October 1, 2015
There is no room for cynicism at a Kraftwerk performance. The quartet from Düsseldorf may not play “live,” but they sure put on a hell of a show. The other night they played back-to-back shows featuring a comprehensive set list of their hits at the Gusman Center’s Olympia Theater in Downtown Miami. What’s made this tour like no other in Kraftwerk’s history is that the images projected on the screen behind them are in 3D.
It may have been the trick necessary to finally put the audience’s focus on the music. The shadow of music history sometimes clouds how purely interesting the music of Kraftwerk is. A lot has been made of their contribution to electronic dance music, sampled by everyone from New Order to modern hip-hop artists. But why Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter, the art school duo who started Kraftwerk, became so influential is hardly ever really picked apart by the mainstream media (see something like this for that). To be reductive: It’s in the incessant minimalism that much of their early improvisation veered off into that made their music interesting. It later became a formula for them to perfect, dropping such practical instruments like flute and electric guitars for homemade drum machines.
When the group kicked off the night with “Numbers,” two dudes tried to stay up after the standing ovation in the center part of the orchestra seating. People yelled at them to sit down. “We’re gonna dance, man!” The cold, spare, slowed down take on the Computer Love (1981) track defied such a silly idea, and before the cut took off, the two guys had given up. This was a sit down show where the 3D visuals demanded being soaked in. Everyone wanted a clear view of the visuals, and Kraftwerk immediately delivered. Behind the four gentleman in their signature black grid onesies and their nondescript keyboard/synth/computer podiums, a wall of green undulating numbers waved like a techno sail powering a musical journey that would be like no other.
When representing objects, the digital graphics often looked like something composed on a Comodore 64, an 8-bit computer from the early 1980s, and early on, the images maybe too often focused on literal transcription of the minimalist lyrics sung by Hütter, the only original member of the group that was on stage that night. But that’s also part of Kraftwerk’s shtick: they compose music that also reveals the rough edges of technology. The more primordial, the more revealing. At the same time, it highlights the humanity of their music, from dreams of outer space (“Spacelab”) to the joys of driving toward the horizon (“Autobahn”) to the desire of a simplified human connection (“Computer Love”).
To Hütter’s left was Fritz Hilpert then Henning Schmitz and finally Falk Grieffenhagen, who is largely known as the one responsible for synching the 3D images with the music (see this article). You didn’t really think all four are playing keyboards? (take a look at their setup for a peek behind the curtain). Enough cannot be said about Grieffenhagen’s musical contribution, his shifting of images to the music often garnered the loudest, most ecstatic cheers from the audience. What he does is musical. This is a production, a light show with music digitized from the analog tapes that are manipulated on stage with Hütter, who co-wrote most of these songs, doing most of the musical lifting, playing melodies on a keyboard and often singing through the filter of a vocoder that makes his voice sound robotic to meld with the mechanical music. Kraftwerk have no pretense when it comes to what they do. Even the spaceship dashboard of “Spacelab” has a cheap graphic of a reel to reel. The analog is digital. That’s Kraftwerk.
Speaking of “Spacelab,” that was a genuine highlight of the show. On several occasions the spacelab came hurtling through the giant screen and many members of the audience could not help from reaching out to see if they could touch it. In a wry bit of pandering there was also a map on-screen during “Spacelab,” highlighting Miami with a marker, and another image closing the song showing the outside of the venue with a digital UFO touching down outside.
Kraftwerk indeed wanted to take the audience on a virtual journey, and the simple graphics and the cheap paper 3D glasses did the trick. During “Autobahn,” the quartet looked like a group of dashboard ornaments cruising the digitized version of the 1974 album art. They also did the complete 20-plus minute track, which prompted several moments of applause from members of the audience who thought the song had finished already. But it was never a dull track, even without Schneider’s original flute bits. There were cuts to an old time in-dash radio that emitted floating musical notes that got cheers, and the teases of the motorik rhythms that came and went were ebullient.
