Martin Scorsese’s Jewish Bookfellas

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“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.”

The graphic, almost operatic violence that is one of the director’s trademarks may seem to be at variance with the NYRB’s reputation as one of America’s leading intellectual periodicals. But in assembling the film, Scorsese reminds of how militant these voices and the ideas that they were espousing often were.

Over the years, many of its contributors were men and women who used words the way that Joe LaMotta, the Robert De Niro character in “Raging Bull,” threw punches. The film highlights that far from being armchair academics, these writers and thinkers were often combative about covering and arguing the most pressing issues of the day, from Vietnam to Iraq and from Women’s Lib to Occupy Wall Street.

There has been some ire directed toward Scorsese for his portrayal of Jews in his hit film “The Wolf of Wall Street.” In the new documentary, many of the heroes — rather than antiheroes — are iconic New York Jewish intellectuals. Aside from the director himself, the most prominent member of the post-screening panel was Robert Silvers.

“We didn’t expect he would do it,” Silvers, 84, told the Forward. “We had about eight documentary people who wanted to make a film on our 50th anniversary. And we saw them and they were very nice, but they didn’t seem to know the Review very well. But Marty did. He’d been reading it since ’63.”

In many ways, the story of the NYRB is the story of modern America’s political turmoil and intellectual ferment. Admitting that “literature and the word, the spoken word and text as image” were challenging topics, Scorsese toyed with structure in order to find a way to tell the story. “I think what we’ve been trying to do with these films — and even the narrative films like ‘Wolf’ — is trying to find the story somehow by stealth. You sort of have to go by tone… until finally you’re in this morass of history and literature and thinking,” he explained.

The material screened at the festival included newly filmed interviews with current contributors and archival footage of Susan Sontag, Isaiah Berlin, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky. Two of the more contemporary faces in the film belong to Michael Greenberg, recently a frequent contributor on topics ranging from Occupy Wall Street to the writers Jorge Luis Borges, and Zoë Heller.

While his films don’t often tackle political issues directly, I’d like to think that his films produced during the ’70s, his greatest period of filmmaking, were informed by the climate of countercultural intellectualism he encountered in the NYRB’s pages as a student. Asked about the articles that have had the greatest personal resonance, Scorsese mentioned the magazine’s coverage of the Vietnam War as well as Berlin’s 1971 treatise-length article on Machiavelli.

Scorsese said he hopes that his film will inspire a new crop of readers. “It’s for the next generation that I’ve been making these films, the [Bob] Dylan film or the [George] Harrison,” he said referring to two of his recent music documentaries. “Particularly in this age in the glut of information and the data that’s around. How do they select? How do they choose what to believe in as a value? They have no idea of how fragile the freedom is. None, you see. And so this is an attempt in a way to, maybe, point them in a direction.”

Scorsese admitted that — like many — he too has stacks of the magazine lying around. “You can’t throw it away if you haven’t gone through it. It will take a year sometimes to get to something. I’m finding now that even though I may want to read every article I have to really make a selection. I’m getting much too old and I’m a much slower reader. But it is fascinating and I learn a great deal from it. Or at least, I think I’m learning. At least it opens the mind.”

A.J. Goldmann is a writer and critic based in Berlin.

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A.J. Goldmann

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