The republic strikes back against the empire. Australian filmmaker Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” perfectly captures the essence of its outrageous, courageous title character.
“Amnesia” is highly entertaining, for in addition to being one of America’s foremost men of letters, Vidal was a wag who could toss verbal Molotov cocktails disguised as bon mots. Through archival footage and original interviews, the nonfiction film follows Vidal from his Jazz Age birth as a charter member of the ruling class to his postwar rise as a literary lion to his forays in Hollywood to his years of self-imposed exile in Ravello, Italy, to becoming America’s unofficial social-critic-in-chief and more, until his death at age 86 in 2012.
As the documentary reveals, Vidal’s family background set the course for his development: His father, aeronautics pioneer Eugene Luther Vidal, was the U.S. Commerce Department’s Director of the Bureau of Air Commerce during FDR’s New Deal and, we are told in one of the film’s many salaciously delicious details, aviator Amelia Earhart’s lover. Little Gore is glimpsed with his beloved father in a grainy black and white circa 1935 newsreel wherein he pilots a plane to prove that even a 10-year-old could do so.
Vidal’s grandfather, Thomas Gore -- a Democrat who, as Oklahoma’s U.S. Senator, collaborated with his fellow progressive, Wisconsin’s “Fighting Bob” La Follette -- was an even greater influence upon young Vidal. Although the so-called Blind Cowboy” lost reelection to his Senate seat due to his isolationist opposition to America’s entry into World War I, his antiwar stance forever made its mark on his grandson.
However, after the Pearl Harbor sneak attack and graduating from that private school of the privileged, Phillips Exeter Academy, 17-year-old Vidal -- who was born in 1925 at West Point’s Cadet Hospital -- volunteered for the struggle against fascism. Vidal served in the Aleutian Islands, although in the biopic, ever the pacifist, he’s critical of what’s been called “the good war,” arguing against the notion that there’s anything good about any war. “Fuck that,” the veteran says, sneering at the notion that it’s noble to die for one’s country.
Yet something positive did emerge from WWII for Vidal, who, at 19, completed his first novel, “Williwaw.” The title is the Aleut word for a ferocious arctic storm, which Vidal underwent, causing him hypothermia and damage to his knee. “Williwaw” was published in 1946, while those other postwar novels by returning vets, such as Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” and James Jones’s “From Here to Eternity,” weren’t in print, respectively, until 1948 and 1951.
This set the trajectory for Vidal’s future -- although it’s hard to believe, as “Amnesia” reveals, that unlike other members of his class, the erudite Gore did not go on to Harvard or any other university. Instead, he embarked on a literary career. One of the joys of this film are Vidal’s quips about writers and the writing life, which periodically appear onscreen, Godard-like, as titles. For instance, he humorously dubs the writer’s life an “absolute absurdity.”
Vidal’s vocation, however, was almost derailed by the candid, nonjudgmental treatment of homosexuality in his third novel, 1948’s “The City and the Pillar,” which received a harsh critical reception, although it sold briskly. Vidal’s novels went on to be ignored or not well-received by the 1950s book world, including his anti-imperialist “Dark Green, Bright Red” (about a U.S.-led coup in Central America, which The New York Times reviewed as “a sad waste of real narrative gifts and wit”) and “Messiah” (about a dictator who rises to power in the U.S. by manipulating TV). Alas, these books are also overlooked in “Amnesia,” although to be fair there’s only so much an 89-minute doc can cover.
Largely spurned by the literary establishment, Vidal used his talents to write for the big and little screen and stage. Clips from a number of the productions Vidal wrote/co-wrote are shown: The 1958 Arthur Penn-directed “The Left Handed Gunm” which, we are told, was the first feature to take an alternative look at cowboys, starring Paul Newman (a great pal of Gore’s) as Billy the Kid; 1959’s Biblical epic “Ben-Hur”; and 1964’s political drama with a gay theme “The Best Man,” which Tim Robbins, one of this docs many talking heads, comments on.
