Martin Scorsese's latest documentary foray is a love-poem to the New York Review of Books.
From the very earliest stages of his career, threaded between the numerous fiction filmmaking gigs that could be said to constitute his day job, Martin Scorsese has been quietly amassing a significant body of work moonlighting as a documentarian. With well over a dozen docs to his name, it may be the concert films (The Last Waltz; Shine a Light) for which he's best known, but it's as difficult to ignore his wide-ranging epics of impassioned cinephile tutelage (A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies; My Voyage To Italy) as it is the intimate personal portraits that arguably rank amongst the best of his work in any cinematic form (Italianamerican; American Boy).
Receiving it's world premiere at the 2014 Sheffield Doc/Fest is undoubtedly something of a coup, yet entirely indicative of the festival's skyrocketing profile in recent years. The 50 Year Argument in many respects belongs in the same camp as his earlier profiles of George Harrison and Bob Dylan (Scorsese sharing director credit here with the editor of both those films, David Tedeschi), albeit this time with its gaze fixed on a cultural institution rather than any single individual.
In charting fifty years of The New York Review of Books – that estimable host to some of the greatest thinkers and writers in American (and world-wide) letters – it proves a film propelled by the rhythm of language and ideas. "Our only truth is narrative truth," states the opening quotation from Oliver Sacks. What follows is a chronological hop-scotching journey through the NYRB's history, a platform for great minds to seek alternate truths to the received political and cultural narrative.
Central to both the paper and the film is NYRB editor Robert Silvers, a man whose softly spoken manner belies a ferocious, seemingly all-encompassing intellect. Early scenes in his near-silent office are intercut with shots of protests – from Wall Street to Cairo – in the streets as Silvers pores over copy. He describes the NYRB as both a movement and an instrument for change, and as extended passages of Noam Chomsky's The Responsibility of Intellectuals is read over footage of Americans in Vietnam, it's hard not to share his implicit belief that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.
Scorsese and Tedeschi wisely let the contributors' words speak for themselves, eschewing soundbites in favour of a rich layering of themes through montage. One suspects it's an editorial job of which Silvers would be proud. With over 15,000 published articles over the years, it's perhaps unavoidable that the film occasionally resembles a greatest hits collection.
Yet even familiarity with some of the NYRB's more celebrated texts – Susan Sontag's On Photography or Gore Vidal's Women's Liberation – is enlightened by the rich visual illustration with which they're accompanied. One reading by poet Derek Walcott of his appreciation of Robert Lowell, simply played over a series of still photographs, achieves a mesmerising poignancy. If that leaves you unmoved, there's always a barking Norman Mailer, ready to deliver his singular barrage of polemical lols.
Framing the film around its 50th anniversary celebrations, Scorsese choses to have many famous articles read by their authors. Darryl Pinckney's on-stage delivery of his personal article on gay novelist James Baldwin proves hugely touching, just as Joan Didion's reading of her seminal article on racial and social injustice, intercut with a recent interview, is as profound as its final blow is crushing.
It wouldn't be a Scorsese doc without a killer soundtrack, so what's surprising (and so commendable) is the lack of any intrusive musical montage. An early Take Five sets the scene, but some choice Miles Davis cuts aside, it's really the words that are the thing. As Colm Tóibín says of the NYRB's attraction: "The ideas were sensuous," and Scorsese and Tedeschi have crafted a thematically dense but wholly accessible film about how fifty years of sensuous ideas can open a dialogue towards social and political change.