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Documentary Quickshots #1

Best of Enemies (2015; Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville)

Best of Enemies reifies its subject, the televised debates between conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. and liberal Gore Vidal on ABC during the 1968 American election, as a key (and unfortunate) moment in the development of American public discourse on politics. Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville see the contentious debates, and their transparent personal rancour, as the gestation of a toxic, crippling polarization between the over-generalized opposing poles of American politics: conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, rural and urban. The seeds of the intractable “both sides have their equal say” paralysis of America’s discourse were planted in 1968, according to Best of Enemies, and it’s not yet clear what the end point of this growth will be.

The documentary builds towards the climactic moment of the debates: Vidal referring to Buckley as a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley retorting that Vidal was a “queer” and threatening to punch him in the face. That two bright lights of America’s privileged elites, consummate intellectuals responsible for a series of talked-about best-selling novels (Vidal) and the modern conservative movement as we basically know it (Buckley), could devolve to name-calling and schoolyard threats of violence on national television seems a predictive instance to the ugly point to which the discourse had sunk. That Vidal’s success in getting under Buckley’s skin in this key moment and thus “winning” their war of words has been largely swept away by Buckley’s much greater and lasting political legacy (who reads Vidal’s then-provocative 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge anymore, honestly?) is an irony that Gordon and Neville do not allow to slip past them.

Buckley’s long-term triumph over Vidal is, indeed, at least partially a result of the devolution of rhetoric and polarization of political ideology that allowed Vidal to win the debates on points in 1968. The over-simplification and emotionalization of complex political and social issues serves the right-wing agenda much more than the left-wing one. As Donald Trump’s bullying run for the 2016 Republican nomination for President has made alarmingly clear, the peculiarly American form of political theatre is an guided missile constructed of alloys of personal attacks and weaponized policy and issues. What Buckley and Vidal’s debates did not quite predict was the increasing importance of identity politics. Both men were patrician elitists who purported to speak for vast political constituencies from above at all times and never pretended to everyman humility. American politicians still stem from the elite, but they have sharpened their ability to marshal and even embody any number of tribal identities from across the society. Still, if American political discourse (especially on television) can now often seem like two antagonistic voices shouting past each other’s ears without absorbing a word, the genesis goes back to Buckley vs. Vidal, and Best of Enemies capably documents that genesis.

Back in Time (2015; Directed by Jason Aron)

Movie fandom documentaries are a veritable cottage industry in American independent film. Name an enthusiastic genre film fan community and there’s sure to be a documentary feature or two or three about them: Star TrekStar WarsThe Lord of the RingsHarry Potter, and the list no doubt goes on. Compared to these extensive, pop-culture-spanning franchise colossi, Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future trilogy seems quaint and limited in comparison, but it inspires no less fanatical devotion, as Jason Aron’s Back in Time demonstrates.

Back in Time draws from the film and behind-the-scenes footage, material from various fan events, and surprisingly comprehensive interviews with principle creative figures. Aron gets great stories and opinions from Zemeckis, writer/producer Bob Gale, stars Michael J. Fox (witty as hell, even through his advancing Parkinson’s), Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, and more (the only major missing onscreen figure is Crispin Glover, for pretty understandable reasons), as well as fans from the famous (Community and Rick & Morty comedy doyen Dan Harmon, The Goldbergs creator Adam F. Goldberg) to the humble and everyday to the rather extraordinary.

The most extraordinary of those fans generally have one thing in common: they own DeLoreans, the iconic time-travelling car from the movies, and have often customized it to closely resemble the Back to the Future vehicle. These fans range from the professional to the more amateur: there are the restorers of the Universal Studios backlot tour DeLorean, which had fallen into decay over years of unprotected display; a Massachusetts family that runs its own custom auto restoration business and owns not only one of the movie’s DeLoreans but also Marty McFly’s Toyota truck; and, most endearingly, a couple who picked up a DeLorean when the male partner was diagnosed with terminal cancer and customized it with makeshift folk-art flourishes based on what they could glimpse from a paused VHS copy of the movie. The latter now drive their homemade flux capacitor around the United States to raise money for Fox’s charity foundation.

Back to the Future, with its speculative tinkerer’s scientific inquisitiveness, attracts like-minded individuals. But its finely-tuned screenplay also inspires comedic minds like Harmon and Goldberg, both for its flawless structure and its subtly brazen rule-breaking (a lead character without a real arc of development, that whole dramatic-irony Oedipal thing about a mother wanting to bang her son). Aron’s documentary is not as tightly structured. It divides itself in parts (“Film” and “Fans”), but jumps around willy-nilly within those loose categories. But it engages with most every element of BTTF that any fan, from the casual to the obsessive, would want to see covered: the production, the reception, the music, even some of the social and political implications of the film, as well as fan engagement. Back in Time is hagiographic and not as adventurous as its subject matter managed to be, but it gets the spirit of its subject broadly correct, and that’s all any fan might reasonable hope for.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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