Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Matter, Anti-Matter

Best of Enemies from that rather drab movie poster above may not seem like the most interesting film to watch in this day of blockbusters, over-the-top car crashes, prequels, sequels and the like.  Also due to our current environment of politics it may be the last thing many might want to watch.  I certainly enjoy escapism for that very reason as well.  But after so many super hero and action films, I was wanting something of more substance, and despite the poster or cover art, I found the documentary to be pretty engaging on many levels.   Both men have died since the movie's release, but it still seems current and vital due to the contrarian, polemic nature of politics today.  The movie opens with Gore Vidal taking us on a tour of his bathroom to share a few memories (odd I know).  He has pictures on the wall that he talks about and mentions Buckley, whom by this point has died, then mentions their debate showing disdain, so I guess their relationship as far as he's concerned is still at odds and a bit sour still in his mind.

The film concerns itself with the 1968 debates that were held on ABC at the time, first in Florida and then the venue moved to Chicago.  A little history and groundwork is laid at the beginning of the film for younger audiences that didn't live through that era.  That's a good thing as it gives some footing as to how things were back then and also how differently things were viewed then as far as the media.  Now we have cable TV with twenty-four hour networks and computers, but back then TV (with just three major networks), newspapers, and magazines were about it.  From my own experience, my family never bought many magazines, I think, viewing them as a bit of an extravagance (financially).  Plus both my parents worked and had little time to read.  I think that was pretty true for most middle class households at the time. 

Back then as I said there were three channels on TV: ABC, NBC, and CBS, and ratings had ABC in last place.  So to boost ratings, ABC decided to have these political debates from two of the most respected intellectuals of the times.   William F. Buckley, Jr. was founder of the National Review,  a conservative magazine, and who also hosted Firing Line.  Gore Vidal was a high profile and prolific author.  He was a gay man and had just written the popular novel, Myra Breckinridge, which was also made into a movie.  The networks back then were all pretty neutral as far as politics was concerned.  Advertising was one of the reasons--you didn't want to do anything to upset advertisers and have them pull their ads and advertising dollars, which kept your station on the air.

Both Buckley and Vidal some years earlier had dabbled in politics, but had lost whatever positions they were running for, and had gone back to writing and their own professions.  However, both men shared political aspirations.  I'm pretty sure they knew of each other, but I don't think they had much to do with each other until these debates.

The documentary has archival footage of the debates and news clips from the time.  I forget how many debates were aired, but when the first one took place in Florida at the Republican convention, Vidal had prepared himself for it and was ready to upend Buckley.  It also seemed that the documentary didn't show the debates in their entity (though I could be wrong).  They seemed short and edited.  Perhaps this was done to keep the film moving quickly and from being too dry or boring.  It works to the film's benefit too. 

In between each debate a little historical data is introduced to set the stage for the time and climate.  The late 60's was a big time for change not only politically, but culturally.  Vietnam was a hot issue then, and there were racial issues, many public figures had been assassinated.  As Bob Dylan sang, the times were a changin'.  It was a turbulent time, however, not all that different from today.  Both men though no matter what side you were on were intellectuals and able to spar with each other quite well.  One of the things the film pointed out was that most people are anti-intellectual.  I find that amusing and yet alarming and think it still holds true for today.  Sad to say, I don't think we've improved much over the years.  If anything, I think we've stepped back.  Everything is neatly packaged and controlled.  Neither the right or left get to debate much.  Everything is quick sound bytes, smear or fear tactics, and personal insults.  I guess the more we change, we stay the same, but I found the documentary engaging and well worth recommending.


At 11:57 AM, Blogger Richard Bellush said...

Good review. I remember the coverage of the 1968 conventions with these two, and the film looks interesting.

I’ve enjoyed reading both authors. Both were superb essayists. Gore Vidal occupies much more of my shelfspace only because he was such a prolific and talented novelist. (Buckley wrote a few espionage novels – not my favorite genre – but his forte was nonfiction and politics.) Buckley and Vidal didn’t get along personally, but politics wasn’t the reason. Buckley and Norman Mailer were friends, despite disagreeing on everything, while Vidal became friends with Nancy Reagan of all people. There was more intellectual mingling at the time.

It’s unfortunate in a way that so much of their popular legacy is that 1968 face-to-face. The exchange of words for both of them was uncharacteristically sophomoric – “good television” in today’s terms, but not really a fair way to remember either. None of us should be judged by a worst moment. Gore came off better than Bill, but on the other hand Gore started it and both were out of line.

I wrote a review of Myra Breckenridge – both book and movie – a couple of years ago by the way:

At 9:42 AM, Blogger El Vox said...

Yes, check out the documentary I think you'll enjoy it. It does seem like there was more mingling back then, and less staged questions and so forth. I think that is good thing. If a person can't stand on their own two feet without the need for a teleprompter, or pre-written response or whatever, they probably need to learn a bit more about the issues. But if one is open enough to mingle they might learn something.

Myra Breckenridge may have been Vidal's more famous novel, but from what I've read not his best effort. I remember the movie getting rather lukewarm reviews at the time as well (however, I've never seen it), but I'll certainly read your review of it. Thanks for the link.

I remember Firing Line as well, and also a show I used to watch called Crossfire. They were TV shows that both right and left debated issues of the day. Sometimes they got rather heated, but overall I think that is sadly missing today.


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