This was a show to get lost in the ethos of what is Kraftwerk. They don’t need new music (they haven’t released an album since 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks). They have perfected what they are, keeping a staid catalog alive with this reinvented vision (no wonder Hütter wants to see the group’s catalog reissued on blu-ray with 3D functionality). Even if they couldn’t dance, the audience released themselves to the vision of Kraftwerk, and it was even easy for this cynic who prefers the organic surprises of real instruments.
The tour continues thus:
October 2 Electric Factory, Philadelphia, PA
October 3 Wang Theatre, Boston, MA
October 5 Masonic Temple Theatre, Detroit, MI
October 7 Northrop, Minneapolis, MN
October 9 Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, Kansas City, MO
Kraftwerk then head to Europe in November. To see all those dates, visit this link: kraftwerk.com/concerts. You can also purchase tickets for the remaining U.S. dates and Europe via that same link.
The Goldenvoice invited Independent Ethos to the 8 p.m. concert for the purpose of this review. They also provided the images used to illustrate this post. All photos are copyright Peter Boettcher for Kraftwerk except the glasses and ticket; that’s the writer’s.
September 25, 2015
It has been 20 years since I first reviewed David Bowie’s 1. Outside, which first saw official release on Sept. 25, 1995 in the U.K. (I believe it came out the following day in the U.S.). I was pretty critical about the album upon its release, and I have since grown to appreciate it more. It’s still not a perfect album, but what was hard for me to swallow was the ornate quality of much of the music, compared to his previous, lesser known album the soundtrack for The BBC television mini-series The Buddha of Suburbia. Released in late 1993 and only the U.K., mostly hardcore Bowie fans heard this album, which neatly bridges Black Tie White Noise, which came out earlier that same year, and 1. Outside.
Buddha was a rapidly produced album (Bowie has said it took him six days to write and record) with the only musicians besides Bowie being multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay, pianist Mike Garson and, on one song each, Lenny Kravitz and a little known-UK group called 3D Echo. It recalled such high points as 1974’s Diamond Dogs, which saw Bowie playing most of the instruments, and 1976’s Station To Station, another quickly produced album. It also had instrumental pieces that sounded like the work he did with Brian Eno in Berlin for 1977’s Low and “Heroes.” The few songs on the album were quirky yet catchy, not unlike the songs off Low. Bowie actually reworked one of the Buddha songs, “Strangers When We Meet,” for 1. Outside, and it’s still a high point of the album.
The thing about Buddha that stands out from its bookends is how forward moving it feels without the self-consciousness of the other records. The influences of New Jack Swing in the Black Tie and industrial music for 1. Outside, not to mention this reach to bring back Eno for 1. Outside feel ham-fisted by comparison. To top it off, 1. Outside was driven by an ultra-high concept. It was supposed to be the first album of a trilogy that Bowie never completed (hence the “1.”). It also was meant as a testament to the turn of the millennium that looked back to the turn of the 20th century. When I wrote the review for 1. Outside, I happened to have been working on an independent study in college focused on late 1910s Italian Futurism, and some references in the album made an allusion to the art movement, which seemed perfect to kick off my review.
All these years later, I think it’s a better album than I originally gave it credit for. Many of the songs are counter-intuitively constructed, defying pop music conventions. They needed many repeat listens to grow accustomed to. In those days, music critics were more often than not given cassettes to review albums. I still have my copy. It was not easy to go back and forth and give particular tracks or moments closer listens with a tape, as opposed to the mp3s we get now.
These songs are complex and the album is one of Bowie’s most conceptual works in a long time. These tracks were also created organically during jam sessions among the musicians. There was also much hype about Bowie’s reunion with Eno, who worked with Bowie and the band in the studio, even co-writing some of the songs, like he did on those important albums Bowie released in the late ’70s. Just a few years prior to 1. Outside‘s release those albums had been reissued by Rykodisc, and the hype, as always, was that Bowie collaborated with Eno on them. Eno’s name was as big as Bowie’s on the promo material (note the cover art of the promo-only CD sampler for their reissue above).
