“I’ve been reading, or trying to read, the New York Review of Books since 1963, since I was a student,” Martin Scorsese explained at last month’s Berlin Film Festival, where his “Untitled New York Review of Books Documentary” screened as a work-in-progress. “I saw it on a newsstand and it looked very different than the other publications. I grabbed it and haven’t stopped marveling at it and living with it for the past 50 years.”
Violence and profanity may seem to come more easily to Scorsese than the world of arts and letters, which the director admitted was a “tricky subject.” A collaboration with David Tedeschi, who has edited some of Scorsese’s documentaries and shares the directing credit here, the documentary is a candid look at the history of one of America’s most significant publications, which was founded during the New York newspaper strike of 1963 and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
The New York of Scorsese’s films is often peopled with mobsters, small time hoods, and psychopaths. And so it may come as a surprise that his worldview was shaped, in part, by the liberal intellectuals who have contributed to the NYRB for the past half century.
In defining the publication’s mission, NYRB’s founder and current editor Robert Silvers once said, “The great political issues of power and its abuses have always been natural questions for us.” Silvers, who has guided the magazine from its inception, emerges as the film’s protagonist.
After the screening, Scorsese reminisced about encountering the magazine for the first time while studying at New York University.
“I was quite young, about 20 or 21 and I came from a world that was very different from the world of the Review. I found myself on the West Side of New York — I’m from the East Side — and from the West Side to the East Side it was like going to another planet in terms of an open-mindedness from the world that I was in, which was very medieval in a way. It was a very small Sicilian village, in a sense, transplanted into downtown New York: lower working class, which has become quite conservative after the Roosevelt years. And so, I never really thought about any of that. I was fascinated by the arguments that were posed and the points of view that disturbed me at first… [I came] from a house, an apartment that we grew up in, where reading wasn’t a habit. There were no books there. It was just struggling to find everything on my own really and this was the thing that started it.”