SXSW FILM 2015
By Linc Leifeste | March 24, 2015
I suspect that on paper, the documentary Best of Enemies might sound like a real bore. Here you have the story of a series of televised political debates between two public intellectuals, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, from 1968 and an examination of its roots and impact. At this point, if you’re still awake and reading this, I’ll go on the record as saying that Best of Enemies is not only uproariously funny, even for those not particularly politically inclined, but is nothing less than wildly entertaining. And this is a point that co-director Robert Gordon was happy to hear me lead with when we sat down to discuss the film: “I’d love for you to help us make this point. Because it might sound to people like a very dry, PBS idea, but it’s very funny.”
What the film manages to do, much like the legendary debates it documents, is to be highly educational and enlightening while also being completely captivating. Equal parts history lesson, cultural examination and cautionary tale, the film manages to bridge the gap that Buckley once spoke of when he said, “There is an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating.” (Linc Leifeste’s full review)
Linc Leifeste: Can you talk a bit about your personal connection, if there is one, to these two men or these debates that initially drew you in to this project?
Robert Gordon: My background is mostly in music. This is my eighth documentary and I’ve also done six books, and most all are music oriented. But all of them are not just about the music or the musician; they tell larger social stories through these characters. So I saw a bootleg DVD of the Vidal/Buckley debates. It was something I knew about, back deep in my mind, not something on the forefront. And I’d become politicized during George W. Bush’s term in office as president. So I saw this as an opportunity to look at how media had changed, that this was in a way an expression of the roots of the culture wars we live in. And so here I had two iconic characters, deep with material, through whom a larger story could be told. It was an ideal subject. I flung myself upon it.
LL: My guess is that most people, maybe secretly, tend to root for one man over the other, or at least like one more than the other. And not necessarily due to political views, but these are two very distinct but equally opinionated, outspoken characters.
RG: Well, I didn’t know a lot about either’s…not personal lives…but what they were actually like. And I went into it thinking I’d rather have a drink with Vidal than with Buckley and I came out thinking I’d rather have a drink with Buckley than Vidal. In part that was because one of the things I learned about Buckley was that he didn’t like to talk politics off camera, that he liked to hang with liberals and those not like him and that he just sort of liked to challenge people and be challenged. Whereas what I learned about Vidal was that he liked to take out the sharp knives and chop you up. And that didn’t seem like something I’d want to have done to me.
LL: You did conduct an interview with Vidal at one point, didn’t you?
RG: We did. It was late in his life. He was in really deep physical pain and he had become quite conspiracy oriented and paranoid. So a couple of funny stories. We’re in the room and he’s wheeled in in his wheelchair and he’s not looking up. He won’t make eye contact with anybody. One guy on the crew says, “My uncle served in the Aleutian Islands at the same time you did, during WWII, and he said he could never get warm.” And for the first time Vidal raised his head, his eyes pointed at us like guns on a battlefield, and said, “I had my rage to keep me warm.” (laughter) We were like, “Okay, let’s get this interview started.” And then afterwards he invited us up for drinks and we were so exhausted at that point that we really could use a drink. And the manservant leads us to a room and says, “In here.” And so we thought we were going into a parlor but it was Vidal’s bedroom. And Vidal says, “Please have a seat,” and we look around, no chairs. So we all sat on the edge of the bed and cocktails are brought in. Perfectly convivial, friendly, enlightening dialogue ensued, completely unlike the interview we’d just done. So the interview was tough and he wasn’t at his best and we didn’t have a sort of counter interview with Buckley and we just felt like, in fairness, we shouldn’t use it. We really tried very hard not to take sides and based on the feedback that I get, I feel very strongly that we succeeded. It wasn’t about who was right and who was wrong. It was about how we argue.
LL: When you were working on the film, was there an audience that you thought would be interested? On the face, it seems this film would have an appeal to an older audience. While a lot of younger people might have some sense of who these guys were, they weren’t around for those debates. Did you foresee that limiting your audience or did you envision a way to make this film appeal to a broader audience?
