As part of the St. Petersburg International Media Forum, the film program Non-fiction held a screening of Martin Scorsese's latest documentary film, The New York Review of Books: A 50 Year Argument, dedicated to the half-century history of the intellectual magazine The New York Review of Books.
Scorsese's earliest films were actually documentaries, not features, and he has never stopped making them. He's not only an experienced documentary filmmaker, but also a bona-fide and seasoned one, as well as a top-notch storyteller who knows how to create a show out of things that are absolutely unsuited to this purpose, such as the convoluted, on-screen mumbling of a bunch of talking heads. There's a reason why a critic from The Independent has already referred to the film's main characters as "the literary gang of New York." The film begins with the off-screen jabbering of the director - quick, nervous and enthusiastic: "Memory arises not only not only from direct experience, but from the intercourse of many minds." On the screen a black-and-white photo appears: it's the year 1963, and the journalists Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein are engaged in an argument about something. That year, during the typographical workers' strike, the book supplement to the New York Times stopped being printed. The two high-brow editors were completely fed-up with these supplements anyway; they felt that they were horribly small-town, and impossible to read. Still, publishers were sounding the alarm - there would be nowhere to print any advertisements for books.
And so a new magazine was born, immediately raising the bar for intellectual discourse to an unreachable height. Silvers and Epstein selected their writers based on the principle of "who can write about this subject better than anyone else in the English-speaking world?" The first issue featured articles by Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag and William Styron, as well as the poetry of Robert Penn Warren. "As long as we had money to pay the typographers," recalls Silvers," we could print whatever we wanted." They would go on to publish articles by Andrei Sakharov and Vaclav Havel, the dispute between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson about Russian translations, and the essays of W.H. Auden and Joseph Brodsky.
In old black-and-white photos and in archive film footage, the magazine's publishers and writers resemble characters in a Woody Allen film - eccentric Manhattan intellectuals who can argue for hours about various abstract matters as if their lives depended on it. "For 50 years," the aging Silvers proudly declares, speaking on camera, "we had only one editor's column," meaning only one irascible manifesto, starting with the very first issue, which he explains as "We aren't going to devote space to trivial books or paid journalism, except in cases where it's necessary to debunk someone's inflated reputation or outright drivel." Right away, they decided not to restrict themselves to a book review format. On the pages of the New York Review of Books, Mary McCarthy argued about the Vietnam War from the point of view of a critic of government policy, and searched for compromising and discrediting materials about America during her trips to Vietnam. "The current overuse of euphemisms in our press means that people are being lied to," she believed. In 1967, the magazine published "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," an article by Noam Chomsky in which he blamed the government elite for the ideological justification of war. Nevertheless, Silvers was always honest. After the war, the magazine began to print incriminating revelations about the North Vietnamese, whom he previously supported, and who unleashed, after taking Saigon, a brutal campaign of murder and torture. "When the oppressed find themselves in power, they begin their own repression," Silver remarks bitterly, speaking on camera.
The magazine never lost its impetuous sensibility, holding firmly to the liberal position of "the intellectual against the state." In 1970, Tom Wolfe called the New York Review of Books "the chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic." In her later interviews, Barbara Epstein hit back at critics who claimed there was "an excess of politics" in her magazine. "We never forget to write about art," she says, looking directly into the camera. But how they wrote about it was another matter, for example, the classic article by Sontag about Leni Riefenstahl titled "Fascinating Fascism." "This article was an urgent moral necessity," says Silvers. No one could have said it better.
Scorsese is spellbound by his main characters, and on these grounds he fully presents them not as history, but as legend. There's a part in the documentary where Sontag goes after Norman Mailer, who is on stage leading a public discussion, accusing him of monstrous chauvinism for calling her not a critic, but a "female critic." Mailer, playing it off as a joke, speaks in a gruff and angry voice. Sontag, standing in the audience with a microphone in her hand, smiles softly in response. Then Mailer locks horns with Gore Vidal, calling him the logical continuation of the serial killer Charles Manson. One could watch these people endlessly, not because it's fashionable now to say "smart is the new sexy," but because intelligence has always been sexy.
This is a film about how polemically sharp and impactful magazine articles on vital issues used to be, before the advent of the informational noise and instant response of the internet press. And it's about how intellectual content influences people's state of mind, but never directly. And why we need professional critics and journalists at all. If it seems at first that the defining activity in the lives of people who resemble the stereotypical intellectuals of Woody Allen's Manhattan is the constant voicing of their opinions about anything and everything, and later on that these people have completely wasted their lives, then at the end of this Scorsese-narrated history, the viewer realizes that this isn't a waste at all.