Movie Review: Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2014)
People who don’t know Gore Vidal should check this out. For the rest of us? Which I guess is about 100 now? (See: this.)
Sure, it was nice to finally check out footage of a 10-year-old Gore flying that airplane for his father and the newsreel cameras, which he’d written about in “Screening History.” I knew about Jimmie Trimble, of course (“Palimpsest,” “The Smithsonian Institution”), but I didn’t know much about Vidal’s longtime companion Howard Austen, so it was nice getting that. Vidal was closer to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward than I’d realized. I was also unaware of the Christopher Hitchens angle: How Hitchens was the heir apparent, in both is own mind and Vidal’s, and then 9/11 and Iraq happened. Hitchens pumped for war, Vidal blamed America. He wrote a book without a trace of wit in the title, “Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta.” The Bushies were so bluntly preposterous they stupefied us all—even Vidal.
But otherwise what was new here? We got his love for his grandfather, his hatred of his mother, his WWII service; then “Williwaw” and acclaim, and “City and the Pillar” and the New York Times homophobic reaction. Years in the wilderness. So TV and teleplays, “The Best Man” and Hollywood. The friendships: Tennessee Williams, the Newmans, the Kennedys. The rivalries, on air and otherwise, in the ’60s and ’70s: Capote, Buckley, Mailer. The house on the Amalfi coast. Myra Breckenridge. The history books and the religious books and the declining health and the return to the states.
It’s basically the Cliff’s Notes to Gore Vidal. But in this bluntly preposterous world, he’s still nice to come home to.
Add another quote and make it a gallon
Vidal, with Mailer and Baldwin, was the last of the great novelist-essayists of the 1950s; now they’re all gone and haven’t been replaced by newer models. Novelists don’t do long think pieces on history and culture anymore, and essayists don’t do fiction.
On the day Vidal died, I combed his books on my shelf and posted about 20 or so quotes that I liked. The doc also liberally sprinkles his quotes throughout. Interestingly, I don’t think we have any matches. That’s how much wit you had to choose from. Among the quotes here:
- “Love is a fan club with only two fans.”
- “In America, the race goes to the loud, the solemn, the hustler.”
- “A writer must always tell the truth as he sees it, and a politician must never give the game away.”
- “Since the property party controls every aspect of media, they have had decades to create a false reality for a citizenry largely uneducated by public schools that teach conformity with an occasional advanced degree in consumerism.”
(Although they really shouldn’t have missed this one: “Put bluntly, who collects what money from whom in order to spend on what is all there is to politics, and in a serious country should be the central preoccupation of the media.” Or this one on Reagan. Or this on Kennedy/Clinton. Or...)
He often went far afield. He was a conspiracy theorist on FDR and Pearl Harbor, but not, thankfully, on Bush and 9/11, since he didn’t believe the Bush/Cheney team was actually smart enough to pull such a thing off. (My view.) Early on, he says of JFK, “He was really the most enjoyable company on Earth—terribly funny,” but later dismisses his presidency as one of the worst ever. But he said this in the 1970s before the great turnaround. He was brutal on Reagan. And on Bush, Jr.? “We’ve had bad presidents in the past, but we’ve never had a goddamned fool,” he says here.
He was the great class traitor. He grew up in D.C. amid power and wealth, was trained at St. Albans, saw himself as a man of the people although he never was. He wanted a new U.S. Constitution. The doc doesn’t go into that. He felt the great betrayal was codified in 1947 with the creation of the national security state. We gave up a Republic, he felt, for an Empire.
His grandfather, Thomas Gore, a blind U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, and one of only a handful of men who didn’t vote for our entry into World War I, told his constituents, “I will never rob your cradle to feed the dogs of war.” He was promptly voted out of office.
That’s the disconnect, isn’t it? The thing doesn’t work no matter what. A new U.S. Constitution, which would be the greatest roll of the dice ever, and we’ll still wind up with us, the propagandized masses. “We forget everything,” he says here—hence the title—but Vidal seems to forget this. Or he dismisses it for better game: the ruling classes; his people.
Someone to laugh at the squares with
At the end, you get the feeling everyone wanted one more bon mot. They waited on it like they waited on the toothless insult from an elderly Groucho. Vidal obliged. “The four most beautiful words in the English language,” he tells the camera at the end of this doc: “I told you so.”
Except he didn’t. He told them, but without the “so.” In his lifetime, most things—save racial matters, gender matters—got worse. How sad to hear him in the 1960s argue with William F. Buckley on the unfairness of a system, our system at the time, in which the top 5 percent owned 20 percent of the wealth. Would that we were still there. By 2007, the top 1 percent owned more than 34 percent of the wealth, and the top 10 percent owned 80 percent of it. And they continue to rob the cradle to feed the dogs of war. Because we let them.
I met him once, in 1999, during a book promotion for “The Smithsonian Institution.” I’d interviewed by fax and met him before the event at Seattle’s Town Hall. He was taller than I’d anticipated, but heavier, and with halitosis. I had trouble conversing with him because of that. Also because he was Gore Vidal and I was a too-polite kid from Minnesota. But even then he was in his elderly Groucho phase. Everyone was ready for the bon mot. Everyone was ready for some dry, acerbic culture. Why not? The alternative, what we normally get, the blunt stupidity of the Bushies, leaves you feeling hollowed out. Gore, he was someone to laugh at the squares with.