50 Year Argument Documentary

Sheffield Doc/Fest

I would have titled this dispatch “New Movies From Martin Scorsese,” plural, but during last night’s Q&A with Steve James (which, yep, I had to fight back tears for), I learned that Scorsese’s off-screen involvement in Life Itself was in lesser capacity than I’d thought. He’s merely an executive producer in name and had no creative or editorial impact on the film. That’s okay, as his on-screen involvement is perfect, probably the most emotional you’ll ever see him. Yet I do think that even his association with the Roger Ebert doc is fitting for the current trend in his documentary work. Following his films on cinema and his films on music artists, he’s now in a period of films on writers, whether that’s intentional or not. In addition to Life Itself‘s movie critic, there’s the Fran Lebowitz doc Public Speaking and now the New York Review of Books profile titled The 50 Year Argument, which had its world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest this week.

What sounds like a total puff piece and one that’d be limited in reach given its highbrow subject matter is in fact a surprisingly accessible and appealing appreciation of the NYRB. Celebratory, yes, intellectual, yes, but The 50 Year Argument is neither too soft nor one bit snooty. Co-directed by David Tedeschi (editor of a handful of Scorsese’s docs, including Public Speaking and Shine a Light), this is one of the best-looking and one of the least subjective nonfiction films from Scorsese, enough that it’s not really clear what his interest was here. Normally he’d appear or provide a little voiceover explaining that he’s been reading NYRB since it began, or he’d insert himself as a talking-head, maybe. And at least with his music docs, we’d known beforehand that he was a Dylan and Rolling Stones fan. For all I know, he went into this like I did, totally unfamiliar with the magazine. Doubtful, but plausible.

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