg also recounts covering the Occupy Wall Street protests and Yasmine El Rashidi describes the reaction and aftermath of writing about demonstrations in Cairo when her reports went against the grain of what other news organizations were saying.
The trade magazine Variety found the film “an incisive portrait of a vanguard cultural institution,” while the Hollywood Reporter described it as “a handsome and stimulating documentary.”
“The 50 Year Argument is not a major Scorsese work. But it is a warm, engaging, celebratory love letter from one New York institution to another,” it added.
Editing by Eric Kelsey and G Crosse