Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
Dir: Nicholas D. Wrathall
Cert: U • US: 90 min • Amnesia Productions • April 18 2013
Michael Langan reviews
It would be almost impossible to make a boring documentary about Gore Vidal, given the man’s complex personality, intelligence and wit. Nicholas Wrathall’s film, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is fascinating, not only because it has Vidal as a subject, but because this is as much a film about America and the American political system as anything else, and it uses as its lens the eyes of one of the twentieth century’s great public intellectuals. The film employs interviews and footage from throughout Vidal’s life, including him as a ten-year-old boy flying one of his father’s prototype planes. It begins and ends in a cemetery, with Vidal visiting the grave of his long-term partner Howard Austen, who died in 2003. The large granite slab covering the plot contains a space for Vidal’s own name and, as he points out, is not so far from the grave of his great love, Jimmy Trimble, who died at Iwo Jima aged just 19.
The film’s title a phrase Vidal has long used when he talks about ‘Imperial America,’ the guiding theme of his work. What is extraordinary is that Gore Vidal was born into a privileged elite, was at the heart of power and politics – he was as close to being an aristocrat in America as it’s possible to be – and yet his opinions were so radical that they placed him firmly outside of the mainstream. Very few individuals talk as wisely about America as Vidal did, even fewer people dissect American imperialism as he did, or describe the political system with such biting, contemptuous clarity, and he did it all from the heart of the American establishment.
After his own experience in World War II Vidal in time became virulently anti-war, and he saw it purely as a means to make money. Vidal came to see the Kennedy administration as an unmitigated disaster and warned that people should never be charmed into voting for politicians. He was a friend of Kennedy’s but felt that, as President, JFK had over-reached himself. He was deeply engaged in politics all his life, but even more so in political philosophy, as he came to see that the political system was fundamentally corrupt and needed to change.
Vidal stood twice for political office himself, the first time in the 1960 when, as he said, he thought it made a difference who the President was, and the second time in 1982. He was fervently against American power, American idolatory and ‘President-worship’, and he opposed the entire system, established and run by the rich. “Politicians and businessmen,” he asserted, with a typically pithy and waspish turn of phrase, “have no need to conspire because they already think alike.”
What really marked Vidal out as an outsider was, it could be argued, his sexuality. At 21 he published Williwaw, which was a great critical success, and he was subsequently warned that writing about gay sex would exclude him. Undaunted, he did just that in The City and The Pillar and the daily New York Times refused to review his books as a consequence. Nowhere is this outsider status made more clear than in a piece of electrifying footage from the infamous television debates Vidal conducted with William Buckley during the 1968 Presidential campaign. The debates were white hot, vitriolic, and compulsive viewing. During one of them Vidal calls Buckley a ‘crypto-Nazi’ and Buckley, rearing up like a cobra, spits back, “Now listen here you queer …” If Vidal’s sexuality was the thing that separated him from the establishment, perhaps even went some way to shaping his political and philosophical perspectives, neither the film, nor Vidal himself, seem to want to make much of it.
There is a description of Vidal’s long-term relationship with Howard Austen, who died in 2003, and the film touches on the complexities of that relationship and of Vidal’s feelings about love – a word he professed not to like. He and Austen remained platonic because, as Vidal said, “Sex is all over the place, friendship is not” while asserting that he was “devoted to promiscuity.” I would have liked more on the possible links between Vidal’s personal and political lives, though it’s well known that Vidal didn’t like the idea of a gay identity as such, preferring to think of homosexual acts rather than homosexual people. “I’m not an adjective,” was the stance he took throughout his life and he said many times that he thought all individuals were basically bisexual.
As Vidal got older his views seemed to become even more radical, largely as a result of the extreme positions taken during the Bush era. He saw a rising totalitarianism in America embodied by the Patriot Act and didn’t hesitate to say so. Though becoming ever more frail physically, his mind was sharp as ever and he became a popular voice of intelligent dissent once again. Wrathall’s deft and largely uncritical film shies away from challenging Vidal’s patrician tendencies, and his well-documented feuds are chronicled in less detail than they should have been in order to give a more rounded view of the man. Having said that, the film works to remind us what a remarkable figure Gore Vidal was and vividly illustrates how rare such liberal voices are, not only in American politics but anywhere. The film’s final scene shows him being asked, “What do you think your legacy will be?” Vidal replies with stern humour, “I couldn’t care less.” He was much more interested in real change, in waking people up and getting them to think and ask questions, to fight inequality and entrenched corruption. The challenges to power that Vidal constantly put forward are ever more urgently needed and in that respect he’s an inspiration to us all.