May 1, 2015

Hot Docs: Best of Enemies; The Nightmare; The Dictator's Hotel

*This column was originally posted at The Film Experience as part of the coverage of Hot Docs 2015.

It is hard to imagine today that there was once an America where political debates in the media were sensational, not just sensationalized. Harder yet is to envision a time when conservative political commentators weren’t complete buffoons, but rather eloquent, smart thinkers. That is exactly the time that Best of Enemies transports us to, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s film about the televised debates leading up to the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions. ABC, then trailing as America’s third network and in search of a ratings boost, decided to pit two of the country’s most famous commentators against one another: the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. The two were known to dislike each other and their pairing on live TV was sure to cause a stir.
Their prediction proved to be correct when on the 8th night of a series of incendiary discussions, Buckley reacted to Vidal’s name-calling and being labeled a “crypto-Nazi” with a momentary burst of anger...
Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the face and you’ll stay plastered.”
Buckley regretted this lapse of judgment for the rest of his life and was haunted by memories of that night. Vidal, the more outrageous of the two characters, carried the memory with a triumphant smirk. Best of Enemies creates an energetically paced, consistently entertaining narrative out of these debates. It is formally trapped in the familiar structure of similar documentaries, with several talking head interviews that contextualize the significance of the debates and the ramifications of it for American TV and the two. Not all of these inserts seem necessary, though most of them – such as conversations with Buckley’s brother and TV executives who knew both commentators – are exciting. Still, the best parts of the films are excerpts from the original debates. The vicious and hilarious cat-fighting leaves one pining for that golden age of TV.

A more unconventional structure is at play in The Nightmare, Rodney Ascher’s follow-up to the acclaimed Room 237. Based on the lives of eight people who suffer from sleep paralysis, the condition that was the inspiration behind Nightmare on Elm Street, the film explores the world of this strange and, literally, unbelievable disease. Those who suffer see all kinds of monsters and ghosts in their sleep, and they fall into paralysis at once, unable to move or talk at all as these demons infiltrate their bodies. Employing animated sequences and visual effects to show the nightmares of these eight people, Ascher’s film is the rare documentary that doubles as a horror film. As the subjects delve deeper into their nightly terrors, the film also raises the stakes, faithfully recreating the claustrophobic sense of indefensibility against these creatures.

The most intriguing aspect of these horrific experiences is how much their share in common, not just in their nature, but in the specifics of the violent imagery. The Nightmare traces the origins of these visions and arrives not just at recent pop culture icons, but even classical art in which shared elements of sleep paralysis – demons with red eyes, black cats sitting on a dormant person’s chest – appear across works that were produced in different countries in different era. Whether it is the familiar imagery that feeds the nightmares of the subjects or whether it is artists who have brought to life visions that terrified them is the most interesting question the film raises. But beyond the curiosity of this rare condition, Ascher doesn’t know how to deal with the material. The film touches on a superficial level the medical, religious and personal reasons behind each subject’s condition, but never fully engages with them on a deeper level. While the oddity of the topic and the horror scenes are intermittently interesting, they are not enough to keep the film from falling into a repetitive cycle of tedium from which it can never escape.

The Dictator’s Hotel proves a much more rewarding experience, despite its concise, 15-minute running time. Directed by Florian Hoffman, this one visits a newly built but completely abandoned hotel in the Central African Republic, owned by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi before his death. Still supervised by its diligent staff, the hotel’s equipment and furniture have never been touched, but it remains ready to serve at a moment’s notice. The building’s ostentatious structure and vast landscape is splendid and at utter odds with the poverty that surrounds it, though rather cleverly, we are only exposed to the surroundings through the iron gates of the hotel and the few words spoken by one of the employees. This brief visit of the building, during which a North African hotel manager acts as tour guide, is haunting, serving as a reminder of the atrocities committed by political leaders in the region and the sense of entitlement that at once secludes and protectes them from the abject destitution of people in their countries. That the film does this with so few references, and no visual depictions, of political or economic turmoil, and remains entirely within the confines of a single building, is truly extraordinary. The Dictator’s Hotel might not travel outside of specialized festival circuits, but it’s a sharp, humorous and unique film that deserves a much bigger audience.

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