There are many factors that cloud our perceptions as critics. We try to absorb the art in a personal vacuum, but history, personal experience, maturity and more often slip through the filter. The fact is, I was still a college undergrad when I wrote the review below, and I feel I short-changed some credit to the genius of Bowie at the time. Though much older than when he broke barriers in the ’70s, from Ziggy Stardust to the Eno trilogy, he continued to plow new creative ground in the 1990s, and it was a challenge to absorb such an experimental and progressive album as 1. Outside after Black Tie White Noise and Buddha of Suburbia, not to mention the end of the straight-forward rock ‘n’ roll side project Tin Machine.
Below you will find my original thoughts on the album. With hindsight, I would raise the rating by a whole additional star, as I have grown to appreciate the album much more since its release.
DAVID BOWIE – OUTSIDE
Virgin: * * * (out of 5)
by HANS MORGENSTERN
Filippo Marinetti wrote the first Futurist manifesto in 1909, telling us to never look back. He preached the importance of war as a cleanser and called for the destruction of all libraries and museums. Through this campaign the futurists would allow for the creation of art in its purest form, uninhibited and uninspired by the past, an immaculate representation of the current spirit of the times.
Outside, David Bowie’s first concept album since 1974’s Diamond Dogs, explores art gone to the extreme in the not-so-distant future. It’s December 31, 1999, and self-mutilating performance art, like Chris Burden’s nude crucifixion on the top of a Volkswagen van, has become passe. In a twisted move to take shocking performance art to another level, someone has decided to dismember a 14-year-old girl and “creatively” put her body parts back together, leaving “the work” at The Museum of Modern Parts.
Outside‘s story is hard to decipher as it is the first part in a trilogy that will make up the complete diaries of Nathan Adler by 1999. All the listener really gets is the murder of Baby Grace Blue under investigation by the art-crime detective/professor Nathan Adler and a list of suspects that could include a “tyrannical” futurist suffering a mid-life crisis and the man who fell back to earth, Major Tom.
As far as the musical pacing goes, the album takes awhile to get to any outstanding tracks. The first real interesting song, both lyrically and musically, is the sixth track, “Hallo Spaceboy,” sprinkled with subtle references to Major Tom, Bowie’s subject in 1969’s “Space Oddity” and 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes.” The music, co-written by Brian Eno, deftly connotes a rocket tearing through the Earth’s atmosphere as if Major Tom might actually be plunging back to Earth. The stomping booms of Sterling Campbell’s drum kit seem to echo off electronic walls of murmuring voices from ground control as Reeves Gabrels’ angular guitar riffing melts into saxophone-like honks.
Throughout Outside the production by Bowie and Eno has a futuristic metallic shine. The opening track, “Leon Takes Us Outside,” starts with a bunch of murmurs lost in an ambient wash of noise and then bursts into “Outside,” a cut that features each instrument gleaming with its own sound. The scarcity of reverb makes each string on Bowie’s acoustic guitar ring with its own separate note.
Besides slick production, Bowie and Eno, muffle the instruments on some tracks to get a dirty, industrial sound that seems influenced by Nine Inch Nail’s Downward Spiral. “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” buzzes with NIN influences, but with Bowie’s voice mixed so high above the murmuring instruments, the song makes for a weak industrial experience.
The music is at its best when its subtle and angular, coming at you with strange constructions that make for surprising listens. It makes perfect sense that Gabrels and pianist Mike Garson slip into a ska-like jam toward the end of the pounding “Hallo Spaceboy.”
Bowie and Eno worked together in the late ’70s, one of Bowie’s most prolific periods spawning the albums Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. They threw a lot of pop conventions out the window and created an avant-garde pop styling. They use this styling in Outside to reflect Bowie’s theme of art struggling to be creative. Bowie echoes the feelings toward 1920’s modernism, the parent of futurism, in lines like “There is no hell” and “We’re swimming in a sea of sham” in “The Motel.”
