Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW SPECIAL: DOCUMENTARIES!!

BEST OF ENEMIES • LISTEN TO ME MARLON

 


It’s a big week for documentaries! Although showing on perhaps only one screen within a multiplex theatre and in specialty theatres like The Landmark which cater to these indie gems, each of this week’s documentaries are more than worth your attention. Informative, educational, eye-opening and entertaining, all are high on my “Must See” list for the year.

BEST OF ENEMIES

The 1968 presidential race forever changed the way television would provide election coverage; not to mention saving a lagging news department at ABC. Dead last in the ratings and unable to provide continuous gavel-to-gavel coverage of both the Democratic and Republicans, ABC struck on an idea that, while ludicrous to some, turned out to be one of the greatest Hail Marys in television news - pit the ultra-conservative and extremely well known and well spoken William F. Buckley, Jr. against the outspoken liberal Gore Vidal in what was supposed to be a 90-minute recap of the day’s events at the convention with a discussion on the issues at the center of the candidates’ platforms. What resulted were debates more contentious, more vitriolic, more provocative and more entertaining that anything we have seen on television since. Now, co-directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon take the 1968 ABC footage along with newsreels and images of the day, supplement the archives with interviews of noted individuals present at the time, and create a fascinating look not only into this chapter of history, but into the driving forces behind Buckley and Vidal and their disdain for each other.

While I vividly remember those nightly “discussions” (and even at age 10 was enthralled by them), many do not or weren’t even born yet. Now is their chance to see vitriolic verbal sparring at its finest. Forget about the presidential debates we see today, or political and news pundits shooting fiery barbs, Buckley and Vidal go jab for jab for 15 rounds, trying to send each other to the mat.

For myself, and many contemporaries, this was really our first big introduction into politics, debating and the power of words and style; my introduction to the terms "vitriole", "rhetoric" and "erudite" (still favorite words of mine today). I was enamored with Gore Vidal's technique and to this day remember him stepping on and talking over Buckley in order to make his voice and point heard. But I also learned about preparation and didn't realize just how much until watching BEST OF ENEMIES as Neville and Gordon take us "behind the scenes" with reflective commentary on Vidal's preparation with the resulting benefits of the element of surprise, and then a counter response from Buckley employing the same techniques. Neville and Gordon show us the true mastery of verbal choreography.

BEST OF ENEMIES is really the first time all of the puzzle pieces have been brought together, almost as if Neville and Gordon relish the chance to show today’s generation the intellectualism and stylized rhetoric which once permeated politics and news. But what we also see is not only how politics and campaigning changed with the ‘68 elections thanks to these debates, but the social implications of their impact on television and society as a whole.

The cogency and clarity in the construction of the documentary sheds a bright light not only on Vidal and Buckley as individuals and their respective places in history for the young and uninitiated, but puts a mirror to our own current obsession with manipulation of news. This is an origin story in the truest sense of the word; the birth of interpretive news using the television medium, something far more powerful than the print days of Hearst and "yellow journalism." With the visual analysis of the debates as presented in BEST OF ENEMIES, we see obfuscation in all its glory as Buckley and Vidal rarely ever addressed the issues or events happening during the conventions. Their gamesmanship became the focus with politics taking a backseat. If there was ever a doubt that ‘68 was a political turning point for America, one look at BEST OF ENEMIES is all it takes to watch it all unfold. We are given the chance to step back and observe and remove ourselves from the immediacy of the moment, and hopefully reflect on the past and understand the present and make changes for the future.

The narrative design of BEST OF ENEMIES is well constructed, giving us lengthier excerpts and information with the first debate as a means to set the stage for what would unfold and thus permit more varied content without feeling time pressured in the editing bay. Non-debate news footage and newspaper images keep us well informed as to the heat of the day and mindset of the country. Off-camera narration by John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer of actual writings of Vidal and Buckley, respectively, is too appropriately delicious for words.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and thanks to ABC's desperation, the world of television, news and politics changed forever. The chance to bear witness to that through BEST OF ENEMIES is not to be missed. Electrifying bloodsport at its finest.