RG: I saw this, what occurred in ’68, as extremely contemporary. It rang like today. Substitute Iraq for Vietnam. There was a lot that was extremely contemporary. And so I felt like it would have a wide audience if it could overcome a couple of barriers. It would have a wide audience because there were baby boomers who would be totally into this under any circumstances. And then we realized early on, and I gotta admit it was a little bit of a surprise, how few younger people, let’s say 35 and under, even knew who these guys were. So we knew we had to include biography and make it work for them as well. But because these two guys are so witty, because so much of this footage from 1968 is so revealing in a sort of fun-house mirror way about our own times, we knew that it could play very contemporary. So hopefully the humor…and the humor wasn’t something we really had to work, a couple of times we work it…but it was there. In their heated attacks on each other, they’re witty.
LL: I’ve seen the film referenced as a cautionary tale. Can you expand on that idea?
RG: It’s the notion that this was an instance where TV saw that fireworks attract an audience. One guy in the films says, “Argument is sugar and the rest of us are flies.” Up to that point, political debate had been four or five guys, white men always, sitting around a round table having a polite, civil discussion about issues of the day. And it was often informative, it was often very dry, it was always very dry. So this told the networks that they could attract audiences by having a little more personality in it, and fireworks. And I think the cautionary tale part comes because it’s like moths to a light. They got so attracted to the fireworks that they forgot the content. So today you turn on political TV and there’s no real content. It’s just WWF wrestling in suits.
LL: Watching the film, it’s striking, and a bit depressing, to see how different what these men were doing is from what you see now when you turn on the TV, where news and political coverage almost seems completely devoid of intellectual content. Can you talk about the way these two men viewed television?
RG: We can’t forgot that TV in the 50’s was just coming into its own and both of these guys, Vidal especially, realized that early on. In the late 50’s he was already a regular on some talk shows, Open End with David Susskind in particular. And one of Vidal’s great regrets was that by dissing Buckley on the Jack Paar program in 1962, he created an opening for Buckley to make his first national TV appearance. And Buckley realized the value of TV and in fact it was a result of his 1965 mayoral run, that we cover, that he began Firing Line. So these guys, high minded as they were, realized that the important thing was to reach the everyday household, not just the exclusive high minded reader, but the everyday person. And the TV took you into those living rooms. So they both embraced it as a way, Buckley in particular, who was a leader of a movement. He was trying to coalesce a group of conservatives and he saw that as a tool. And Vidal too, just for his liberal ideas, less as a leader of a movement but more as a sharer of ideas.
LL: Can you talk about the their TV personas, how different they were from the real men, if there was difference?
RG: You know, that’s all something I’ve only heard secondhand. But from what I’ve heard, Buckley’s guests would often comment that when they were on his show, before the cameras would roll, the conversation was very cordial. And then as soon as the red light went on, they were jumped. And they were really surprised by that. And the camera would go off and it was back to cordial. I think both men appreciated the theatrical importance of a broadcast. Vidal, I think, was quite a bit like himself, again maybe a bit more theatrical on TV because he knew that’s what made TV work. And for Buckley, doing that kind of jump on people, I think it’s what worked. Because Firing Line, no matter what your political leanings are, you have to recognize that Buckley the conservative would have liberals on and almost always would explore the ideas. There’s a great example where he didn’t, when Noam Chomsky was on, I think it was ’68 or ’69. My interpretation is that Chomsky’s ideas were too strong for Buckley so he constantly interrupted him, as a tactic, to the point where Chomsky goes, “Please, let me finish a sentence.”
LL: Was that one of the many occasions where Buckley threatened to punch someone in the face?
RG: It’s the only time I know of. That’s how I knew it was ‘68 or ’69. In the wake of this explosion in the televised debates, Buckley’s way of trying to deal with it was to try to make light of it. So he jokingly says to Chomsky that he’d “smash him in the goddamn face,” and Chomsky didn’t get the reference.
LL: As far as that heated exchange between Buckley and Vidal in the second to last debate, how big of a deal was that at the time? I mean, how shocking was it at that time for someone to call someone else a queer on television?
RG: It was a big deal. The network was frightened, I think, actually frightened, that there would be consequences. I don’t think any came down but I think they were concerned. For the audience, it was totally shocking. It would be like using the n-word against someone today with full intent and menace. It was a perfect reflection of the near civil war that was going on on the streets at that time, is what it was. It was a complete breakdown of civilized society.