With Outside, Bowie sometimes falls through the trap doors of creating something new for the sake of creating something new, leaving the listener wondering if this album isn’t all a sham. One has to sit through about half an album’s worth of failed attempts at creativity that sound either like rip-offs or dull failures to get to anything ground-breaking. Overall, songs like “We Prick You” and “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town” are worth the tedium.
September 23, 2015
This article was initially posted earlier this month. A new film was recently added to the line-up of Miami International Film Festival’s “Gems” mini-film fest. Now, 15 films will show as part of the four-day film festival. Read the up-date and watch the trailer below …
Originally posted on Independent Ethos:
Before we get to the titles, let’s get some confusion out of the way: Last year, Miami-Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, gave South Florida a weekend-long taste of what the festival does half-way to its full-blown festival. They called it “MIFFecito,” a play on the festival’s acronym and the Cuban word for its native version of Espresso, cafecito. The festival unfolded exclusively in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood at the area’s MDC-operated Tower Theater. It was supposed to be a one-off affair, but earlier this year, the fest decided to bring it back, this time calling it “Gems,” for the quality of world cinema it sought to premiere in the area but couldn’t bring to its regular festival, mostly due to scheduling. (The MIFFecito brand has since been re-purposed by fest organizers for the name of an animated short film festival for children coming very soon to the Freedom Tower
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September 19, 2015
An awakening of female sensuality and passion are at the core of Mélanie Laurent’s second film Breathe (Respire). Rather than exploiting the familiar coming of age narrative, Laurent explores characters that have depth and lets them evolve slowly. Breathe tells the story of Charlie (Joséphine Japy), a seemingly average suburban teenager who lives with her mother. Charlie goes to school where she has a suitor and a small but consistent group of friends and has, for the most part, a quiet life. The one source of tension for Charlie is the on and off relationship her parents have. A child of a very young couple (her mother had her at 18), Charlie witnesses the turmoil between her father, who is not committed to the relationship, and her mother, who loves her father too deeply, even painfully.
Charlie’s life is unexpectedly changed when a new girl joins the school. Sarah (Lou de Laâge) is beautiful, confident, filled with energy and appears to have taken to plain Charlie in a special way. The relationship between the two high school girls develops fast and soon Charlie becomes enthralled by Sarah. The two go everywhere together and Sarah gives Charlie her undivided attention, prompting her to find a side of herself she was unaware of. However, Sarah has also inserted herself into Charlie’s life in a pernicious way; jealous of the close bond that Charlie and her mother share, Sarah tries to elicit a close bond with Charlie’s mother. Sara also is aware of who Charlie’s closest friends are, and in a slow but persistent way, she creates a wedge between Charlie and her friends. The relationship goes from a deep friendship into a complicated entangled affair.
When Charlie takes Sarah on a family vacation, the relationship between them deepens. It goes from elated joy and a sort of closeness seldom achieved by best friends to a toxic relationship where Sarah seems to delight in seeing Charlie being hurt, while also drawing her closer in. This sick dynamic culminates when Charlie — jealous and worried — confronts Sarah one late night as she arrives after a night out. Sarah responds by seducing Charlie and passionately kissing her. From this point on, the relationship deepens in macabre ways.
As shy Charlie becomes obsessed with Sarah, her own identity suffers and wanes. She uncovers a secret Charlie has been hiding, and when she approaches Sarah to talk about it, hoping this will make them closer again, Sarah goes into a rage and unleashes a campaign against Charlie. At school, Charlie becomes the object of Sarah’s rage. She is unable to fight back, as she still garners hopes to recoup that lost friendship.
The action centers around different kinds of women, it is not only a coming of age for Charlie, but also an interesting take on her mother, who has been deeply involved in regaining her father for years but throughout the course of the film finds herself renewed. As Simone de Beauvoir once posited, “One is not born but rather becomes a woman,” meaning the lived body, carrying experiences and a unique socioeconomic imprint, an identity gradually acquired.
