There’s just one day to go now. Daytime subscribers saw three films today, and we’ll be seeing three more tomorrow. Today was a bit of a rollercoaster, with some small films really impressing me and some major films really letting me down. It’s pretty much all competition films from here until the end of the festival, but we had time for one last documentary this morning.
They saved a truly entertaining documentary for last. BEST OF ENEMIES explores the long-running rivalry between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr., two of the most eloquent and wittiest men of their time. The two intellectually represented the political left (Vidal) and the right (Buckley). The film focuses on their most public grudge match, a series of debates presented on a then-failing ABC as part of an alternate method of election coverage in the 1960s. These debates are genuinely vicious, with the two pundits attacking each other personally more than tackling the policies of either party. Each debate is introduced with the ring of a boxing bell, which is completely appropriate. The debates became a sensation with the public, single-handedly improving the viewership of ABC, and it is no wonder. It is a joy to hear these men speak.
The pair is so well-spoken, so well-educated and so well-informed that it’s utterly compelling to see them at each other’s throats. The film compares these debates with the currently popular 8-way screaming matches seen of Fox News, making us weep for the current state of political journalism. This film is a real treasure, both for the presentation of the original debate footage, but for its real insight on the toll they ended up taking on both men. We’re used to seeing friendly competition or even disagreements on television, but these two men genuinely hated each other until the day they died. The film was co-directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. Neville won the Best Documentary Oscar for his TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM, and I think this is a better movie than that one.
I also enjoyed Sean Baker’s competition entry TANGERINE, which follows the lives of a group of African-American transgender sex workers. It goes without saying that this is a group which has hardly even been explored on film, and TANGERINE throws the audience into their subculture headfirst. There’s a lot of extravagance to these characters, who are fun to watch, but seem like they’d be a nightmare to be stuck on a bus with. Several side characters have that exact pleasure, as Sin-Dee drags a bedraggled blonde woman across town, loudly shouting about exactly who has cheated on whose boyfriend.
There’s a manic energy to the film, with the blaring electronic score pushing the action along at a high pace. Baker’s film isn’t content to explore just one barely seen culture, and we spend a good deal of time with an Albanian taxi driver with a crush on Sin-Dee (yes, another taxi movie in the competition) and his family, who are just trying to have a nice Christmas Eve dinner, but find their way into the middle of the mayhem. It’s an enjoyable film which brings under-represented groups to the fore, and it’s made more impressive with the knowledge that is was shot entirely on an iPhone. This means the footage is grainier than was strictly necessary, but the freedom of movement leads to a strong fluidity in the shot choices. TANGERINE isn’t one of the best films in the competition, but it’s well worth a look.
I’m a little reluctant to speak too much about ARABIAN NIGHTS today. Subscribers saw the first of three films, VOLUME 1: THE RESTLESS ONE today, and will be seeing the remaining two films tomorrow as the final two films in the subscription. On paper, Miguel Gomes’ film explores recent economic trouble and new events in Portugal by presenting them as new tales from the ancient story collection, as told by Scheherezade to the King to prolong her life. In theory, this leads to a bizarre mix of Arabian costuming and fantasy story structure with specific references to Portugal. In practice, only the first of three stories found in part one follows this format, with the other two proving more or less completely inscrutable to me. There are some interesting interviews in the third story, where people affected by the economic crisis detail the exact situation they find themselves in.
The film finds itself torn between documentary and fantasy story, without leaning far enough in either direction to make any sense. This first volume opens with Gomez explaining the concept, and a shot of him and his crew buried up to their necks in sand for attempting such a crime against cinema. He knew it probably wouldn’t work and as far as I’m concerned, he was right. I know Gomez has his fans, but he hasn’t yet converted me. I hated his film TABU and I’m well on my way towards hating ARABIAN NIGHTS. We’ll see if another four hours of it can change my mind. We’ll see.
On the final day of the festival, subscribers will be watching nothing but competition films. Before we reach the conclusion of ARABIAN NIGHTS, we’ll also be viewing the Sundance winner ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL. I’ll be back tomorrow with my thoughts on those, and a final wrap-up of the festival as a whole.
By Shaun Heenan