Read two critical perspectives on Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2013, Nicholas Wrathall) , from Peter Canavese and Ryan Lattanzio. Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia opens in San Francisco at Landmark Cinema’s Opera Plaza and in Berkeley at Landmark’s Shattuck Theater on Friday, June 13, 2014.
Remembering Not to Forget
by Peter Canavese
Late in Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2013)—Nicholas Wrathall’s feature-length profile of that preeminent man of letters—Vidal is wheeled into Harry’s Bar, the fabled Venetian cultural hot spot. With playful mock astonishment, Vidal crows, “I was here with a camera crew for the first time twenty, thirty years ago. And my God, I’ve done it again: another camera crew!”
Wrathall’s film makes references to a lifetime of character, acquired and displayed nearly from birth, but another part of what makes Vidal such a compelling subject for a film biography is that the novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, politician, political commentator, and bon vivant indeed spent so much of his life in front of cameras. Not for nothing did Vidal once infamously crack, “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.” Given Vidal’s 2012 passing, we’ve had enough time to miss him, and Wrathall obliges our yearning with the best of vintage Vidal as well as a thrilling swath of privileged new interview and candid footage.
Cheekily, the film begins and (nearly) ends with Vidal visiting his own gravesite and noting that it’s become a habit to take his biographers here. Ever the wry (and often sly) provocateur, Vidal avers that he has no fear of death, a standpoint perhaps earned both through his sheer accomplishment (though he amusingly pooh-poohs cares about legacy) and his diminished joie de vivre in the years since the 2003 loss of longtime companion Howard Auster (whose life with Vidal one observer describes as that of “an old married couple, in the best sense”). Most of Wrathall’s film re-presents the familiar figure who lived in front of all those cameras, but to the extent that Vidal allows unguarded moments at all, we get glimpses here, especially in relation to Auster (and teen Vidal’s first, tragically brief, love).
Wrathall concisely hits the highlights of Vidal’s advantaged upbringing and his storied careers: the literary debut at age nineteen, authoring the “first American novel to depict homosexual sex explicitly” (The City and the Pillar , 1948) and being blackballed for it, his stints in Hollywood (Ben-Hur , 1959) and on Broadway (The Best Man, 1960), the progressive Democrat’s 1960 Congressional run and 1982 Senate run, his literary resurgence with novels like Myra Breckinridge (1968) and the historical tomes Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984), and his decades spent in demand for television talk shows as the town de-crier of American empire.
On the personal side, we learn the profound significance of Eugene Vidal’s choice to rechristen himself “Gore” in honor of his father figure even as he definitively split with his cold mother. Wrathall also gives time to Vidal’s significant friendships with those even more famous than he: Tennessee Williams, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and John F. Kennedy (of whose presidency Vidal became deeply critical). Vidal’s defining career moments include infamous televised tussles with William F. Buckley (during the 1968 Democratic National Convention) and—egged on by Dick Cavett—with soused bulldog Norman Mailer; Wrathall also gets Vidal and Christopher Hitchens on record about their mutual admiration turned sour, including catching on camera Vidal snubbing Hitchens at a party.
In his first documentary feature, Wrathall lays it all out in a rough chronology that’s not slavishly linear, with novelist, friend, and literary executor Jay Parini effectively replacing the need for narration by providing the necessary verbal spackle. Goosing each section is a title card with one of Vidal’s pithy observations (“We learn nothing because we remember nothing”) or Wildean witticisms (“Envy is the central fact of American life”). With remarkable consistency of viewpoint, his words uniformly sharp and precocious, Vidal has—there it is again: almost from birth—offered an astonishingly articulate, if distinctly aristocratic, voice: in those dulcet tones speaking truth to the power of the establishment rather than hiding behind it.
That said, Vidal certainly lived the high life, quite literally, in his gorgeous cliffside estate in Ravello, Italy, possessed of what Sting accurately describes as “an Olympian view of the Mediterranean.” Wrathall keeps circling back to the footage shot here in Vidal’s later years as, in the absence of Auster and the betrayal of the body, Vidal betrays a touching vulnerability. Vidal insists he’s about the present and not the future, but he can’t resist giving the Republicans a death sentence while watching the 2008 presidential election results.