Related through Jacqueline Bouvier to the Kennedys, Vidal threw his hat into the ring and ran for Congress in 1960, just as he would campaign to become California’s U.S. senator in 1982. But while he failed as a candidate, Vidal increasingly excelled as a social commentator on the page and airwaves, appearing on Dick Cavett’s and David Frost’s broadcasts and as a “guest controversialist” on TV programs, most famously squaring off against rightwing publisher William F. Buckley, who epitomized elitist scorn for the masses whom Vidal often championed. In one prescient exchange, Vidal -- whom, as this writer recalls, used to appear on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and spoke favorably of socialism -- criticized U.S. inequality circa 1968, decrying that 5% of Americans owned 20% of income (today, according to Michael Moore, 400 individual 1 percenters have as much wealth as the bottom half of all Americans).
Clips of the contentious duo’s notorious televised showdown during the, literally, riotous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, captured on the air the violence in the streets, as Vidal -- who defended the students being beaten by the Chicago “pigs” whom Buckley lauded -- derided the conservative as a “crypto-Nazi.” Buckley, in turn, attacked Vidal’s personal life (not his politics), calling him a “queer”, mocking his transsexual novel “Myra Breckinridge,” and threatening to punch him on national television, as Vidal questioned Buckley’s purported WWII record.
Homoeroticism is one of the film’s recurring themes, and Vidal is seen, circa 1967, in black and white footage rather bravely defending homosexuality as being as natural as heterosexuality. His longtime companion, Howard Auster, is repeatedly shown throughout the documentary, and Vidal discusses his teenaged affair with schoolmate Jimmie Trimble. While Vidal’s early pro-gay candor is courageous, his comments about sex, love and relationships are idiosyncratic, if not eyebrow-raising. The author states that the success of his decades’-long relationship with Auster has been, at least partially, owing to their not having sex with one another, although Vidal says he practiced promiscuity with others for years. He also dismisses the idea of romantic love.
Those in committed relationships -- whether heterosexual or same sex -- may find these attitudes to be alienating and even troubling. And one doesn’t have to be Freud to deduce that his parents’ troubled marriage and his “horrendous relationship” with his mother, as he himself put it, may have had something to do with those views. He calls his mother, socialite Nina Gore, an “alcoholic” and says he didn’t see for the last 20 years of her life.
But this celebratory film, which aims to be its subject’s “last word and testimony,” and not an objective account, doesn’t explore this matter.
Be that as it may, the documentary focuses on Vidal’s role as an essayist and éminence grise of historical fiction, a social critic who continued to rail against what he called America’s “national security state” throughout the Bush years.
Although Vidal could crack wise about his fellow literati, including the detested Truman Capote, Mailer, and Christopher Hitchens (whose switching sides in favor of the Iraq War led to Hitchens’ uncrowning as Vidal’s wannabe “heir apparent”), Gore best deployed his wonderful wit against the powers that be.
This writer fondly recalls the speeches at L.A.’s Shadow Convention in 2000 (during a bomb threat!) and a 2003 anti-Iraq War rally in Hollywood made by Vidal, who went on to pen several volumes for Nation Books, such as “Imperial America, Reflections on the United States of Amnesia.” In what might be regarded as Vidal’s finest moments, like a literary Lear, the contrarian octogenarian does battle with the “empire” that is destroying his cherished “republic” of free people.
“Amnesia” was executive produced by Gore’s friend Jodie Evans, the Code Pink co-founder and heiress who, as Vidal said of himself, “defected from the ruling class.” Evans -- who also exec-produced the 2013 Oscar nominated Egyptian Revolution documentary “The Square” and the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated 2009 doc “The Most Dangerous Man Alive: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” -- introduced Vidal to director Wrathall.
The resulting documentary has been screened and won awards at numerous film festivals, and according to Evans, IFC is considering the possibility of distributing “Amnesia”, which, as of this writing, does not have a distribution deal yet.
Although this superb biopic about one of America’s most profound social critics could have used a more critical approach, “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” is, nonetheless a memorable movie about a truly unforgettable American.
For more information see: http://www.gorevidaldocumentary.com/.
Upcoming screenings of “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia”:
Kansas City – Filmfest April 5-13, 2014 Hammer Museum – Los Angles April 10, 2014, 7:30 p.m. Cleveland International Film Festival March 19th -30, 2014 Washington, D.C. – Filmfest April 17 – 27, 2014 Creative Alliance at The Patterson Saturday May 31, 4:00 p.m.
A Film Review by Ed Rampell. The newest book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).