Film Review: GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA (directed by Nicholas Wrathall)

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by Jason Rohrer on May 22, 2014

in Film

“I TOLD YOU SO”

The drawling aristocratic lethargy of Gore Vidal’s public manner would have seemed cartoonish if not for the darting intelligence in his eyes and his words.  For all its craft – crown of the head tipped back, the long pointed nose elegantly spearing something in you, the indulgent but disapproving wag of the chin – the pose was not show-business humbug, not entirely.  Surely it was no more a fake than the remarkably similar patrician act of the nouveau riche oil-heir William F. Buckley, Jr., his longtime opposite number in political punditry.  Vidal, for his part, came from a long line of well-positioned families.  He grew up as his grandfather’s senatorial page in the Capitol, a son of the American power elite; and he suffered all his life from a series of fatigue-inducing ailments – arthritis, Epstein-Barr, an inability to suffer fools.  But that lethargy was a drape concealing a human dynamo of self-expression that ranks among the most successful in human memory.

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Two Gore Vidal quotes:

During his second campaign for national office (in a 1982 Senate Democratic primary; the first had been for Congress 22 years before), Vidal’s stump speech included the following: “[The representatives] are speaking for Arco, for Mobil Oil, for Northrup, for Boeing, for all the people that sent them to Washington….You have a society that is constantly at war with everybody on earth, that doesn’t give a goddamn about the people who live in the society, doesn’t give a goddamn about education….what we have achieved in the United States is socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor.”

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Shortly after that primary, Vidal gave a gleeful interview: “I ran the first time only out of greed and vanity. These are the two things which drive my character; I am unlike other people, as you know,” he giggled:  “I have depths of insincerity as yet unplumbed, and there’s nothing like a crowd to really inspire that in you. I’m a demagogue, I suppose.”

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Today, except for the profanity, the stump speech reads superficially like that of any candidate who frames himself an outsider, which is to say, any candidate today.  It is important to remember that in 1982, politicians didn’t do much public indictment, by name, of publicly traded companies as corrupters of the American legislature.  They still don’t.  And the goddamns, especially the goddamns: you don’t take the name of somebody’s lord in vain if you want to win votes.

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And the post-primary interview, in which a politically recharged Vidal (he came in second in a field of eleven) describes his own political personage as a construction, is still, in 2014, behavior beyond the pale for even the most ludicrous clowns in our political circus.  You don’t admit that it’s all a game.  That’s grounds for getting kicked off the field.

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But Gore Vidal made a living saying exactly what he wanted to say on the subjects he wished to talk about, from the close of World War II until his death in 2012.  Very often the subject was himself, but even so, as a writer, he helped usher American fiction, drama, and screenwriting into the age of postmodernism and sexual revolution.  His positioning as a voice of the American left, followed by a long term as reigning opposition gadfly and doomsaying essayist, permanently impacted the definition of the public intellectual.  His famous bisexuality, his unapologetic presence as an atheist and intellectual nonconformist during the most conservative periods in the American 20th Century, set a standard for courage and integrity in public life – and of the happy exploitation of those very traits – rare then and rare now.

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There was also, in many readings of his life, a long period of decline, not so much of intellect – he remained alarmingly cogent and lucid until his final few years, after which he was only about twice as smart as anybody working for Rupert Murdoch – but of relevance.  To Christopher Hitchens (Vidal’s own chosen successor as heavyweight champion of liberal political critics), as to others, in the aftermath of 9/11 Vidal seemed to wing off into indefensible conspiracy theories and theoretical star-chamber scenarios.  (Vidal had a lot to say on Hitchens’ philosophical alterations at about this time, too.)  Arched-eyebrow hypotheses about skeletons in his enemies’ closets had always been a tendency of Vidal’s flamboyant showmanship, but now it seemed to herald his dotage.

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Nicholas Wrathall’s new biographical documentary, which takes its name and heavy-on-the-politics, light-on-the-literature slant from a collection of Vidal essays, tells us only the up-with-Vidal elements of this story via an exhaustive collection of old film clips and some so-so new footage.  Partly shot in what its subject described as his “Cedars-Sinai years,” Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia pushes an increasingly feeble Vidal through a variety of speaking engagements, talking-head taping sessions, awards ceremonies, and old-acquaintance reunions.  It’s a farewell tour: Vidal rides the canals of Venice with his old pal Mikhail Gorbachev; he rides a limousine with his sister Nina Straight (who incidentally, since her brother’s death, has made a second career of speculating that Vidal was a pedophile – a storyline definitely not included in this film).

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It’s nice to see the old man so honored.  But that’s pretty much all this movie has for very long stretches.  It would be dismissable as puerile hagiography if it weren’t that the primary talking head is Vidal himself, from clips shot over his entire lifetime, mostly discussing his favorite subject.  Producer (and nephew) Burr Steers hangs around just off- or on-camera to egg his uncle to finish name-dropping stories, and literary executor Jay Parini supplies deferential commentary.  So do a number of famous people, including Tim Robbins and a chemotherapy-ridden, soon-to-die Hitchens (and, less relevantly, Sting).  But it is Vidal who tells his story best, and the movie’s strength is in him.

