Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro is best known for his 1974 book about urban planner Robert Moses, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” and his ongoing series of books about Lyndon Baines Johnson. “Turn Every Page — The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb” documents his 50-year working relationship with his editor, Robert Gottlieb. Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie, directs with an objectivity not often found in documentaries made by a family member.
“Turn Every Page” opens Friday at Landmark Kendall Square.
After wearing down both parties with persistence, Lizzie Gottlieb convinced the two men to participate. They had ground rules, including that they must be interviewed individually. “Turn Every Page” keeps the two on separate paths that we hope will eventually converge. The result is a movie as prickly and loving as the professional partnership between the two men.
There’s also a lot of humor, both in what the men have to say and in the visuals. At one point, “Turn Every Page” shows a hilarious montage of cable news talking heads, each of whom has a copy of “The Power Broker” prominently displayed on their bookshelf. At around 1,200 pages, it’s as hard a book to miss as it is to carry — it’s also become something of a status symbol signaling its owner is “in the know” about politics and power — a point the film addresses. Like “Atlas Shrugged,” it’s a brick many of its owners probably haven’t even read.
Robert Gottlieb has most certainly read “The Power Broker” — it took him a year to edit it. That job was the beginning of the adventure in the film’s subtitle. The elder Gottlieb edited more than 600 books, including some of the greatest works of 20th-century literature, novels such as “Beloved” and “True Grit.” He also provided the number in Joseph Heller’s title, “Catch-22.” “It was Catch-19 before that,” he tells us.
Caro is reluctant to have cameras intrude on his process. Writing is such a solitary art — onanism with words — that only the most perverse would want someone watching the act. For me, the only thing more uncomfortable than watching someone read something I’ve written is having them watch me write it. I’ve been told I look like a maniac in thrall to something most unholy. So, I understood Caro’s reluctance.
Still, the nosy bird in me couldn’t resist surveying any shot that allowed me to see Caro’s desk or the notepads where he wrote in longhand before typing it all out. One item I caught was an index card the director focuses on briefly. It reads, “the only thing that matters is what is on this page.” Truer words were never written, and the one element of morbid humor that courses through “Turn Every Page” is whether the 87-year old Caro will finish his fifth LBJ volume so that the 91-year old Robert Gottlieb can edit it. Can these two men outrun Father Time?
The relationship between a writer and an editor is sacred and profane. It is sacred because there’s a private trust at the heart of it that must be unshakable. And it’s profane because it occasionally leads to bleep-worthy arguments over passages that need to be explained more fully or taken out entirely.
As Caro and Robert Gottlieb point out, the two roles serve different purposes in achieving the same goal. The editor takes the role of “the reader,” that person who, sorry, folks, is often seen as the enemy in the writer’s mind. We’re told that both men have had some knockdown, drag-out fights over five decades of working together, including several over something as simple as punctuation. An argument about one semicolon raged for days.
One of the many complaints I’ve heard throughout my career regards my use of semicolons; readers find them obnoxious and pretentious. I adore them. I want glitter-covered construction paper semicolons flung about with reckless abandon at my funeral. So, it’s fitting that I would enjoy a movie that features a long, detailed discussion about my favorite punctuation mark. “The semicolon is worth fighting a civil war over,” Gottlieb says at one point.
This probably sounds incredibly boring; I assure you it is not! There are scenes of Ethan Hawke reading to you, plus Conan O’Brien and Bill Clinton show up as interview subjects.
“Turn Every Page — The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb” is commendable for not only being entertaining but for also shining a light on a crucial process we don’t hear much about outside of certain professions. Writers, academics, and lovers of the written word are its primary audience, along with fans of its subjects. How much of an “adventure” the casual viewer finds in it will depend on one’s interest in seeing how the literary sausage gets made.
TURN EVERY PAGE — THE ADVENTURES OF ROBERT CARO AND ROBERT GOTTLIEB
Directed by Lizzie Gottlieb. Starring Robert Caro, Robert Gottlieb, Conan O’Brien, Ethan Hawke, Bill Clinton. 112 minutes. At Landmark Kendall Square. PG (mild profanity, love of semicolons)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.