Watching Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, I was struck by the thought (and not for the first time, mind) that it’s all a bit of a charade. I suppose the point is to put the Prime Minister under pressure to explain his actions and be held accountable for the actions of his party. But it’s really not like that at all (despite Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to change the format). There were plenty of cheers and boos. It’s pantomime. And I’m not sure that any of the questions asked actually got answered.
These sort of political theatrics are what we have come to expect in UK politics. But how did we end up in this farcical situation? What has television done to the way we discuss politics in our democracy today? These were the questions that we explored through a brilliant film and post-screening analysis, courtesy of Comrade Helen. Our heated discussion was fuelled by some brilliant Clapham fish-ner-chips, and the gripping documentary Best of Enemies.
Best of Enemies focuses on the explosive televised debates between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley, and their rancorous disagreements about politics, God and sex. Whilst having evolved in content and structure, the debates featured in the film are perhaps the origins of the more sanitised and polished televised leaders’ debates that we have to suffer nowadays in the UK, in particular before an election.
2015 has been a bumper year in MNFC for quality documentary screening, and it is of interest to compare Best of Enemies to Etre et Avoir and Tabloid (both seen this year); not to mention King of Kong and The Act of Killing. Within these MNFC documentaries alone, you can see how varied the filming and editing techniques can be in telling ‘true’ stories. With it’s use of archive television footage and interviews with key figures, Best of Enemies creates a thrilling narrative and we spent the evening shocked at some of the outrageous comments we witnessed, entertained by the witty repartee of the protagonists, and thoughtfully provoked into reflecting on the events that formed a background to the film such as the American Civil Rights Movement.
Vidal and Buckley clashed on numerous issues during the televised debates at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The differences in both their political ideologies and their personalities was laid open in discussions that proved very entertaining to the viewer. Whilst these days politicians tend to tread carefully with measured sound-bites and an attempt to evoke mass-appeal, Vidal and Buckley weren’t afraid to voice their extreme opinions with candid attitude. However, as we discussed afterwards, perhaps these debates were equally as vacuous as the ones we see today. Buckley and Vidal actually were using lots of pre-prepared one-liners and put-downs, concentrating on unsettling and belittling the opponent rather than actually explaining matters of substance. Of course, that is only what we witnessed within the confines of the documentary editing, and it would be of interest to view the whole debates (which can be seen here).
It is interesting to read The Guardian’s view of the “Lost Heart of the Political Debate” with reference to the Buckley vs Vidal clash. Also this Smithsonian article which compares political debate then to now, with reference to the first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon. The BBC has also considered the evolution of the TV political debate, which you can read by clicking here. Meanwhile, other commentators describe how these clashes heralded the downfall of meaningful debate. Just like politics itself, opinions on this matter are somewhat divided. The Telegraph states “Sick of Katie Hopkins? Blame Gore Vidal”.
I would recommend reading the obituaries of both Vidal and Buckley to see their varied and distinguished career paths that developed following the events we saw in Best of Enemies. In particular Gore Vidal, who has appeared on The Simpsons, Da Ali G Show (or was that Vidal Sassoon?), and whose life is documented in the film The United States of Amnesia. Vidal also penned the screenplay for the roman epic Caligula, perhaps one for a future MNFC, watch this space!
And so where has all this left us in 2015? Well, I wonder what both Vidal and Buckley would have thought about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Sigh. I suppose MNFC “is not a democracy” for a good reason. But thanks to the brilliant Bad Lip Reading YouTube channel, we have this brilliant take on it all: a political debate consisting of more substance and meaning than the original!
So film fans, until the next time, when the dark side of MNFC creeps from the beyond, and we present our Demon-ocracy 2015.
Half of the American People have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is it the same half. – Gore Vidal