LL: And did Buckley ever punch anyone in the face?
RG: No. It was very uncharacteristic of him to even say that. I asked some of his associates about it and one recalled him calling someone a name one other time, but that was it. I mean, 33 years on TV and in contentious dialogue with people from the other side, that’s pretty good.
LL: Can you talk about the cultural impact of these debates, both immediately and more long-term?
RG: The “Point/Counterpoint” segment on 60 Minutes was a result of this. The Jane Curtin/Dan Akroyd running gag on Saturday Night Live was a result of “Point/Counterpoint.” When we went into this, we didn’t really think this was like a crucible moment in TV history. But when we saw the primary newspaper coverage of the day, where CBS, who had been deriding ABC for abandoning their journalistic responsibilities before the convention, after the convention was saying we’re going to emulate them next time, we began to see that this really was a turning point. I’m sure there are other elements and other examples but this was a moment that helped to make the big ship turn, unfortunately I think for the worse. I’d love for one of the results of this show to be that TV networks trusted their audiences again to hear extended discussion that gets into depth and not to be so concerned about ratings minute by minute that they’re telling commentators, “Get off that subject, we’re losing points.”
LL: I’m curious if you think the television audience at that time was more intelligent, more open to intelligent discussion, or if there was possibly a narrower segment of the population tuning in? Or is the audience today just as smart but being underestimated by the TV networks?
RG: I think the audience today is completely open to that and doesn’t have the opportunity to get it. Now one difference is that people read books then. As an author of books I’ve seen the shift toward visual storytelling versus writing. And I think that reading and writing are different from watching; I think there’s a difference. But I think audiences today are starved. Actually, I think audiences are starved for something that they don’t know they’re starved for and hopefully this film will introduce them to that. It’s funny, I just put this together…several times, even I think at yesterday’s screening, the person introducing the film used the word “delicious,” which always surprises me. But it’s kind of interesting because I think that, on one hand, the audience is starved, so when we serve them this they find it so tasty because they can’t get it anywhere today. So I really hope that one result will be a return to more trust in the TV audience.
LL: I was really excited to see Christopher Hitchens in the film. He’s someone I really miss. He’s one of the people in that same tradition and sadly there doesn’t seem to be many left.
RG: I’ve been asked who I would want to see in the two chairs now and I would want to see Cristopher Hitchens interviewing himself. Because he was both sides and he could give and take and when he died, no one took his place. Interestingly though, Sam Tanenhaus, who is writing a biography of William Buckley, his interview was really stimulating. I really think that he should do more of that, along with some of the other people we interviewed, but him in particular. When we were reading the transcript, it was stunning; we could throw a dart at anyplace on it and the next five words are a bumper sticker and on to the end of the paragraph or to the end of the page, it would make a brilliant short essay. He was just really great. And Hitchens, he was in our first round of interviews and it was just two weeks before he was diagnosed with cancer. So there was no gloom hanging over his head. The world was his oyster. And the way he leapt to be interviewed when we inquired was one of the affirmations early on that let us know that we were doing the right thing, that there was a real story here. Other people saw the metaphor, not just us.
LL: Is there anyone to the right, wherever that is now, that you think of as in some way in the vein of a Buckley?
RG: I listen to this podcast called “Left, Right and Center” from KCRW and their guy on the right has changed over the years. Right now it’s Rich Lowrie from the National Review. I know he would be the first one to say that he’s no Buckley. I think that what Buckley did, you hear Sam Tanenhaus in the movie say that Vidal portrayed him as this Neanderthal troglodyte member of the right, and so Buckley kicked out the John Birch Society, the Jew-haters, the racists and made an intelligent group but then over time an insurgency decided that he wasn’t far enough to the right. And now we’re on this sort of Tea Party/Libertarian thing that is in a way a return to the kind of thinking that Buckley was trying to get rid of. It’s a really interesting political time we’re in, where the extremes are more controlling and the center is being abandoned. And it’s funny because you see a lot of that in ’68, with Nelson Rockefeller and the moderate Republicans, that was their last…the candle went out. So I think the story is rich in that kind of contemporary way, it helps us so much to understand our present times.