I have watched (and re-watched, and re-watched) Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi’s filmed love letter to the New York Review of Books, celebrating its 50th anniversary last year: The Fifty Year Argument (2014). This documentary is a smorgasbord of intellectual, political, and literary history.
It begins with the NYRB’s real-time coverage of the Occupy Movement in Zuccotti Park back in 2011. It then wends its way back and forth in time. Here are just my favorite moments:
-The 1963 New York Paper Strike that led to the founding of the NYRB, bouncing off of Elizabeth Hardwick’s hatchet-job of the New York Times Book Review, published in Harper’s Magazine, titled: “The Decline of Book Reviewing.”
-An incredible recording of James Baldwin discussing who really created “the nigger.”
-Various great writers and thinkers like Zoe Heller discussing the educating power of the Review.
-Comparisons of current political coverage, such as the uprising in Egypt in 2011, to coverage of the Vietnam War (including articles by and recordings of Noam Chomsky and Mary McCarthy).
-A fantastic segment on the furious debates surrounding Women’s Liberation, with footage of Norman Mailer being his usual asshole-ish self in Town Bloody Hall, Susan Sontag rebutting him, Gore Vidal going toe-to-toe with Mailer on the Dick Cavett Show, etc.
-Derek Walcott reflecting on his relationship with poet Robert Lowell.
-Readings from other famous, favorite writers of mine, like Michael Chabon, Joan Didion, Daniel Mendelsohn.
The film has whet my appetite for documentaries of great literary lights of the past. I tried to satiate this appetite by watching a documentary of Gore Vidal, available on Netflix Instant, titled Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2013).
Unfortunately, I wasn’t as entertained or educated by this film. It felt a bit meandering, and I was distracted by what I thought was a poor score.
But now I have something to look forward to: the December 8th release of another HBO documentary: Regarding Susan Sontag (2014).
I cannot wait to learn more about this influential 20th century critic.