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A rebel who went to war instead of to college, who made himself notorious and rich with his second novel, who went shooting with Jack Kennedy and Tennessee Williams (and could still do wicked impressions of them, and of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, in his 80s), this is a raconteur to build a movie around, and director Wrathall has done that.  A self-professed retiring outsider and disbeliever in love who never passed up “an opportunity to have sex or appear on television;” an elitist (“Art is the enemy of democracy”) whose politics sought to elevate the common man; Vidal thought he saw the entire world crushed under the heel of the expansionist, imperial American power structure into which he was born and from which he fled all the way to Amalfi.  He stayed in Italy for most of fifty years, only coming to America to secure writing jobs, otherwise on his own terms entertaining movie stars, thinkers, prostitutes and starfuckers.  This, as the documentary would have it, is the real Most Interesting Man in the World.  So of course you let him tell his own story.  Is he awfully self-congratulatory?  He is.  Is he completely at odds with history sometimes, as when he embarrassingly claims to have been the only American to have spoken out against the Patriot Act?  He is. Is this forgivable in one so great, and so charming?  Pretty much.  Wrathall’s use of found footage is effective, entertaining, and often delightful.

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The movie is in trouble precisely when Wrathall takes the storytelling duties upon himself.  Hitchens wrote, several times, that you could learn more about a country by reading its novels than by most other methods; in this film, Hitchens is edited to appear to say that he learned most of what he knows about America by reading Gore Vidal‘s historical novels in particular.  Maybe Hitchens said that, maybe not; certainly Hitchens’ clip looks oddly truncated, like a filmmaker gelding a lily.  Of course we can’t get Hitchens’ opinion now, either, except from his writings on the subject, and what he repeatedly said in print was that a novel told much about the time and place in which it was written, not those in which it was set.  Maybe the rest of the scene still exists, and I hope I may be proved wrong.  But Wrathall loses the benefit of the doubt when his bad faith is undeniable, as when his movie deliberately implies that Vidal wrote the screenplay for William Wyler’s Ben-Hur alone, rather than being one of four hired to co-rewrite Karl Tunberg’s efforts.  Having Christopher Fry for a writing partner isn’t impressive enough; Wrathall has to credit him with the whole script.  It would make more sense if the screenplay in question had any literary merit, but have you tried watching Ben-Hur in the last forty years?  Has anyone?

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These are, perhaps, little things, but they are not the only little things.  The movie makes much of Vidal the Prophet, who saw political realities coming that nobody else could foresee, or admit.  True, he had been saying for years before 9/11 that there would be a price to pay for all that American swaggering; but with the possible exception of Henry Kissinger, everybody in Washington had been saying that.  In fact that was the whole premise of our Middle East policies: appeasement of dictators who would in turn suppress their angry citizens.  But you won’t hear it from Wrathall, nor from the bitter, self-righteous, unchivalrous death’s head Vidal turns into by the end of this movie.  One more telling omission on the filmmaker’s part is the series of libel cases that Vidal, through his publisher Esquire magazine, had to settle with Buckley, for unsubstantiated insinuations of racist thuggery in Buckley’s past.

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Elsewhere, Wrathall shows a clip of Vidal brutally teasing his opponent in that 1982 Senate Primary, California Governor Jerry Brown – after calling Brown a political corpse, he advises he quit the race and do some reading and soul-searching, since he’s going to be defeated by the Republican candidate anyway.  (Brown was, by Pete Wilson.)  Then, dramatically, Wrathall imposes a howler of a caption: “While out of office, Brown spent time studying Buddhism in Japan and visiting Mother Teresa in Calcutta.” What a prophet, that Gore Vidal!  Except for exaggerating the reports of Jerry Brown’s political demise by over 30 years-and-counting.

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Well, nobody’s perfect.  And that’s the problem with eulogy as entertainment.  It cheapens what it would praise, by fawning when it should analyze, criticize, or debunk.  This intellectual dishonesty is so at odds with the movie’s whole thesis – Gore Vidal as Heroic Truth-teller – that I think Vidal would have giggled, especially since the director opens his film with a shot of Vidal bitching about a former biographer of his, who got everything wrong.

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photos courtesy of IFC Films

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
Amnesia LLC, Sundance Selects, IFC Films
USA – 2013 – Color – 89 min.
opens in New York at IFC Center & Lincoln Plaza on May 23, 2014
opens in Los Angeles at the Nuart on June 6, 2014
with a concurrent national release
available on VOD May 29, 2014
for more info, visit www.gorevidaldocumentary.com

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kim Ross June 7, 2014 at 7:33 pm

Great critique, thank you.

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