Best of Enemies: Buckley versus Vidal and the inception of split screen debates - Firstpost

Best of Enemies: Buckley versus Vidal and the inception of split screen debates

If you're going to be crazy, you have to get paid for it or else you're going to be locked up.

— Hunter S Thompson

Over the past few years, many across the country have expressed growing concerns over the state of news broadcast, or rather the news “debates” on the national television.

The split screen with anxious and dazed faces, licking lips and drawing breathe just before another stream of insensible words are spat in the general direction of the red eye of the camera has become a norm rather than a morbid exception on the prime time news broadcasts.

Unflinching and relentless, the purpose of the TRP driven “debates” have for long been transformed from a showcase of diverse ideas and viewpoints into a brownie points contest where the only parameter for judgement is the decibel level.

In India, the phenomenon is relatively new. Although in this short span of time, the format has gained wide popularity and nervous acceptance.

Indian news broadcast was never wrinkle free, far from it. But this new unwarranted aggression seeped into our collective nightmares fairly recently.

And this particular nightmare is a product from a foreign imagination. Ask around and the fingers point to the West.

In the ever wild pursuit of differentiating oneself, the Indian news channels took a cue from the States. Well, not just a cue, but the entire package from the likes of the Fox news, a bearer of ridicule itself.

But if yours is a quest to really trace the origins of this unnerving modern day spectacle, the very inception of it, it goes back to the year 1968, or so claims Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s documentary Best of Enemies.

Picture courtesy: 'Best of Enemies' Facebook page

Picture courtesy: 'Best of Enemies' Facebook page

The documentary, five years in the making, recounts the historic debates between William F Buckley and Gore Vidal in 1968.

'68 was the year of Presidential elections in the United States and with television now embedded in most households; the race was on to take the maddening campaign to the masses.

ABC, with the lowest ratings among the news networks, somehow managed to rope in two of the most intellectual minds of the generation for a series of debates. Although Buckley and Vidal’s reputations in political and social circles were well established, only few could have guessed what was in store in the coming days.

To put it plainly, Buckley and Vidal loathed each other. It would have been difficult to find two men so different from one another, although, one characteristic they did share was the pleasure they drew from being public figures. Being cool, comfortable and cocky on television came naturally. Vidal even famously said, “Never lose an opportunity to have sex or be on television.”

A writer and public intellectual, Vidal, represented the Left in the debate. Buckley, an author, commentator, founder of National Review magazine and a conservative, hated everything that the other stood for.

The “celebrity intellectuals” could hardly wait to take on one another.

What Best of Enemies has achieved, on objective parameters at least, is nothing short of a feat. The two directors have managed to gather some incredible footage from the ’68 Campaign, when strung together, resulting in a 1 hour 27 minute documentary without a dull moment.

From Noam Chomsky to Christopher Hitchens, the documentary also features interviews from some the best minds of our generation. But nothing beats the sheer pleasure of watching Vidal and Buckley have a go at each other during the ten debates.

“They don’t make people like Gore Vidal and William F Buckley anymore,” director Neville said in an interview, and perhaps rightly so. As you follow the two in the documentary, it soon becomes apparent that what they are fighting for is not just opposing political ideas but their personal ideologies themselves.

And perhaps this was the reason for what unfolded on 28 August, 1968.

The day has been marred by riots in Chicago after thousands of anti-war demonstrators gathered during the Democratic convention and the police clashed with them.

When the two men met that evening for the seventh debate, what unfolded was unlike anything seen before on prime-time American television.

Vidal batted for the protesters’ “right to assembly”, while Buckley bought up patriotism, lawlessness in the streets and Nazis.

Vidal snapped.

“As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.”

Buckley shot back.

“Now listen, you queer! Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

Lawsuits and counter-lawsuits followed.

This incident, the documentary argues, changed the landscape of news broadcast forever. It set the precedence and we are feeling the ripples to this date.

There would be thousands of phenomenon in the past, both cultural and political, which would factor into our obsession with screaming faces on the television every night, but this is as close as one could get to that one spark, a “tangible” point of no return.

The documentary is a brilliant study of how the concept of domino effect works over history and its often unpredictable consequences.

It ends with a video montage of contemporary news debates. As the clip unfolds, a sense of nausea creeps in. But it also leaves you with a sense of wonder as to how two men, battling it out for their personal ideologies 47 years ago can have such crippling effects at the other side of the planet.

Best of Enemies is now available on Netflix.

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