Screen: HBO

How Long Did It Take Sarah To Walk Away From The 50 Year Argument?

Martin Scorsese's love letter to The New York Review Of Books is missing something. (Besides that hyphen, ugh.)

High-Profile Show Attempted: The 50 Year Argument

Topic: The New York Review Of Books, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2013 -- its birth, style, influence, and biggest stories.

How Far I Expected To Get: To the end. I'm a sucker for biographies of institutions, and especially of publications; I really liked Page One and Bill Cunningham New York, and I'm in the middle of a history of the WPA's writing project that I'm really digging. Something about seeing and feeling bygone times in publishing is appealing to me: the typewriters, the hats, the drawers that seemed to have rolled off the furniture assembly line with bottles of booze pre-installed, even All The President's Men has that engaging behind-the-scenes quality for me.

Add to that Martin Scorsese lovingly directing a doc about a New York institution, editor David Tedeschi (that George Harrison doc; other TV docs about music figures) co-directing, Michael "Arnold Rothstein" Stuhlbarg narrating for that vintage feel, and a bunch of interviews with key players, including EIC Robert Silvers, and I thought I could look forward to a fascinating, or at least pleasant, two hours.


How Far I Did Get

31:23 (out of 105 minutes)

What Did It: I realized after about half an hour that I'd spent the duration filing my nails, playing all my turns on Letterpress and Words With Friends, starting new games on Letterpress and Words With Friends, and comparison-shopping for incense instead of giving the film my full attention, because I feared that merely watching instead of multi-tasking would quickly turn into "sleeping." My single note is as follows: "Is it all going to be people reading their essays and organ jazz?"

And the thing is, "people reading their essays and organ jazz" is a good thirty percent of documentaries; it doesn't disqualify a movie from my enjoyment automatically. This one feels academic, though -- logey and self-satisfied in the way of old men who no longer feel obligated to keep it short. I like that footage of James Baldwin smoking and telling us we all suck, but the fact is, we've seen it before, and the jumping around chronologically seemed fresh to other critics but merely disorganized and undisciplined to me.

Then I paused it, thinking I'd just go to bed and try to come to it again in the morning, and the frame froze on a lofty quote from Susan Sontag slamming Leni Riefenstahl, like, you know what? I'm good, actually. You take care now.

There's a fab documentary in the topic, or a book/oral history. There's quite possibly a fab documentary in The 50 Year Argument; it's not offensively terrible. But if Scorsese's not going to make a disciplined effort, neither am I.

Worth Taking Another Run At It? It's season-premiere/baseball-postseason time. Not happening.


Explore the HBO Documentaries forum or add a comment below.