Martin Amis once observed that Gore Vidal's love affair with Gore Vidal was not simply infatuation -- it was the real thing.
This is apparent throughout Nicholas Wrathall's remarkably entertaining documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, which was shot just months before Vidal -- one of our last genuine public intellectuals -- died in 2012. But if Wrathall's film unsurprisingly reveals Vidal as a sour old man possessed of an amusing amount of amour-propre, it also depicts a fierce and uncompromising mind. Born into the ruling elite, Vidal somewhat perversely cast himself as the ultimate outsider, eventually exiling himself to the Amalfi Coast.
Vidal declined to enter the family business of politics and instead wrote, at a tender age, a frankly homosexual novel (The City and the Pillar) that established him as a bright literary star and a kind of gay spokesman. (Vidal recoiled at the characterization, famously describing himself as "pan-sexual." He tells Wrathall that "sex destroys relationships ... I'm devoted to promiscuity." Vidal's philosophy was derived from Plato's Symposium, in which Aristophanes tells his dinner companions that there were once three sexes -- each shaped like a globe -- male, female and hermaphrodite. Each was split by the gods for behaving offensively, and each has ever after sought reunion, to make itself whole again. If you've seen the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch you probably know the theory.)
Vidal had something of John Brown's crazy certitude when he held forth, as he was wont to do, on the betrayal of the promise of the United States by a long line of mediocre political opportunists who betrayed the republican ideals of the founders by building a rapacious empire. "Whenever I want to know what the United States is up to," he tells the filmmaker near the end of this benedictory movie, "I look into my own black heart."
At another point, a frail-looking (but mentally formidable) Vidal shows Wrathall the tomb -- back home in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery -- he had bought for himself and his longtime (and Vidal insists "platonic") companion Howard Auster, who died in 1995. It's as though Vidal understood that the country he scorned -- the more betrayed than failed experiment in republicanism that is America -- would receive him in the end. Though I'm not sure it completely has, Wrathall's film caresses the old scold, duly noting his conquests and comeuppances, his feuds with the likes of William F. Buckley and Christopher Hitchens (extensively interviewed here), and inviting us to hear and reconsider his criticism.
There's hardly an American political figure, historical or contemporary, who escapes his scorn. He even characterizes his friend John Kennedy as "one of our most disastrous presidents." And things only got worse as the mediocrities compounded. Vidal says of George W. Bush: "We've had bad presidents before but we've never had a goddamn fool." To his mind, Bush erased the illusion of democracy by doing away with habeas corpus and legal due process after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: "Now we have a totalitarian government. We are totally policed."
And Obama's election was hardly an improvement: "I would like to think he's completely virtuous, but I suspect he's not. ... Once a country is habituated to liars, it takes generations to get the truth back. You can't expect democracy from a society like this."
At times, to an alarming degree, I find myself concurring with Vidal. But Wrathall also reveals a streak of cruelty and petulance in the man, and his delight in gossip and contemptuous dismissal feels ugly. It is slightly disappointing that Wrathall pays scant attention to Vidal's real work, his somewhat underrated fiction. He was prolific, political and -- for a time -- remarkably popular. He gave critics plenty of reason to dismiss his books out of hand.
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia was one of my favorite films at last year's Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, more likely to turn up on a cable channel than in a local multiplex. But it's a smart and entertaining movie that can fairly be described as fun. You probably won't leave it loving Vidal as much as he loved himself, but it's likely you feel something for him. Wrathall has crafted a superior portrait of a superior man.
MovieStyle on 07/11/2014
Print Headline: Gore Vidal: The Unites States of Amnesia