Martin Scorsese sends a gooey valentine to Robert Silvers and the New York Review of Books in his documentary, "The 50-Year Argument," shown on HBO Monday night.
Commissioned by Silvers for the leftist magazine's 50-year anniverary in 2013, the movie fulsomely praises the longtime editor and his all-star cast of writers. No argument, or controversy, prevails except for the magazine stroking itself for its valiant crusades.
I've read the magazine for years, and the film highlights many of my favorite writers, from Joan Didion to Robert Lowell. Yet, I longed for more of the polemics to which the film's title refers.
Nothing is said about the dispute with the Ncw Criterion and its editor Roger Kimball about the Review's notorious cover in the late 1960s showing a diagram about how to manufacture a Molotov cocktail. Writing in 1998, Kimball flailed the review for its promotion of radical political thinking.
The documentary does cite old firebrands such as Noam Chomsky and James Baldwin, but overall presents a picture of the review as a staunch liberal magazine, fortified with vitamins and fiber and good for your mental hygiene. As with the Molotov cocktail cover, the old review threw a few bombs, lit a few fuses, stirred passions. Nowadays, it stands ready to soothe lefty irritations and send liberals off for a good nap.
The New York Review has drifted further into the bland mainstream in recent years, especially since death of co-founder Barbara Epstein, so perhaps Silvers now wants to forget '60s outrages like the Molotov controversy.
While Silvers' edtiting was endlessly praised, little attention was paid to Epstein and what she brought to the review. Like the New Yorker's William Shawn, Silvers is portrayed as the review's main creative spirit, tirelessly refining each sentence and encouraging the best from writers with a selfless monkish devotion. Yet, I always thought Epstein was the true creative force of the magazine in its cutting-edge days.
Another review co-founder, publisher Jason Epstein, briefly appears during scenes of the review's 50-year anniversary party. Epstein divorced Barbara Epstein before her death from cancer, and married Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter blamed for giving journalistic weight to the George W. Bush invasion of Iraq. It's certainly outside the film's purview, but I would like to see a study of Jason Epstein's journey as charted by his two marriages.
Another co-founder, Elizabeth Hardwick, was also slighted, while Lowell, her husband, received a long appreciation from Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott. Alas, Walcott with his satyr's head looked creepy after reports I've heard over the years about his egregious womanizing.
The movie showed amusing clips of Norman Mailer in his battles with Germaine Greer and Gore Vidal. Clips of a Mailer-Vidal debate on "The Dick Cavett Show" over a Vidal article in the New York Review revealed how childish and incoherent those members of a so-called intellectual elite could be. Shots of Mailer appearing on a panel with Greer and Diana Trilling also showed a boor whose prevelance at the time illustrated a decline in America's intellectual life. Susan Sontag, before her white streak of hair appeared, is shown girlishy taking Mailer to task for his condescending treatment of Trilling.
The New York Review has long held a central place in my reading life. In my impressionable young days, I was wowed by its fearless spirit, its sense of adventure, its ambitious range of subject matter. In Silvers' late years, it's grown predictable and stale. "50 years of Argument" doesn't have much argument, or the creativity associated with Scorsese. The movie made me realize that The New York Review was never as great as I once believed.