Alex Kane (senior reporter): Even among peers like Dissent and Jewish Currents, Commentary magazine remains the most famous—not to mention most politically influential—of the “little magazines” that came to prominence during the American post-war period. In the journal’s heyday, leading left-liberal literary and political personalities like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, and Hannah Arendt regularly graced Commentary’s pages. Today, the magazine publishes pieces like Elliot Abrams’s most recent lamentation concerning the “Jewish freak out” over Israel’s new hardline government (you might remember Abrams from his Iran-Contra days). I had sometimes wondered about Commentary’s transformation from renowned literary journal to publisher of neoconservative polemics, but it wasn’t until I finished Benjamin Balint’s Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right that I truly understood how the metamorphosis came to be. Balint’s treatment of the magazine’s politics in the 1950s and 1960s–from its early dalliances with the civil rights movement to its editorial backlash against the New Left–deftly shows that the roots of neoconservatism lie not in foreign policy but the domestic clashes that defined the post-war era.
Overall, Balint’s account of the magazine’s history is a brisk tale with a healthy mix of literary and political gossip, all of which keeps the reader curious about Commentary as a social project as well as a political one. Balint—whose own neoconservative credentials include a fellowship at the Hudson Institute and a stint as assistant editor at Commentary itself—does not set out to challenge the assumptions that drove the magazine’s ideological shift from an anti-Stalinist leftist outpost to neoconservative rag. This might disappoint readers who want a history of the neoconservative movement that bares down on the ideology’s murderous mistakes (chief among them, propping up Latin American dictators and, of course, the Iraq War). Instead, Balint takes the magazine on its own terms and writes an entertaining and candid account of its greatest successes and controversies.
Ari Brostoff (senior editor): The biographer Robert Caro has chosen his subjects carefully—as one would hope, given that he spent seven years writing the story of 20th-century New York through the career of its central planner Robert Moses and has devoted the rest of his life to a five-volume, still-in-progress biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson. It’s easy to imagine what a movie about Caro and his subjects could be: a rote exploration of a nerdy kid from the Upper West Side and the outsized antiheroes whose deeds he has spent his life chronicling. But the documentary Turn Every Page does something more surprising. The film pairs Caro with the man in his own shadow: the editor Robert Gottlieb, who has been working with Caro for over 50 years. It’s not an obviously compelling premise (I dutifully bullied the friend who asked if I wanted to see it before realizing: of course I did), but it yielded a very charming movie that is not only the best but perhaps the only film I’ve ever seen about the craft of editing.
Lovingly directed by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, Turn Every Page oscillates between the two Roberts and their accounts of their working life together. Both men are New York Jews born in the 1930s who have maintained a lifelong, manic enthusiasm for reading. Caro, the more cantankerous of the two, channeled his enthusiasm into prodigious research; at one point, he recounts how he knocked on the right doors in Texas’s Jim Wells County until he solved the decades-old mystery of how Johnson apparently stole his first Senate election. Gottlieb, who is wily, grandiose, and a collector of women’s handbags in a—I don’t quite know how to explain this . . . and neither does his wife . . . but, a straight guy way?—channeled his own mania into becoming an almost absurdly prolific editor. First at Simon & Schuster and then at Knopf, he edited everything from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park to most of Toni Morrison. (He also edited The New Yorker for a few years.) He edited every page of The Power Broker, Caro’s bestselling 1974 Robert Moses biography, cutting it down from over a million words to a reasonable 750,000, leaving us with the 1,300-page classic now in its umteenth printing.
The relationship between writer and editor has also been a challenging one. While the film is circumspect about the deeper sources of Caro and Gottleib’s difficulties in working together, it seems clear that they have met their match in one another. Not only do the two men equal each other in their obsessive habits and long-ranging ambitions—they crack jokes throughout about whether Caro will finish his fifth Johnson volume for Gottlieb before one or the other dies—they also share a deep stubbornness concerning the granular questions that shape the crafts of writing and editing. Their most notable squabble concerns the value of semicolons, the topic of an entire, delightful sequence of the film. The Roberts appear on screen together only in the documentary’s final scene, when Lizzie Gottlieb is finally permitted to observe their editing process. The permission is conditional, though: She must turn the sound off on her camera, because the editing process between these two garrulous men is, at the end of the day, “private”—and, one gets the sense, almost sacred.
Mitch Abdior (contributing writer): The streaming channel Ovid.tv has added a marvelous series of films on anarchism, all of which are available starting today. Taken as a whole, these films cover anarchism in all its varied forms from the mid-19th century until the present.
Five movies in the collection were made by the two-man collective Pacific Street Films. The filmmakers, Steve Fischler and Joel Sucher, have known each other since elementary school and have worked on films together for over 50 years (for a complete career overview, see my article in the Fall 2022 issue of Cineaste). This series includes their classic documentary on the Jewish anarchist movement, Free Voice of Labor (1980), which follows the movement from its immigrant beginnings to its end, with the 1977 closing of the Yiddish anarchist newspaper, Freie Arbeiter Stimme. It’s an affectionate and moving portrait of this once-great movement. Also featured are Pacific Street’s Red Squad (1972), an angry documentary about the NYPD’s activities during the Vietnam War era; Frame Up! (1974), which recounts the framing of Black activist Martin Sostre in Buffalo in 1967; and Anarchism in America (1982), which presents an eclectic picture of the varieties of American anarchism and the ways they fit into the American geist. (On a different—and non-anarchist—note, the 1999 film From Swastika to Jim Crow is a fascinating work about the German Jewish émigrés who taught at historically Black colleges upon arriving in the US after fleeing Hitler—men who successfully handled the move from Heidelberg to the wilds of the Deep South.)
Two films about the anarchist martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti are streaming as well. The 1971 Italian feature film Sacco & Vanzetti is an overheated and not entirely accurate account of the trial. (I remember reviewing this film for my college newspaper 50 years ago, proof of Nietzsche’s notion of eternal return.) But Peter Miller’s excellent 2006 documentary Sacco and Vanzetti thoroughly demolishes the case against the two men. Neither film hides the fact that they were not gentle souls, as they’ve long been depicted, but rather members of a violent wing of anarchism—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Also streaming by Peter Miller is a history of the hymn of the international working-class movement, The Internationale (2000). The interview subjects are an international lot who place the song in its multiple historical and sentimental contexts. It’s a thoroughly inspiring half-hour of cinema.
Stew Bird and Deborah Schaffer’s The Wobblies (1979) has justly been added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry (for further information, see my article in the Summer 2022 issue of Cineaste). Bird and Schaffer constructed their filmed history of the revolutionary union out of interviews with surviving members of the Industrial Workers of the World. The result is lively, informative, and irreplaceable.
Finally, the three-part series No Gods, No Masters (2017) by Tancrède Ramonet is something of a mixed bag. Ramonet covers the history of anarchism from Proudhon in the mid-19th century to the end of the Spanish Civil War. The three parts all contain magnificent footage of people and events from the anarchist past, from the contemporary newsreel of the French anarchist bandits of the Bonnot Gang’s final battle with the police in 1912, to the anarchist fighters under Durruti in Spain. The series is worth watching if only for this material. An international battery of experts provide a thorough history of the movement, but the problem is the voiceover narration, which is full of exaggerations and errors (for instance, it claims that the Paris Commune gave women the vote and that the American volunteers during the Spanish Civil War were members of the IWW, among many other mistakes). Watch the whole series and trust the experts when they speak; take everything else with a bucketful of salt.