Paul Duane interviews Robert Gordon about the new documentary, which takes a look back at the 1968 televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley jr.
Best of Enemies, the hilarious, caustic, surprising and thought-provoking new documentary from Morgan (Twenty Feet From Stardom) Neville and Robert Gordon, opens this Friday in the UK & Ireland after a spectacularly successful festival run. I spoke to Robert about the film, but first, in the interests of full disclosure:
My working relationship with Robert goes back to March 2003 (I know with certainty because I arrived in Memphis the day the US put boots on the ground in Iraq). But his influence on my life goes back a lot farther, to the day I picked up a copy of his terrific music history, It Came From Memphis, in some Dublin bookshop. I’ve written elsewhere about the effect this book had on me, and my subsequent, not entirely successful efforts to make it into a feature documentary.
As a music writer, Robert’s life’s work has been to excavate deeply and passionately that small and overworked patch of land that consists of Tennessee and Mississippi, and – most importantly – to find new things to say, things that haven’t already been said by the likes of Peter Guralnick, Samuel Charters, Greil Marcus et al.
It’s astonishing to think that there could be anything left unchronicled about the music of the South, in a way – except that, for the most part, what we read and see tends to be a repackaged version of old, pre-digested and often erroneous work. Which is why you need writers, like Robert, who go right to the source.
Robert once told me that his great good fortune was to be a music writer in the ’90s, when everybody wanted to cover Prince, Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, whatever, and he was free to spend his time with RL Burnside, Charlie Feathers and Furry Lewis because nobody else wanted to. Living in Memphis gave him access to a world, now vanished, that existed nowhere else.
From these beginnings, and looking at Memphis in his own particular way (his parents only moved to the city in the ’50s, so he was in a way free to look at it from both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ perspectives), he found his way into a whole new vision of the South – a South where the freak flag flew alongside the Confederate flag, a city that was the second (after San Francisco) to get the dubious benefit of Owsley acid, a place where crazy puppeteers, ‘Nam veteran bikers, gay cryptographers and aristocratic photographers found their truest selves by drinking and playing alongside elderly bluesmen and women, where integration was in part a by-product of the city’s particular wrestling subculture (check out the story of Sputnik Monroe), and where Willie Mitchell, Teenie Hodges, Sam Philips and Al Jackson are names that loom as large as, if not larger than, Elvis Presley.
Robert’s work in documentary largely developed alongside his written work, with films on Stax, Johnny Cash, Cowboy Jack Clement and others allowing him to hone his style and crucially to find an ally in director Morgan Neville.
So when Morgan hit the Oscar jackpot with Twenty Feet From Stardom, Robert was able to work with him on parlaying that success into a fascinating leap from music history into the underground history of the USA itself.
Best of Enemies is an ambitious, tremendously entertaining film that packs a massive amount into its tight running time, dealing with seismic shifts in American broadcasting, the fracturing of politics into name-calling and dogma, the social history of the 1960s and the psychology of two of its most intriguing figures, Gore Vidal & William F Buckley. It’s also very, very funny, and features some of the best & most erudite exchanges of insults you’ll ever see.
I wanted to start by asking Robert about how the idea for this film came to him. My questions are in bold.
Morgan & I were working on this before Twenty Feet From Stardom even began. A Memphis friend had a bootleg DVD of the Vidal/Buckley debates, he shared it with me & I immediately said ‘this is gonna be a great documentary.’ I was immediately taken in by the language these guys used, their humour, and how they expressed the cultural wars – in 1968 they anticipated exactly where we are right now in the 21st century.
There was a long period where I recall you guys struggling to find funding to get this thing made, though.
I couldn’t understand it, man! I thought, y’know, immediately at the big bang of that idea – when you get all these thoughts and have to take a few days to parse them out – I thought, y’know, this is a commercial idea…!
(There’s a pause where we both fall about laughing). Yeah, I know that feeling. (More laughter).
I thought, Bill & Gore are so smart. People like to be in that company. If this can get on screen, people will enjoy it, they’ll laugh, they’ll be thrilled to be in the company of such depth of language, such bitchiness, such command of history… We don’t get that any more on TV, it’s all snarky comments. I was right about that. People are thrilled with it. The pothole in that assumption, of course, was “if this can get on screen”. It took longer than anticipated.
Five years. But I think now you’ll agree it was worth it. It’s a great movie – structurally simple but with a massive amount of entertaining, thought-provoking material folded in there.
We knew we had a spine in the debates, and that they proceeded in a very Hollywood-like way, with mounting tension, that explodes in the penultimate debate and then there’s a resolution. Then it became apparent that many people had no idea who Vidal or Buckley were. I honestly hadn’t even considered that.
So, we had to have biography, and we saw as we got into it that they had startlingly parallel lives. The final element was the ABC-TV element which revealed itself in research – the fact that the debates came from their need to create cheap content that competed with the bigger networks, and the ramifications of that decision right down to the present day.
You begin & end with the seismic effect these debates had on our present-day culture, the culture of opposition as opposed to debate.
We kept pitching this as a very contemporary story, and in the first four years everyone would say ‘It sounds really interesting, but how does it affect us now?’ And when people see the finished film, the most common comment is ‘I can’t believe how contemporary and relevant this is!’
