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'The 50 Year Argument': The literary gang of New York get the Martin Scorsese treatment

  • @MsEllenEJones

When The Wolf of Wall Street director, Martin Scorsese, is not making feature films about gangsters and racketeers, he and long-time collaborator David Tedeschi tell stories of another kind.

His Arena documentary The New York Review of Books: a 50-Year Argument (Sun, BBC4) was a portrait of America’s most esteemed periodical on the occasion of its half-century anniversary. The contributors featured here drove their points into the mind with words instead of the butt of a gun – but the conflict was just as ferocious.

As indicated by the smaller font size that “of Books” gets on the masthead, the New York Review of Books was never just about books and nor was the film. It took in women’s liberation, race, domestic politics and conflicts from Vietnam to the “War on Terror” (the NYRB, alone among mainstream US publications, was sceptical from the start).

Most of all though, this was a tribute to Robert B Silvers – known to all as Bob – who co-founded the magazine in 1963 and continues to edit it, aged 84. Archive interviews were intercut with new footage of him at work in an office that was, gratifyingly, exactly as you’d imagine: as silent as the grave with ceiling-high piles of books that threatened to topple over and entomb the staff at any moment.

Silver’s intellect and industry are hugely impressive, but this focus did mean others got short shrift – particularly co-founder and Silver’s co-editor until her 2006 death, Barbara Epstein. Still, Silver made the ideal illustration of the value of the editor in a digital age. In his words: “We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words... growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it.”

“The New York Review of Each Other’s Books”, as it has been churlishly nicknamed, is certainly a community of ideas as much as it is an ink-and-paper magazine. Essays like Derek Walcott’s on his friend the poet Robert Lowell are moving because of their intimacy, yet this community has always welcomed anyone willing to read and think, wherever they might be. Colm Tóibín described the vital relationship he had with the NYRB as a young man in Dublin and Darryl Pinckney read an essay about his reaction to reading another contributor, James Baldwin, as a black teenager in 1960s Indiana. Does juxtaposing the text of Frank Kermode’s article “What is Art?” with a Martin Luther King Jr speech prove that this world of ideas influenced the world of action? Not quite. But as per the intention of its original founders, the magazine – and the film it inspired – never failed to be interesting.

If a copy of this month’s New York Review of Books isn’t immediately to hand, big ideas were also on offer in The Men Who Made Us Spend, released directly to iPlayer on Saturday night. Jacques Peretti’s previous two documentary series, The Men Who Made Us Fat and The Men Who Made Us Thin aired on BBC2, so this might be seen as a demotion. In fact, the casual sexism of its title aside, this is probably the most successful of the three, as it finally provides Peretti’s interview style (barely suppressed rage) with a worthy topic.

The wasteful cycle of consumerism, in-built obsolescence and how advertising exploits insecurities are all infuriating, especially if you’ve seen Adam Curtis’s multiple-award-winning 2002 doc on similar topics, The Century of the Self. If you haven’t, you can watch that first online where it’s still available. BBC programmes usually only remain on iPlayer for the briefest of intervals, but fortunately the men who make us spend on DVDs don’t always get their way.