In Breathe, Charlie is in the process of becoming a woman, that identity partly learned from an example at home and partly due to external stimuli represents the shift in Charlie’s personality. While the end may seem a shocking development, it is also an instance of becoming a woman. The process of evolving and becoming a woman is not a simple or linear trajectory, as Beauvoir reminds us, it is charged with contextual and cultural meaning. In Charlie’s microcosm it is also the result of the lived experience at home, where the one relationship that has molded her persona is ridden with rejection and suffering.
Breathe runs 91 minutes long, is in French with English subtitles and it is not rated (there is adult language, sexuality and violence on an array of levels). It’s now playing in our South Florida area exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters. On Oct. 2, it begins its run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screening dates in other cities, visit this link. All images in this post courtesy of Film Movement, which also provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.
September 18, 2015
Black Mass has a big issue. It’s the celebrated face of lead actor Johnny Depp. The problem comes from Depp’s prolonged gimmick of using makeup as a pathway into his performances for both himself and the sake of audience appeal. His version of real-life Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger is ultimately no different from his versions of Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (and probably its upcoming sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass). All come across as makeup on a famous actor’s face.
Reportedly, Depp stayed in character as Bulger between takes. “By the end of filming I’d spent more time with Whitey Bulger than I’d spent with Johnny,” said co-star Joel Edgerton to “Entertainment Weekly.” While one should appreciate the dedication of the method approach to acting, this kind of reporting is one more bit of hype to a little understood acting style that is too often made mythic. It becomes less about the performance and more about the actor. As Depp tries to disappear into the role, his technique overshadows it.
Depp is also the sum of what has come to be his seeming gimmick: flashy makeup that makes each role he plays a caricature. As Bulger, Depp uses blue contact lenses, a dead browned front tooth and harshly combed back thin, grey hair to look the part. While it works all right for the cartoonish movies of Tim Burton or the Pirates films, it can be problematic for a movie based on a real person who committed horrific acts. As a kind of caricature, it sanitizes the real crimes, including murder, committed by this man.
Black Mass is supposed to be a menacing depiction of a real-life psychopathic crime boss currently serving two life sentences plus five years at a maximum security prison. It was only a few years ago that the FBI finally caught up with Bulger, who had been lying low in California. Agents ambushed him in a Santa Monica apartment parking garage. This was only in 2011, and I remember when the news broke like it was yesterday. Now Hollywood has come with its adaptation and of course a peculiarly romantic account for his cruelty (he lost his only son at a young age and his mother died). This rationalization is practically spelled out before he commits one of his most heinous acts. It’s an odd step in character illustration that is supposed to illicit empathy while also showing what a psycho Bulger was.
Director Scott Cooper does a fine job stitching together an intriguing story of Boston corruption that allowed Bulger to thrive for as long as 20 years before he disappeared, becoming one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives. Both Bulger’s younger brother, State Senator William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch adding one more layer of distraction with an accent that struggles to sound Bostonian) and his old playground mate now FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton). Despite its two-hour-plus running time, it covers a lot of ground without feeling like a montage or losing its momentum.
Ultimately, it’s just too difficult to forgive the glamorization of Bulger in this movie, a star vehicle that romanticizes a monster. The filmmakers attempts at presenting Bulger as a mean-spirited menace falls out of whack with his presentation as a victim of circumstance. To top it off, the authorities come across as inept until the film’s tidy epilogue (the appearance of a limply mustachioed Adam Scott as an FBI agent suspicious of Connolly’s connection to Bulger feels like an unintended joke). Supporting characters either simmer with bitterness, tremor in fear of Bulger or mindlessly follow Bulger. And then there’s the sentimental bit of pop psychology about his son and mom. Black Mass is ultimately a failure in all of its self-consciousness in making a rather horrific story a bit of Hollywood entertainment, not to mention a self-serious film reaching for awards and accolades I doubt it will snag.
