June 20, 2014

Martin Scorsese documentary stars Bob Silvers and the New York Review of Books


A still from "The 50 Year Argument," a film about The New York Review of Books, directed and produced by Martin Scorsese.

A still from “The 50 Year Argument,” a film about The New York Review of Books, directed and produced by Martin Scorsese.

A Martin Scorsese documentary starring Bob Silvers and the New York Review of Books was screened at the Sheffield Documentary Festival earlier this month,  and will be coming to the US this year. The Guardian‘s Rachel Cooke met with Silvers in his office, and got this description from him about how the film came about:

When we were facing our 50th year [in 2013], we had a number of people who wanted to make documentaries. We talked to them and they were extremely nice. But the question was: what did they really know about the paper? Then someone told me Marty might be interested. I didn’t know him, but I know his wife. So I wrote him a note. He said he was interested. He’d been reading the paper since 1963, when he was at NYU. He knew the articles extremely well and he had a big pile of the paper sitting in some room. Fortuitous! He’s a marvellous fellow. His staff did many interviews with our writers, and they came to a party here, and to a conference we had in Oxford on Isaiah Berlin, and they got some footage of Mary McCarthy going to Vietnam [the paper sent her to report from Saigon and Hanoi in 1967] and of Occupy Wall Street, which we covered, and they put together their conception of the Review.

The New York Review of Books: A Fifty Year Argument is a one hour documentary, that is described in the marketing copy as “provocative, idiosyncratic and incendiary… weav[ing] rarely seen archival material, contributor interviews, excerpts from writings by such icons as James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, and Joan Didion along with original verité footage filmed in the Review’s West Village offices.”

From the NYRB’s origins when it was founded in 1963 by Silvers and Barbara Epstein, to its digital presence today, the history of the publication is explored alongside its cultural and literary significance over the past 50 years.  The shorter length is the only drawback of the film, according to some early reviews, which are otherwise glowing and positive. But even Bob Silvers himself admitted to The Guardian that the film could never capture everything about the publication.

It can only be, for me, a slice of the paper. We have had about 15,000 articles. Philosophy, physics, art, ancient history, poetry: all this could not come into a one-hour film. But I think it is a very interesting take. I don’t have any quarrel with it. There’s a fairness to it.

Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.