‘Best of Enemies,’ ‘Listen to Me Marlon’: Tasty slices of history

July 27, 2015

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Half the struggle in documentary filmmaking is finding the right material. The other half is figuring out what to do with it.

Two new documentaries get both halves of that equation right. “Listen to Me Marlon” takes previously unheard tape recordings of Marlon Brando and illustrates them with film, photographs and animation, creating a kind of impressionistic biography of the influential actor. “Best of Enemies” focuses on the unprecedented series of debates between intellectuals Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley televised as part of ABC’s coverage of the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. 

“Listen to Me Marlon” may only be for true Brando aficionados. Director Stevan Riley has taken a trove of previously unheard Brando audiotapes and found intriguing ways to illustrate them. The tapes function as a kind of audio diary for the actor, who ruminates on career choices and acting ideas, taking us behind the scenes at important moments in his life.

Riley toggles between archival and news footage of Brando in his increasingly rare TV appearances and Brando’s own comments on the events of the time. It covers such events as the killing of his daughter Cheyenne’s boyfriend by his son Christian and Cheyenne’s subsequent suicide, as well as Brando sending a Native American to collect his 1973 Oscar for “The Godfather.”

If you’re already steeped in Brando history, then the recordings will seem like a fresh page. If you’re not, you’ll either be caught up in his magic or wonder what the fuss is about.

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The history of the year 1968 was so tumultuous that its facets are still being discovered — or rediscovered, in the case of “Best of Enemies.”

The film deals with the series of Gore Vidal-William F. Buckley debates on ABC. In that long ago era when there were only the three networks, the third network, ABC, lagged far behind, a distant third in the ratings. So there was a certain desperation in ABC’s decision to bring in Buckley, founder and editor of the National Review and right-wing intellectual firebrand, and pit him against the left-leaning, unashamedly homosexual Vidal.

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The two men literally despised each other and what the other stood for. Buckley disapproved of what he saw as leftist libertinism in Vidal’s writing, while Vidal saw Buckley as a paleolithic reactionary. When they met and clashed on the air, it was with long volleys of erudite language, attacks that inevitably ended with a flash of the razor’s edge as it was sunk into the other’s jugular.  The debates had the desired effect, drawing ratings for ABC and headlines for the two men — including some they didn’t want.

Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville bring in enough of the history of that moment — with the assassinations earlier that year, the rise of Richard Nixon and the police riot at the Democratic convention — to give context to these verbal battles. It builds to a stunning final confrontation that changed the lives of both men, with Vidal baiting Buckley into exploding in a homophobic slur on national TV.

Gordon and Neville are fair, offering attributes and flaws of both men, each a snob in his own way. It was a unique media event, a battle between actual intellectuals instead of today’s steady diet of hot-air-spouting bloviators. But it may have been the tipping point that pushed us in that direction, once TV news directors realized that arguments drew ratings, missing the point that the arguments needed substance to be more than just a series of tea kettles venting hot air.

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