Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 19, 2023 7:16 pm 
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The two Bobs: the lifelong collaboration of two brilliant New Yorkers

The title comes from advice Newsday's veteran editor Alan Hathaway, gave to the young Robert Caro on doing research. "Remember," he said, "turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page." Caro's longtime editor at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb, the tandem subject of this film, describes himself as having grown up primarily and only as a reader. His message to himself as an editor would be to read and consider every word, every letter, every comma. There are some famous writer-editor relationships: Ezra Pound-T.S. Eliot; Maxwell Perkins-F. Scott Fitzgerald; Gordon Lish-Raymond Carver. Another I knew first hand, so to speak, since the editor was a lifelong friend: Richard Todd-Tracy Kidder. The latter have recorded some of their shared insights in a book, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction . Here in this new film is another notable writer-editor pair: Robert Gottlieb-Robert Caro. Like Tood and Kidder, they have worked together for fifty years. We're lucky to get this generous look at them, separately and together from Lizzie Gottlieb, the editor's daughter.

One of the people Lizzie talks to for this film is David Remnick, the editor (1998 to the present) of The New Yorker, who is also a fan of Caro's writing, in particular of his monumental study of the life and work of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and from him I learned a new word, sitzfleisch. "It's a daunting task," Remnick says, speaking of the LBJ books. "You've got to have real courage. But he also needs to have sitzfleisch to do it." Sitzfleisch means in slang your butt, but more seriously, and here, endurance, the ability to carry on with a task, by implication even a daunting one.

This clearly is possessed by writer Robert Caro, who says it takes him at least seven years to finish a book. Caro is author of the still-in-print classic The Power Broker , a massive work about Robert Moses and his sweeping and sometimes devastating effect on New York City, and the multi-volume, monumental, and still unfinished The Years of Lyndon Johnson. He found his life's work and focus with The Power Broker, the first time Robert Gottlieb and he worked together. Caro's interest has remained power, the pursuit of it and the use of it. After Moses, a giant in the world of New York, Caro wanted to move on to national power, and he found his monumental subject in the titanic accomplishments of LBJ.

This film about Caro and Robert Gottlieb, his editor for half a century, constitutes a kind of late-life celebration. Gottlieb is now 91, and Caro 87. They are still at work.

Does this film shed light on the nature of the relationship between author and editor? That relationship is technical, variable, complex, and a matter of much detail. It is also very personal, and kept by design mysterious to outsiders. So we glimpse it - the mangled manuscript pages, the author typing up his four pages for the day on his Smith Corona electric portable (with two carbon copies, stashed over the fridge each day). But overt discussion of editing is often kept to generalities, talk about squabbles over the function of semicolons. (Caro and Gottlieb think differently on this.) Gottlieb, who has edited many authors besides Caro (some 600 books), describes his job as a flexible one. Some writers, he says, need a shrink, others need help in making up their plots, some only want stylistic aid, advice on semi-colons. He says to remember Caro "does the work; I just do the cleaning up." He is not the writer. The editor adjusts to what is there.

We learn that Caro originally came to Gottlieb with a four-foot tower of manuscript pages on Robert Moses. Various editors, who knew this was a great subject, had wooed him for the job of paring it down. Gottlieb did not woo, did not lunch his writer at the Four Seasons, but was honest: they had sandwiches at his office and Gottlieb told Caro he had good material, but it would need serious work. He got the job. About 1,700 pages had to be cut to bring the book to publishable form. So "editing" can really mean "cutting," even for an excellent book. Gottlieb explains cutting Power Broker wasn't at all a matter, as in some editing, of removing fat or fluff. It was all good, all interesting stuff. It just had to be made shorter nonetheless.

The 1974 published result was immediately controversial, loathed by the mayor and the governor, described as "venomous," but read by everybody. It was a success from the start, has gone through 41 editions, and is still current and important. We meet some of the the fans Robert Caro captured with that first book. They are passionate. Conan O'Brien is one of them, and recently, as we glimpse, got a chance to interview his idol on the air live at last.

You will learn more about editing here if you come to the film already knowing a good bit about this kind of work on you own. This is no more a how-to film on editing than it is a class in writing. But that doesn't matter, because these two men are so interesting and so fully displayed here. Caro, whose father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland, shows us his passion (shared with his wife) for research, and there is amazing insight for those of us who haven't read him into the political genius and electoral dirty tricks by which LBJ got into power and enabled his enormous contributions to American democracy, civil rights, Medicare. Yes, he bought votes to get into the Senate, a secret, we learn, that Caro explored for the first time. In beginning his books on Lyndon Johnson the writer took his wife Ina - author of books about the Middle Ages and French history - to live for three years in the Texas Hill Country, where Lyndon Johnson grew up, to understand the making of the man. "Can’t you write a biography of Napoleon?" Ina asked.

Gottleib's interests are wide-ranging. He says he was born with high energy, and it shows. He has collected thousands of elegant-looking little plastic pocketbooks. He recounts that he largely ran the New York City Ballet when Lincoln Kirstein was its artistic leader, and now is very involved with the Miami ballet. He became editor of Simon & Schuster, then went to run Knopf, and as a publisher has also edited a surprising string of important and varied books, both fiction and non-fiction (Catch-22, which was Catch-18 till Gottlieb added his touch; Tinker Tailor, A Legacy, Beloved, Dog Soldiers - read the opening of the 2015 Paris Review interview for a longer list). He says he hates writing but he has published a lot of books and many articles. From 1987 to 1992 he was the successor to William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker. (These are two exceptional chaps.) Gottlieb sent his daughter, the maker of this film, tapes of jazz when she was in college. After final words from Gottlieb, quoting King Lear, a final coda comes, a sequence (unrecorded by request) of the two Bobs at Knopf going over the latest (unhurried) section of Caro's current LBJ book. This moment, after they've walked through the office searching for an ordinary pencil (a mechanical pencil won't do), is accompanied by Chet Baker singing "Do it the Hard Way," which goes like this:

Do it the hard way and it's easy sailing
Do it the hard way and it's hard to lose
Only the soft way has a chance of failing
You have to choose

Message: the two Bobs have chosen the hard way, and they've won.

Anthony Lane dutifully, and as always charmingly, reviewed this film for The New Yorker last week, calling it "ripe with charm." He points out a joint dark side, that "Johnson, Caro, and Gottlieb suffered deeply from the chiding of their furious fathers, who reckoned that their sons would come to naught." As Lane says, they "have since been proved magnificently wrong." Sometimes that works, I guess.

Lizzie Gottlieb, whose third film documentary this is, has directed theater and film in New York for 20 years and has worked with actors including Peter Dinklage, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Amy Ryan, and Michael Ian Black. She teaches documentary filmmaking at the New York Film Academy and has many New York connections: other contributors to the film include Bill Clinton and Ethan Hawke. Her mother is the actress Maria Tucci.

Turn Every Page, 112 mins., debuted at Tribeca Jun. 2022 and was included in festivals at Hot Springs, Middleburg, Philadelphia, and AFI. It opened Dec. 30, 2022 and comes to the Bay Area Jan. 20, 2023. Metacritic rating: 81%.

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