HIFF Notes #5 — Movies to watch at the Film Festival

What to see at the Hawaii Int'l Film Festival -- Part 5

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Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb

Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment of an ongoing blog on films to see at HIFF–The Hawai’i International Film Festival

Turn Every Page is my favorite documentary screened at HIFF. 

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If you’re a history buff, a journalist or a writer of any stripe you should not miss Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb.

The documentary, by Lizzie Gottlieb, focuses on the working relationship between author, Robert Caro, and his editor, Robert Gottlieb, who happens to be her father. The association between the two Bobs began in 1974 with Caro’s best selling biography of Robert Moses, the legendary urban planner and public official who worked in the New York area during the early to mid-20th century.

It doesn’t sound like a scintillating subject, but between Caro’s research and Gottlieb’s editing, The Power Broker became a blockbuster and remains a perennial best seller.

Bob Gottlieb and Bob Caro in their halcyon days so thoughtully illustrated in Turn Every Page
The two Bobs circa 1975.

The author/editor relationship between the Bobs continued through the next project–four volumes of a critically acclaimed series on Lyndon B. Johnson. Volume number five, the last of the endeavor, is in progress. In the film both men joke about who is going to outlive the other, so that the series can be completed.

A film about the relationship between the nation’s greatest living biographer and the equally, greatest living editor, seems like a natural. We find out from the film maker that putting these two strong personalities together for this project didn’t start out as a slam dunk.

Lizzie couldn’t help but notice that many of the writers her dad worked with, socialized with her family. Not so with Caro. In fact, she didn’t even meet him till her father’s eightieth-birthday party. (Gottlieb is now ninety-one; Caro is eighty-six.)

Although the two worked together intimately, they argued about everything from where to place a comma or a semicolon to the actual content. When Lizzie proposed the idea of the film, they both demurred.

Bob Gottlieb is still ticking in Turn Every Page
Bob Gottlieb

It took a lot of persuading, but Lizzie won out.

I’m really glad that she did.

These guys are the very best at what they do and as a viewer you want to know what makes them tick. Whether it’s Bob Gottleib at home with a manuscript on his lap or Bob Caro, commuting on foot (sans cellphone) to his office, you get a firsthand glimpse of their lives. We also learn about their upbringing; both had difficult childhoods and difficult fathers to contend with.

Despite, or perhaps because of their backgrounds, both have had exceptional careers.

Gottlieb, who has had management positions at Knopf, Simon & Shuster and the New Yorker, has edited hundreds of books by household-name authors including Doris Lessing, Joseph Heller, Nora Ephron, John Cheever, Salman Rushdie, and Toni Morrison, to name a few.

Caro, has won a Pulitzer Prize for the Power Broker, which has been reprinted sixty-four times. His LBJ biography is a classic.

From this film we understand why.

When Caro does research, he does an extraordinarily thorough job. As Louise Mirrer, the president and chief executive of the New York Historical Society noted in a New York Times article, “Bob Caro is a historian whose methodology is of equal importance to the actual materials in his archive.”

That pretty much separates Caro from the rest of the pack.

For example, to learn more about LBJ’s roots, he moved with his wife to the Texas Hill Country for three years and interviewed a helluvalot of people. He rationale for the Texas sojourn was to able to better understand the local culture which figured so much into LBJ’s psychology. We also see Caro at the L.B.J. Presidential Library in Austin where he can be seen devouring letters and documents from the archives.

Hence the title, “Turn Every Page”.

Gottlieb, when asked what makes Caro tick, responded, “I don’t want to know what makes him tick–I just want him to go on ticking.”

Turn Every Page is a terrific documentary. Thanks Lizzie…

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