We trusted the viewer to come to their own realisation about this, and at the end, we simply affirmed the idea. It seems to totally work on audiences.
The other element that really makes this special is the personal antipathy, amounting to hatred, between the two main characters…
The personal is what makes it contemporary. Each embodies what the other fears. Each thinks the other is evil. Those two poles are what politics has devolved into today. There’s probably earlier moments but there’s probably no more contemporary moment where the personal becomes political.
They were both outsiders in a way and that outsider sensibility gives them both a certain bravery and a fresh approach. They embraced TV – the boob tube – and public intellectuals were disdainful of it. These guys realised that you could go right into the hearth and home of America, via relatively long uninterrupted speeches. There were three networks so the spectrum of your audience was unbelievable. You could really change people’s minds, as opposed to going on TV to rile people up, like they do now.
They were also both frustrated politicians in a way.
In a way, but in very different ways. Buckley ran for Mayor to make a political point. He was asked what he’d do if he’d win, and he said “I’d demand a recount.” He was just trying to draw people’s attention to the shortcomings of the other candidate. He also said “I don’t want to run for Senate unless I’m sure I can be President.” Gore also thought of himself as presidential material, which initially shocked me but once you realise who he’s related to and descended from, it makes sense. Losing on the Kennedy ticket was his first big jolt. This was long before the era where people vote for the President they want to have a beer with.
Gore thrived on his bitterness. He’s the one who said ‘It’s not enough that I succeed, everyone else must fail.”
How did Gore feel about the film when you met him?
He sabotaged the interview we shot because he didn’t want to contribute to a project that put them both on the same plane. He disagreed with the fundamental premise of us putting Buckley on the same level as him. So he made sure that none of his quotes were really usable. But he couldn’t say no to television – as he’s quoted saying, sex and being on TV are the only two things you never say no to.
So Buckley was dead and Vidal was still fighting that battle?
It’s a hell of a way to choose to live your life but he certainly threw himself into it. He could be charming. At the end of our horrible three-hour interview, we were exhausted and we knew we had achieved nothing, we had nothing usable. We’re packing up the room and his manservant enters and says “Mr Vidal would like to invite you up for drinks.” We said, desperately, “Yes!”, and he brought us to – we thought we were going into the parlour. He led us into Gore’s bedroom, Gore’s laid up in bed, he says, “Boys! Have a seat.” And there’s no chairs.
So we’re sat on the edge of his bed, a tray of cocktails was wheeled in and we had a delightful hour and a half talking about all kinds of things. Including Buckley. But if the camera had come back out, he would have gone back on the defensive, because he couldn’t allow this false equivalence between himself and Buckley.
That raises the question – what would he think of this film? I think he’d like it. He’d disagree with the premise but he loved to re-live that moment.
Buckley realised early on the importance of the ‘angry white working-class male’ to Republican politics.
By realising that that demographic was out there, he established a fundamental base for the new Republican party, which was great in 1980 – but by 1990 it was already eroding the party’s base. Andrew Sullivan, I think, says that it was a great thing for them to find that base but it was also the end of their intellectual evolution. It began the movement back to the very thing that Buckley tried to save the party from, the un-intellectual, rah-rah for America, John Birch Society thing. And he lived to see it, which had to have pained him horribly, to see the movement he created devolve back to what he’d rescued it from. He had a lot to be bitter about by the end of his life.
Just as well he didn’t live to see Donald Trump’s candidacy.
I don’t think there’s any real longevity in that campaign, it’s the American tendency to think like a wrestling audience and cheer the dastardly act of bravado.
I hope you’re right. I formed the impression that many people were ambivalent about Buckley, even his biographer.
I think he was quite likable, quite complicated. Bill used to tell people, ‘Don’t hang out with conservatives, they’re boring, hang out with liberals, they’re interesting.’ He liked to talk art, music, literature – he was a bon vivant. Off camera. But you could have a lovely chat with him while you were getting made up, and then when the red light came on, they were taken aback by his aggressive attack.
His wife was a fundraiser for art institutions, Bill said he knew every gay man in Manhattan. I started out thinking what he didn’t like about Vidal was that he was gay, but in fact Bill was very comfortable around gays. Why he couldn’t stand Vidal, I think, was that they were very well matched in intellect, background, appearance- each saw in the other his own anxious version of himself, like a dark funhouse mirror, and feared that the public would think he was that awful man sitting across from him with those awful ideas.
I hear there’s talk of turning the documentary into a drama – a feature film adaptation? Can you talk about that?
We’re making a deal that will close very soon, with a noted Hollywood writer & director, who will purchase the option to turn this into a feature film.
If I turn the recorder off, will you tell me who it is?
Yes, but you can’t tell anyone.
END OF RECORDING
So now I know who it is. And I am very, very impressed indeed. I believe the rest of the world will hear about it pretty soon. For now, make sure you go to see Best of Enemies in the cinema, and you too can tell your friends you knew all about it before they did.
Paul Duane is a filmmaker who lives in Dublin. His next documentary project is a film about Bill Drummond, which Robert Gordon will produce. Don’t get excited, it doesn’t even start filming til 2017.