In the end, the greatest impression is of Vidal’s commitment to unsparing truths as he saw them, mostly about America’s at times absurdist progression from republic to empire, abetted by the opiate of organized religion and the patriotism of wartimes. Vidal calls out Truman for turning America into “a national security state,” Reagan as “the best cue-card reader they could find,” and the post-9/11 government as “totalitarian,” while embracing Mikhail Gorbachev as, ironically, the sanest world leader of the American Century (Vidal and Gorbachev chat for Wrathall’s camera at the World Political Forum).
It’s difficult to imagine a sleeker overview of Vidal’s accomplishments and impression of the man’s character—compacted into ninety uniformly fascinating minutes—than what Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia provides.
An officer and voting member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, Peter Canavese authors and maintains the website GrouchoReviews.com and is the chief film critic for both Palo Alto Weekly and Celluloid Dreams, a weekly radio show devoted to film (KSJS 90.5 FM every Monday at 5pm). His reviews have also appeared in The San Jose Mercury News, Alternate101, ON Magazine, and on Portland’s 1190 KEX drive-time show Mark & Dave. His interview with novelist/screenwriter James Ellroy was included in the 2012 book Conversations with James Ellroy.
Failing to Find Art in an Overly Examined Life
by Ryan Lattanzio
The problem with Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia , the new documentary from director Nicholas D. Wrathall about the titular 20th century man of letters, is the same problem plaguing much of the doc genre at this very moment. While this is an admirable, perfectly handsome biography in miniature of a brilliant man and his turbulent life, where is the cinema?
The same issue tripped up Shane Salerno, who set out to create a portrait of an artist without reaching for the poetry, in 2013 with Salinger . How do you make the stuff of writing and rhetorical barb-throwing into a real movie-movie?
The United States of Amnesia is unastonishingly hagiographic, rarely pausing to query the inner contents of Vidal’s life and instead, going by way of the rote historical survey. Fortunately, Vidal’s days and ways are a hoot to watch unfold either way.
And it is refreshing that Wrathall skirts, however furtively, the topic of Vidal’s sexuality—here, far more veiled than in his sensuous, wartime novels about guys who were more than just buddy-buddies. Vidal hated to be labeled a homosexual because he knew something that most didn’t: that language is a dangerous, governing construct perilously on the brink of collapse. And Vidal was armed with stones to throw.
Relying on the pedestrian “talking heads” approach of documentary filmmaking, Amnesia wends its way through Vidal’s bio, from growing up in West Point as the only child of an Olympic athlete and a senator’s daughter in 1925 to enjoying (and sometimes despising) his long-living career as a scribe, and an outsize, overeducated personality, until he died in 2012.
The film’s small pleasures include hardly-seen footage of Vidal’s days as a Hollywood habitué and party animal, with foreshadows of the existential crisis that grew from being a Tinseltown script-slave. Vidal was among the many to catch the hot potato that was the rather homoerotic Ben-Hur script in 1959. He did write a masterpiece, however, in director Joseph Mankiewicz’s lurid melodrama Suddenly, Last Summer , adapted from Tennessee Williams’ psychosexual southern gothic and also from 1959.
Interviews with those who knew the man, including Christopher Hitchens and Tim Robbins, pepper zesty archival interviews where Vidal speaks frankly about his atheism, as well as his wildly erratic political temperaments. And as a cousin of Jimmy Carter, and a distant relative of Jacqueline Kennedy, these were burrowed in his blood.
But all these fun facts and did-you-knows don’t make up for the fact that the film has no texture. Though Shane Salerno’s toweringly dumb Salinger (2003) offered a far more myopic view of its writer-subject, the film at least attempted to interpret his words visually with sweeping recreations. It failed.
The failure of The United States of Amnesia is a greater one: it fails to find cinema in the life of Gore Vidal. And what a pity, because as Wrathall proves in this competent study, there was plenty of cinema in it to be found.
Ryan Lattanzio has written film reviews for myriad publications including the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian and is a staff critic for Indiewire’s Thompson on Hollywood. He lives in LA. Follow him on Twitter.