LISTEN TO ME MARLON

In addition to being one of the greatest, if not the greatest actor of the 20th Century, Marlon Brando was one of the most enigmatic individuals of our time. He was also one of the most private. As the 10th anniversary of his death approached, the Brando Estate wanted to do something special to commemorate Marlon Brando and keep his legacy alive. Cataloguing and archiving of Brando’s personal possessions which had been in storage for a decade began and an idea of a documentary began to take shape. Enter writer/director/editor/documentarian Stevan Riley.

While Riley went into research mode to develop a “pitch” for the documentary, archiving uncovered a treasure trove of riches. While Riley was aware there were a few audiotapes made by Brando, what he didn’t realize, what no one realized was that there were over 300 hours of audiotapes made by Brando himself. Riley’s documentary emerged - a film told in Brando’s own voice, own words. Brando would, in essence, come back from the grave.

As Riley related to me, one of the first tapes he listed to “was a self-hypnosis tape. Quite by accident. It was unbelievable. When I listened to it, I thought, ‘Oh my God. This is beyond private.’ and it felt a bit strange listening to it because I felt like I was really intruding. . .I tried to treat it with as much sensitivity as possible, but it was interesting just to hear his own dialogue with himself. He talked about trust a lot - ‘You can trust me. This is a voice you can trust. I have your interests at heart.’ It was almost like he just felt that no one else had his interests at heart and he could trust himself.” And it is from Brando’s own lips during one of these self-hypnosis sessions that the very title of this documentary comes - LISTEN TO ME MARLON.

A believer in self-hypnosis, many of the recordings were of his sessions with himself, others were thoughts, ruminations. Kinescopes, found-footage and behind-the-scenes photos and film clips, promotional materials, were all meticulously saved. Photos of his youth and that of happy days with his young children and his once beloved Tahiti were discovered. It was clear that Brando did intend, as we hear many times throughout the film, to create his autobiography both in print and in film. Riley weaves all into a compelling narrative that is also punctuated with clips of Brando’s most famous, and not so famous, films as well as news reports of the tragedies that befell him in the 90's.

We hear first-hand Brando’s admissions of fault, of bad decisions, of his reverence for the craft and art of acting but his disdain for the greed and business aspect of it. We even hear him speak of his reasons for taking certain jobs later in life - he needed a paycheck. We hear and feel the complexity of a tortured soul, his preoccupation with good and evil and the pain over his own childhood and that of his children. He bares his insecurities and fears. We also hear his compassion for others and for civil rights. And hearing Brando speak, we understand. It is a cruel irony that all the things that fascinated him would then afflict him.

But we also see Brando. Thanks to his own prescience, in the 1980's he hired VFX wizard Scott Billups to computerize his face and head believing that, “One day an actor will just be put into the computer screen.” Although created on an outdated program called Cyberware, Passion Pictures (production company of LISTEN TO ME MARLON), was able to crack the coding and then working again with Billups and others, do a 3D version of Brando’s face and head adding in motion capture for facial movement so it appears as if Brando - in a haunting white digitized format - is speaking the very words we are hearing. Brilliant design on the part of Riley.

Adding even more depth and texture to the unfolding tapestry, Riley reconstructed Brando’s Mulholland Drive home (now razed) on a London sound stage, complete with the decor and items from Brando’s storage. With a fluidity of camera traversing through the house as we hear Brando speak, the result is both haunting and ethereal. Riley, who also edits the film, does a superb job with the visual elements in corresponding imagery with the audiotapes. The film also has a flow and pacing that matches the cadence of Brando’s speech pattern, completing the immersion.

Marlon Brando once made a statement that he would “not invite the American public into my soul.” He does just that with his performances on screen and with his audiotapes we are now privy to hear. A documentary as masterful and complex as Brando himself, LISTEN TO ME MARLON is the ultimate Brando on Brando.

 

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