Black Mass runs 122 minutes and is rated R (it’s violent). It opens in wide release this Friday, Sept. 17. All images are courtesy of Warner Bros., who hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
From the Archives: Reliving Red House Painters live in 1997 in St. Petersburg, Florida; stream it here
September 15, 2015
Full disclosure: Mark Kozelek blew off a scheduled interview to my face the night after this concert. Still, I don’t take my taste for his music personally. I kinda knew he could be rude after this show in St. Petersburg, Florida. At one point he shared his hotel room details on stage because he’s “on the prowl now.” At another point he told a fan, “I’ll fuckin’ choke you with this Flying V.” Despite all that, this show at the State Theater, on Nov. 21, 1997 is one of my fondest remembered live shows. His Name is Alive opened it, and I met with them at sound check (they were way friendlier). I’ll never forget the long row of varied guitars lined up backstage for Red House Painters. There must have been 40 to 50 of them, including that Gibson Flying V. Reportedly, all had their own tuning for various songs, depending on what Kozelek would feel like playing that night.
My interview with His Name Is Alive was for “Goldmine,” which they got a kick out of: an obscure alt-rock band — whose biggest hit played on MTV’s weekly alternative late-night show “120 Minutes” — profiled in a stodgy record collector’s magazine. The Red House Painters interview would have been for “JAM Entertainment News,” a statewide Florida ‘zine. It could be Kozelek wasn’t impressed with the opening act going into the national publication, or he just didn’t feel like talking about his music (he denied we had the appointment, even though his PR company would express their frustration to me about him, as if he had done this before). Who knows? I don’t care much about it at this point. This has become my fun Kozelek anecdote from back in the day.
What matters is that his music still holds up, and I was really pleased to see 4AD recently reissue its entire RHP catalog on vinyl (I picked it all up). Most recently, I was digging through some of my old cassettes and found a decent quality audience recording of RHP’s performance from the night before I was supposed to sit down and talk to Kozelek in Orlando. This was the first of two dates in a Central Florida tour in support of Songs For a Blue Guitar.
One of the things that make the Red House Painters live so interesting is how they reinterpret their original recordings. Live, the songs often change a lot, and often for the better. Take this night’s version of “Grace Cathedral Park.” Kozelek’s voice is sadder than on the record. He sings each line with a yearning, which is more powerful than the wistful reserve on the record. Even the guitar line has changed. On the record, it’s a dreamy, strummed affair, but live, it’s a rambling, hypnotic hook in a minor key. “Evil,” despite Kozelek double-timing the vocals, is as intense as ever because of the song’s crawling tempo and dynamics. A change halfway through, where Kozelek groans out wordless vocals that crescendo from a mutter to a siren’s howl, is remarkable in its stripped down, hypnotic drone rock mastery.
Despite a terrific version of “Evil,” the highlight of the night wasn’t familiar songs, but a brand new track he didn’t even name. He only introduced it by saying, “We’re gonna play a couple of new songs.” Then he played some dreamy chords, awash in a watery effect. In my notes I called it, “You Are My Everything” based on the refrain before the song took a turn during an explosive jam before clamoring into a lower gear and settling back to its beautiful, familiar chords. The part returned with an extra bit of guitar solo on top for a brief moment. I wanted it to go on longer. It was heartrendingly gorgeous. It would later be re-worked (in my opinion, to its detriment) into “Michigan,” on the band’s follow-up album, Old Ramon. It’s so amazing that I have isolated it as an mp3 for download:
But, if you want hear (most) of the show as it unfolded, you can stream it below in two parts that I’ve uploaded to YouTube. It was recorded with a handheld cassette recorder on a 100 minute Maxell XLII-S cassette. The tape was not long enough to capture the entire show. “Lord, Kill the Pain” was cut short on Side A and “I Feel the Rain Fall” was cut short on Side B. I faded out both before the harsh cuts. By the end of Side B, the band hadn’t even gotten to their encore. As for the sound quality, it’s an audience recording, so there’s not much dynamics. I messed with the amplification a bit in Audicity, which helped. There’s also some tape hiss, but the audience stayed quiet for much of the show (there is some unfortunate restless muttering during the quieter parts of the new songs). In the end, it’s a good historic snapshot of where the band was between what would be their final two albums, Songs For a Blue Guitar and Old Ramon. They actually played three songs that would end up on Old Ramon, which only saw official release in 2001 via Sub Pop Records. Here’s the set list:
“Albuquerque” (Neil Young cover)
“Grace Cathedral Park”
“Lord, Kill the Pain” (cut)
“I Feel the Rain Fall” (cut)
And now the show:
Images courtesy Island Records.
