In the documentary The United States of Amnesia, Nicholas Wrathall takes an appreciative look at the life and work of the late Gore Vidal and finds a man who was always ahead of time and whose work remains both relevant and essential.
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In the early 1970s, under the presidency of “First Criminal” Richard Nixon, Gore Vidal started to deliver an alternative State of the Union address to “conservative audiences (no use talking to the converted)”. He would surprise audiences with his proposals to limit the Presidential election period to 4 weeks, prevent candidates from buying time on television and in newspapers so that they are not “bought by corporations and gangsters”, and ensure that the country’s police forces did their jobs instead of acting as a tool for reactionary politicians to suppress dissent. His ideas were, for a mainstream audience, far ahead of their time.
In the aftermath of 9/11, and its calculated use by the Bush administration to wage war in the Middle East, Vidal proved that he could still be a force on the political stage. He spoke out against the “Bush-Cheney junta” and talked about the lessons that should have been learned from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. Yet, as he concluded in his 2004 State of the Union, “happily, for the busy lunatics who rule over us, we are permanently the United States of Amnesia. We learn nothing because we remember nothing.” It is this Vidal, the political commentator, the often-lone voice of dissent, that Nicholas Wrathall focuses on his documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia.
What first drew you to making a documentary about Gore Vidal?
It was around 2001, with 9/11, when I was living in New York. He was very outspoken, and although I had read his work before it brought it him back to me. I was thankful that there was someone like him getting time on TV and major talk shows, because nobody else in the US was speaking out.
I started to pay close attention to him again, and re-reading the essays. His nephew, Burr Steers, is a friend of mine. I met Gore first in 2004 and I realised there was an opportunity not to be missed, that he wasn’t going to be around for much longer. Soon after that he was selling and moving out of the house in Italy. That scene in the film was the last time he was there. I got there three days before he left.
That was fascinating footage. It was a historic moment, especially when you consider his relationship with that house, that every novel since Burr had been written there. And it was sad.
It was really sad. He was broken when I got there. He’d been sitting around lamenting and waiting for the movers. He was on his own; he’d obviously been reflecting on his life, and on Howard. He was in a pretty bad way.
Did you capture him talking about Howard? [Howard Auster, Vidal’s partner since 1950, died in 2003.]
Off camera a lot he would talk about Howard but he wouldn’t do it on camera.
I think it’s a loss that he didn’t really talk about Howard.
I agree. It was almost like he couldn’t. I would see a little bit of emotion welling up, almost like was going to say something, then he’d stopped himself and say, “well, he’s gone now”. That’s as far as he would go.
The idea of seeing him like that is strange because he always projected such a strong image of himself, and never showed any vulnerability.
He never shows that vulnerability. And I never saw it again, to be honest. It was fortunate to catch him at that moment. He’s always on. He knows how to work the media, and he always has his agenda, what he wants to talk about. I think we got that softer side of him, which he always kept private.
And what was he like as a subject?
There were times when things seemed to flow easy. There’d be times he was hungover and grumpy. Even though he didn’t suffer fools, he enjoyed the fact that he was a mentor, he liked talking to younger people and informing them, passing on his knowledge.
How did you decide on the angle you were going to take when you are looking at this long life and long list of works?
We had a much longer cut of the film but we were determined to get it down to 90 minutes. It could have easily been a three part series. For me I was always focussed on the politics, on seeing America through his eyes. That is what interested me most.
I wanted to keep the focus on his view of America, and not go into great depth about the novels and the plays. It’s hard to make a film about writing.
I was also interested in seeing him as a public intellectual, as someone speaking truth to power. The loss of that figure, and that voice in modern America, felt like that was something we had to bring out.
Did Vidal have any involvement in the direction of the film and its content?
Only that he would steer the conversations and interviews to subjects he wanted to speak about, and avoid things he didn’t want to speak about. He knew what I wanted to do. The fact that it was the Bush era, and that he was doing a lot of talk shows and interviews about that, did shape the film.
As far as the editorial he wasn’t involved. He was quite sick at the time. I showed him the rushes early on. When we got into the serious editing it was 2011. It was a shame he never saw the finished cut.
What was it was like filming the scene with the live Obama election results? It was intriguing to see him both interested and wary.
He was very frail at that point. The fact that his nephew Burr was there helped as they could just chat. He was pretty cynical about it. First of all he supported Hillary, and he wasn’t a fan of Obama.
He got savage about Obama, and after a few years called him incompetent.
He wasn’t very hopeful. But he always had that attitude to the office of the President. He wasn’t optimistic about Obama. He felt like Hillary had more of a power base that she could draw on. He saw that part of the reason Obama was there was because he did not have that power base and could be manipulated. Cynical, but possibly true.
One thing I did see him get excited about around that time was the Occupy movement. He was thrilled that young people were out on the streets. He thought that was great. I wanted to include it toward the end of the film, but it didn’t really fit.
Will that make it onto any DVD extras you have planned?
Definitely. There were so many things I had to cut. One thing people always ask is “have you got more?” There was lot more to the scenes in Venice, and also the William Buckley material. There was one point where that was twice as long, but it was still fascinating, every moment.
I was surprised that Julian didn’t get a mention.
It was a slight oversight. I decided to focus on the empire novels and that’s a whole different strand. Julian is possibly his greatest novel. We had to make choices and we couldn’t cover everything.
On one level, though, Julian is as much a commentary on the Kennedy era as it is on 4th century Rome. I was really struck by Vidal saying that he kept a photo of JFK in study as a warning to never again be taken in by a charismatic politician. It’s something I’d never heard him say before.
It’ll be great to see how Americans respond to his commentary on Kennedy. People do gasp when he says that line.
And of course you include footage from the late 1960s when he was also a harsh critic of Kennedy.
Everything we chose was to show the lineage in his thinking, to show the consistency of his analysis, and how he was ahead of his time. He’s always been ahead. When you see it over and over again it really stands out. He was pointing this out all the way. Now he’s gone and we should pay attention.
Who is there now? In the States you have comedians like Colbert and Stuart who are speaking out, but they’re in comedy, they’re not at the centre of the political culture like Gore was.
He came from the belly of the beast, from the seat of power, someone who knew the insider point of view. I don’t know who there is. There are people like Arianna Huffington who speak out. There’s a programme called Left, Right and Centre on NPR in the US, and Bob Scheer is often there, and he’s very outspoken.
I thought it was interesting that it was Scheer who said in the film that he found Gore in his final years to be more relevant than at any other time.
I thought that was a strong point to be coming from someone like him. He wasn’t getting older and ranting, but was still relevant.
Like Christopher Hitchens accused him of doing in his Vanity Fair article ‘Vidal Loco’.
That’s a dismissive attitude, and an easy way to disregard someone of his age and stature, to say that he’s winding down, and ranting and raving. It was just not true. He was one of the fiercest critics of the Bush era. I was living in the US at the time. It was disgusting to see how people got behind Bush. It happened overnight.
I thought it was interesting Hitchens said that, in the end, his understanding of American history was one that he understood through Vidal’s lens. Do you feel like that too?
Yes. Seeing it through Gore’s lens is a completely different take, and that’s the strongest thing he’s got to give. That’s why people should be reading him. Everyone gets this whitewashed version of history, but with Gore you start to see the motivations and the machinations of power. That’s, I hope, what people take away from the film.
For more about the film Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, click here to visit the official site.