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J.A.A. Purves

Best of Enemies (2015)

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Cinereach:

"About the Film: In the summer of 1968, ABC News hired two great intellectuals to meet for televised debates during the presidential conventions. William F. Buckley was a leading light of the nascent neo-conservative movement-he’d founded the National Review in 1955. Gore Vidal was a leftist novelist and polemicist and a Democrat by heritage, a cousin to Jackie Onasis. Vidal and Buckley each thought the other’s political ideologies were dangerous, even catastrophic for America. Like rounds in a heavyweight battle, they slugged out policy, personal insult, and revisionist histories-staking out the opposing political positions that still resonate with the major parties today. As the talks devolved to heated and shocking name-calling, the debates defined the new era of public discourse in the media. These discussions beg the question still facing us today, 'What has television done to the way we talk about politics?'"

 

The Commercial Appeal:

"Gordon said the irresistibly rancorous debates, which boosted ratings for third-place ABC during the network’s coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions, have “ramifications on the media landscape that we know today. The culture wars we’re living in now were outlined and laid bare by these two very articulate and entertaining guys who hated each other.” (At one point, Vidal labeled Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” while Buckley called Vidal “queer.”)

 

For all their enmity and differences, the men led parallel lives that forked when it came to “their very different ideas about how society should work,” said Gordon, 53, whose books include “It Came from Memphis,” “Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters” and the recent “Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.” Both men were patrician, highly educated, published authors, and “each represented a version of the other that they despised" ...

 

Five years in the making, “Best of Enemies” traces its origins to a 2009 program of long-unseen Buckley/Vidal tapes screened at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art by Memphis author and publisher Tom Graves, credited as consulting producer on the new documentary. Graves had become fascinated by the debates, and he resurrected the 1968 debate footage and made many of the contacts that proved essential when Gordon’s interest in the material was piqued by the Brooks screening ...

 

The way this documentary may hype or make a big deal out of all this worries me, but it will be interesting to see how they tell the story, particularly because both Buckley and Vidal did not act like today's modern TV pundits act, and both of them later wrote about how much they regretted the moment that their exchange became heated.  More on this later ...

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I've been hoping someone would make a Frost/Nixon out of this encounter. This is the next best thing.

 

 

--and my favorite part:

 

 

Watching these two guys preening at each other pretty much makes my day any time I see it.

 

EDIT: Link to our thread on Gore Vidal.

Edited by NBooth

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NYPost (I know, I know):

 

The smoothly calibrated, literate, and wickedly entertaining doc “Best of Enemies” tells the backstory behind the Vidal-Buckley debates, a ten-night series of slugfests aired by then-perennially-ridiculed network ABC because it didn’t have the resources to compete with NBC and CBS in sheer convention coverage. At one point the junior network’s studio literally collapsed:
 
Lighting rigs tumbled off the ceiling, which in turn fluttered to the floor.
 
Buckley and Vidal were then two of the best and most enthusiastic talkers alive and seemed to have much in common; aristocratic mid-Atlantic accents, deep grounding in culture as well as politics and Bunyanesque work habits that produced of thousands of pages of bestselling popular fiction as well as more esoteric work. Yet placed in proximity these two swans had themselves a cockfight.
 
The link includes a video:
 
 
EDIT: Over on Twitter, Jeet Heer links to Robin Williams as Buckley.
Edited by NBooth

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Rolling Stone lists this movie among the ten best things they saw at Sundance.

 

Culling together footage and providing a complete context around the media event, documentarians Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet From Stardom) make a compelling case that modern TV news — i.e. the victory of volume and rage over civilized discourse — starts here. Media history geeks, Christmas is about to come early.

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Eye for Film has an interview with Morgan Neville.

 

AKT: The balloons at the conventions reminded me of your previous [John] Baldessari reference.
 
MN: Oh with 20 Feet [From Stardom]? I wasn't even thinking of that. But I love putting those little touches to things. I actually used to work for Gore Vidal as a fact checker. My first job out of college was working as a fact checker.
 
AKT: Do you remember the first facts you checked for him?
 
MN: I remember the first piece he wrote. It was called Cue The Green God, Ted. It was for The Nation magazine and I had to call him on the phone in Italy and tell him he got a couple of small facts slightly wrong. And he was so unhappy. He hated to be questioned about anything. That was before the internet. It was one of the worst jobs I ever had. But I had nothing but respect for Gore, a fascinating character.
 
[snip]
 
AKT: The movies Vidal was involved with, Myra Breckinridge and Caligula, are rarely seen these days. Can you tell me about the great placement of the clips you chose?
 
MN: Gore was somebody who worked in movies. I loved the idea of these movies working out issues he cared about. Whether it was transsexuality or empire which absolutely they did. A film like Myra Breckinridge is actually kind of a great film, so campy.
 
AKT: I think I saw it once on late night French TV in the Nineties, dubbed. Some of the images stayed with me.
 
MN: It's a strange film but I loved it. The challenge of the film [best Of Enemies] is, we're making a film about talking heads. How do you make a cinematic movie about talking heads? So we were trying to use every tool, including music.
 
[snip]
 
AKT: Besides the very concrete, fascinating characters, the movie also made me think about the nature of their animosity. What kind of person do have to be to nurture an enemy like that? When we spoke before the screening, you said you didn't have an enemy like that.
 
MN: I don't. The reason, they were such enemies is that they saw a version of themselves in the other. They thought that the other person could detect a kind of phoniness they were insecure about in themselves. Very deep in that way.
 
