The 50 Year Argument, co-directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, played this weekend at the 52nd New York Film Festival’s documentary spotlight. It screens again tonight, when it will also premiere on HBO.
Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi are no strangers to chronicling cultural zeitgeists and the ambassadors who reign them in. Scorsese’s interests oscillate between New York’s storied aristocratic history and the fragile and fickle nature of cultural identity, rendering him an astute observer with a historian’s eye for detail and a sociologist’s fascination with the vagaries of human behavior. Tedeschi is also a storyteller of American culture through his previous collaborations with Scorsese: Public Speaking explores the life and work of writer Fran Lebowitz, and Shine a Light investigates the rise and fall of the Rolling Stones. They are, in other words, uniquely qualified to undertake a documentary project like The 50 Year Argument—and the results testify to their perspicacity.
So many of Scorsese’s films are concerned with surrogate fathers: his characters yearn for direction and influence, clinging to larger-than-life figures with their own economies, morals, and ambitions. The 50 Year Argument places tireless litterateur Robert B. Silvers—or, more abstractly, the New York Review of Books itself—firmly within this archetypal role. Scorsese’s and Tedeschi’s efforts, which interpellate historical clips of famous NYRB contributors like James Baldwin and Norman Mailer with modern musings by today’s current crop of writers, are well-conceived. They show, with an understated but confident sophistication, a literary organ that convulses as America’s political and cultural nerves themselves twinge under the duress of history’s unfolding. Scorsese and Tedeschi are careful to emphasize the ways in which the NYRB has continued to lead the literary vanguard even in these uncertain times. The Review is not, says Scorsese, a quaint idea cloistered monkishly in a reliquary, a thing of the past, but an emphatically evolving project. Scorsese and Tedeschi even highlight the NYRB’s well-wrought web presence to emphasize its cutting-edge persistence.
Scorsese, ever-interested in the nuances of friendship, morality and social values, paints the Review as a long-standing parenthesis in the chaos of a world that is simultaneously divided and uproarious but also strangely anesthetized. It’s an antidote to facile arguments and easy opinions, he says, and the included clips—which cover everything from the state of race-relations in the 60s to women’s liberation to the Vietnam War to 9/11—are testament to this zeal. Directed with the aplomb and enthusiasm that one might expect, The 50 Year Argument is a meditation on 20th- and 21st-century politics, history, and the culture that these events defined. It is an examination of the uses and value of the arts, and a reflection on the world of belles lettres that it’s easy to take for granted in the present “end times.” In a way, Scorsese and Tedeschi assume the roles of cultural and archival agents provocateurs, teasing out, from behind the front lines, the historical, literary and political implications—and tensions—of a long-standing institution with an invested interest in, and influence on, the evolving conversations of America’s intelligentsia.
There is a powerful sense of narrative cohesion despite the film’s frequent jumps in (or elisions of) time: one scene will discuss Vietnam, the next the Arab Spring, and so on. But rather than generating a farrago of vaguely interconnected “world events,” Scorsese and Tedeschi create constellations of historical meaning in an organic way that feels beautiful and illuminating. One of those rare films that comes to represent more than the sum of its parts, The 50 Year Argument is a provocative engagement with an ongoing exchange. And much like the NYRB itself, the film is itself an argument for why the NYRB, and other venerable cultural institutions like it, continue to remain relevant even as media and journalism undergo paradigm shifts that threaten to change the old order. The Review, contends Scorsese, punctuates the anti-intellectual white noise of the traditional media with finely attuned, highly intelligent broadcasts that serve as dispatches from the intellectual frontier. Itself a collage, itself an argument for the importance of ideas, of history, of documentary, of narrative, the film is filled with moments of candid humor and congeniality that elevate it beyond desiccated historical retrospective.
The film is elegantly edited with Scorsese’s and Tedeschi’s characteristic élan, and it evinces a commendable acumen for creating narratives out of disparate facts, personages, and events. It achieves an excellent balance of past history and present reflection, and rarely, if ever, succumbs to the weight of its own ambitious scope. It would have been easy for The 50 Year Argument to fall flat and collapse into its own intellectual center of gravity, but it doesn’t, owing to the fact that it’s not uniformly monochrome, but tempered with the right amount of presentness. The result is a film that is not only an education in world affairs, literary history, and the dynamic—and complex—nature of cultural transmission, but also a richly rewarding, warmly edifying, and ultimately entertaining project.
The 50 Year Argument is not just a précis, but an elaboration. Whether you’re a sycophantic devotee or a casual cultural observer, this film is an ecstatic occasion for discussion. Celebrants Scorsese and Tedeschi will make a convert of you—fittingly, in Scorsese’s case, for a filmmaker so often concerned with faith and redemption. Rather than coming across as a plaintive elegy for things remembered and times past, The 50 Year Argument is a moving and memorable tribute to something that matters. It, like the magazine that is its subject, is full of life.