February 24, 2020

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Film homage to cultural mainstay lacks dissenting voices, debate

Robert Silvers (seated) and Hugh Eakin at the New York Review of Books.

HBO Robert Silvers (seated) and Hugh Eakin at the New York Review of Books.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/4/2015 (1781 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Conflict is a necessary ingredient of storytelling. And the title of this documentary profile of the New York Review of Books promises ideological battles of epic proportions in telling the story of the publication's half-century of existence.

How curious, then, that the film is a fairly toothless chewing-over of the Review's accomplishments as an oft-dissenting voice in the choral group that is American print media, over and above its role as repository of book reviews. (The words "of Books" has a smaller font of the magazine's masthead to allow for the publication's impressive, decidedly alternative coverage of new events.)

Made for the American cable network HBO, the film emerges as kind of the intellectual equivalent of one of those "greatest rock 'n' roll hits" infomercials you see on late-night TV.

Substitute journalistic flashpoints for golden oldies. Substitute Noam Chomsky for Roy Orbison.

Remember Norman Mailer trading verbal blows with both Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag over the subject of feminism back in the '60s? This film has footage of the Vidal/Mailer dust-up on an old Dick Cavett Show to illustrate the debate as it raged in the pages of the Review, which is a bit of a cheat, but at least it's an entertaining one.

You may remember how writer Joan Didion wrote insightfully about the spectre of racism in the aggressive prosecution of five teens accused of assault and rape in the 1989 "Central Park jogger" case, only to be proven correct in 2002 when DNA evidence, and a confession by the real assailant, exonerated the convicted accused.

Or remember how most American media bought into America's justification for going to war in Iraq after the terror attacks of 2001? The Review was one of the rare exceptions.

If you can call a tribute to an institution hagiography, then this film is certainly that. The film's default setting is dignified homage, a task made relatively easy, owing to the presence of eminent editor Robert Silvers, still at the job at age 84 and demonstrating his charmingly old-fashioned style in his workplace (complete with towers of books submitted for review).

It's actually something of a relief when essayist Darryl Pinckney cops to feeling guilt about a harsh review he gave to a work by James Baldwin that had more to do with asserting his own ego than fairly evaluating the author whose earlier works had once struck the teenage Pinckney like a thunderbolt.

In the course of this film, that's a rare instance of vulnerability and regret in what is otherwise a too-relentless celebration of this bulwark of discourse in American letters.



Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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