September 5, 2015
A masterfully crafted documentary, Best of Enemies uses humor, an intense devotion to archival footage and ultimately, a perspective that looks beyond its subjects to show how wrong we currently treat opposing views. The evidence is all over cable news today: pundits brought in to discuss everything from the state of police relations with the public to what happened on the MTV Music Awards the other night. Is there ever any enlightenment to be had that might actually bring substantive social change?
Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, two documentary filmmakers with most of their experience in covering popular music history, posit that there is not. Something was lost sometime in the late 1960s during a televised debate between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. Buckley, the right-wing conservative, and Vidal, the left-wing liberal, were hired by ABC News to provide commentary on the 1968 Republican convention in Miami Beach. Both the epitome of opposing intellects instead tore into each others ideals with hardly a true insight into the candidates, and it made for great television. By the time of that year’s Democratic convention in Chicago, ABC, once the lagging third place (and third-rate) network of the only three on commercial television blew away the competition of CBS and NBC. The impact of Gore and Buckley’s vitriolic debates changed news forever.
Best of Enemies spends a good amount of time dwelling on the two men and how they became stars of their political scene based on their writings and television appearances. Buckley, we learn in this film, enjoyed dismantling arguments to win them. In the same way, we learn, Vidal took pride in his intense research, in turn using his opponent’s language against him. Both thought their country was in a state of decline and blamed the ideas of the other. They also both ran for political office and failed. And even though both were born in New York, they spoke with affected English accents: the mark of the intellectual.
Early in the film, it’s fun to watch such men trade barbs. Low blows were not uncommon, and the filmmakers share some choice moments. In Chicago, however, the tone shifts, and inter-cutting footage of police crackdowns on protesters with the pundits’ debating, you get the uneasy sense of social breakdown. Couple that with what seems to be Vidal’s quest to break Buckley’s cool demeanor, and an intense suspense seems to build. Indeed it blows up in what was then startling fashion, and you get a sense that the two men will never be the same… nor, for that matter, TV news.
Gordon and Neville stick to using graphics from the era to enhance the archival footage, which often features sweeping shots of static images to add dynamism. They even kick off the film with the bubbling electronic music of Raymond Scott, a retro representation of the future (though it sounds incredibly dated and quaint now). It genuinely feels as though you are watching a document of that era. The only new footage is that of the talking heads, including Dick Cavett and Buckley’s brother Reid Buckley, who offer current perspective on a past that blew everyone who watched television news away (even though they had no idea what a change it would cause).
The filmmakers, though, save their kicker for the end, where both Vidal and Buckley, in a pair of brief clips produced not long after these debates, denounce the idea of debate on TV newscasts for a few minutes at a time while the end credits roll. This is when we also first see current images of modern political conventions, and someone talks about the divide of people who no longer listen to each other. Though of course Gore and Buckley do not deserve all the credit, this documentary allows for a lesson to the present (just check out today’s concerns with the “filter bubble”). Never has the sign of a TV screen cooling off after powering down had more resonance. It’s time to listen again.
Best of Enemies runs 87 minutes and is rated R (some intense language and possibly vintage nudity). It opened exclusively in our Miami area yesterday, Sept. 4 at Coral Gables Art Cinema. The film premiered in Miami at the Miami International Film Festival. It’s opening now in other cities across the U.S. Check out this link for dates and theaters. All images in this post are courtesy of Magnolia Pictures who also provided a screener DVD for the purpose of this review.