AKT: They would have made a great couple.
 
MN: Yeah. They were a great couple. In a way, either they were going to be completely attracted or completely polarized. In this case, they happened to be polarized. With a slight change, they might have been inseparable.

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This film is terrifically entertaining, though I'm not sure if there is any take home beyond "a box on both your houses." Will have to think on it. 

Director called it a "cross between an absurdist comedy and a cautionary tale."

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My write up at CT currently has an error (I called Vidal's book Marjorie Morningstar instead of Myra Breckinridge), but other than that, it nicely expresses my sentiments:
 

But there is a difference between debate and dialogue, between rhetoric that is erudite and rhetoric that is substantive. When I pressed Gordon on this point, he conceded that there were ways in which the debates were precursors to the contemporary argument culture rather than stark contrasts to it. The incivility of the discourse was, he suspects, what the networks saw as the primary reason for the ratings bonanza and was, hence, the part they most sought to replicate.

 

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I can't remember if this shows up in the articles linked above or if I'm remembering from GORE VIDAL: UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA, but does BoE mention Vidal's worries that Buckley had incriminating information that he (Vidal) had slept with underaged (presumably late-teen, but I'm guessing) boys?

Edited by NBooth

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I don't specifically remember that rumor/charge in the film.

 

My knee-jerk reaction is that it is hard for me to believe that if Buckley had such information that he would not have used it.

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Hendrik Hertzberg makes the (to my mind, doubtful) argument that Buckley actually won the crypto-Nazi engagement:

 

Leaving the malice the word was imbued with to one side, though, what Buckley said about Vidal was true. What Vidal said about Buckley was not just malicious but false. Buckley was a reactionary, arguably a racist, and inarguably a homophobe. His magazine, National Review, was a passionate admirer of Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, and has always had a habit of likening liberals to fascists and Nazis. But William F. Buckley, Jr., was not an adherent of genocidal anti-Semitism. He was not a Nazi, crypto or otherwise. To call someone a Nazi is to accuse him of embracing evil. To call someone “queer” is merely to accuse him of embracing a fellow-human being. Vidal won the fight in 1968, but he loses it in 2015.

 

Of course, by Jeet Heer's account, Buckley's relationship with Nazism was far from uncomplicated ("not so much pro-Nazi, as anti-anti-Nazi"). And the exchange itself is so theatrical that bringing in questions of "truth" seems to be beside the point. Vidal pushed Buckley and Buckley pushed Vidal and eventually one of them would have to snap--and the one who didn't snap would be the winner. It's hardly an intellectual triumph on Vidal's part--just a triumph of class (in multiple senses of that word). To see Buckley demolished on an intellectual basis we have to turn to quite a different exchange--one that is, notably, marked by much more self-control on both sides:

 

Edited by NBooth

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I found this to be endlessly fascinating and quite depressing. My main takeaway was that it seemed to show the origins of the degeneration of political discourse in this country as well as the origins of the media exploiting nasty arguments for the sake of ratings.

As to who won the crypto-Nazi exchange, my instinct is to say neither. Both behaved abysmally in that debate. Vidal did remain calmer and more collected through that exchange, so I suppose you could say he won it; however, Buckley at least had the decency to feel remorse about his actions, which I found more admirable than anything Vidal did.

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I honestly found the media stuff to be tacked-on and unrevealing. On Facebook I called the ending "moralizing" and I think that about sums up the tone of the last few minutes of the movie; after having spent a colossal amount of time--not on the politics of television or on the level of discourse, but on Vidal and Buckley and their respective careers--the movie tries to make a quick comment on contemporary debate by showing (among other things) Jon Stewart looking very, very earnest. Now, I've a lot of respect for Stewart and that clip they show is a classic--but it's really weak as any sort of "statement" on the Vidal-Buckley debates.

The rest of the movie, however, I loved--not as a commentary on the media, but as a portrait of two tremendously colorful and fascinating men (or, more properly, one fascinating man and one insufferable man--the identity of each will vary depending on the viewer). I'll probably be adding it to my collection once the holidays are over.

EDIT: A little more, from something I just posted on Facebook:

Oddly, I don't think the documentary actually does much to explain the rise of the pundit-class on American television, precisely because it's ultimately drawn into the mythology of both Buckley and Vidal (right down to a glancing mention of Vidal's sad later years, which are at this point as much a part of his myth as anything he ever said--which isn't to say that it's not *true* because it manifestly was).

By that, I don't mean that Vidal and (groan) Buckley aren't fascinating subjects--simply that they are such masterful controllers-of-their-own-narratives that the resulting film plays more as a Clash of Titans than as a careful explication of how-we-got-where-we-are-today. The result isn't a careful analysis of the origins of TV punditry; at most--on that score--it's a just-so story (Rudyard Kipling's "How the Television got its Hannity"). Fortunately, all of that just-so-ness is pretty confined and the filmmakers allow themselves to revel in the Clash itself.

On another note, I actually found the crypto-Nazi exchange to be relatively underplayed in the movie, which is interesting in itself. Perhaps it's lost its bite for me after upteen-billion viewings on YouTube.

Edited by NBooth

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NBooth wrote:
: The result isn't a careful analysis of the origins of TV punditry; at most--on that score--it's a just-so story (Rudyard Kipling's "How the Television got its Hannity").

Oh, that's brilliant.

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