Director: Nicholas D. Wrathall
Stars: William F. Buckley, Thomas Gore, Christopher Hitchens
“We are the United States of amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing.” The title of the documentary is of Gore Vidal’s making…only he claims to have forgotten he said it.
If Gore Vidal is a raconteur, United States of Amnesia is a provocateur. Nicholas Withrall’s intellectually compelling documentary of Gore Vidal rummages through the picturesque life of a man who popped up in many of America’s most fascinating venues and generates a need to get into a conversation. Gore’s wicked wit and political punditry are legend and here, now, posthumously via film, he continues to demand discourse. In an age when films are often viewed alone or with a sole partner, United States of Amnesia makes you want to reach out and get someone to watch it so you can talk about the man, what he said and what’s going on in America.
The film opens at Gore Vidal’s gravestone with him commenting on the people he knows underground. The witty double entendre is, no doubt, on purpose. He talks as he always did, directly to his listeners in one memorable quote after another, challenging us to think for ourselves about the country in which we live. A man of contradictions and very much alive in his 80’s, he’s droll and entertaining. He lived in Italy and wrote books about the United States; he was sexually flamboyant and monogamously committed to Howard Austen; he loved attention and sought solitude; he was an aristocrat identified with the populous.
Throughout the film, printed quotes of Gore Vidal appear like captions in a silent film so we read his words aloud in our minds, adding our own emotional charge. Here are a few of his quotes on politics, sex, writing and life choices:
Politics — “By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he has been bought ten times over.”
Sex — “… I never miss an opportunity to have sex or appear on television.”
Writing — “A writer must always tell his truth, the truth as he sees it, and a politician must never give the game away.”
Life Choices — “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn.“
Gore-isms — “I am a born-again atheist.”
“All in all, I would not have missed this century for the world.”
Let conversation begin. Pick one of his subjects or one of your own.
Beside the Grave
Gore Vidal’s documentary begins with him at his gravestone, his birth year already engraved. His death date – July 31, 2012 – is added later as the film ends. Asked what he’d like to leave as his legacy, he answered, “I couldn’t care less.” The implication seems to be that it’s up to the living to carry on. And yet, as the credits roll at the end of the film, he appears one more time to say what he calls the four most beautiful words in the English language, “I told you so.” Ironic and apt, he continues in his film afterlife to be a man of contradictions. The point of a life lived fully to a bittersweet end is made by the documentary bookending its beginning and end in the cemetery with Gore standing by, leaning on his cane. Gore repeatedly denied fear of death and he certainly made the most of his span from birth to grave. By speaking beside his grave, pointing his cane in the directions of others he’s known in life, he makes us take note that a human life is confined and stretched between dates of birth and death.
Where he lived and what he wrote about
In the early years, he lived everywhere and nowhere. Private schools and parents who were never home, summers in the Senate reading to his blind grandfather. He rejected Harvard, embraced Hollywood behind the camera as a screenwriter and in front of the camera on television as a celebrity intellectual before he left the whole she-bang and bought a villa high on the cliffs of Ravello, Italy. His serious writing about U.S. politics was done from his perch with an Olympian view for forty years. He claimed that whenever he wanted to know what was going on with the U.S., he looked into his own black heart – or so he said, implying he knew the faults of his country first hand. His walls are lined with books. He contradicted his reputation as gadfly flitting from party to party with one of being a recluse. Many said he was shy. But most invited him as the guest who made a party a real party. His history, his friends and family, what he reveals and what he doesn’t leaves you guessing. Gore Vidal sticks to the political, avoids the personal.
Sexuality and Privacy
A man, who today would be out as gay, labeled his sex life private, promiscuous and immaterial to political ambition. He had a life partner for more than fifty years and 1000 sexual encounters. He ran for office twice, once in the 60’s and once in the 80’s when his quick wit and cool manner lifted audiences away from inquiry about his sexuality to matters of greater concern. He believed a friend was a higher accomplishment than a sexual partner. Being gay comes up and gets dropped as an irrelevant subject next to his insights into politics and support from famous people. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote him letters of recommendation when he ran for office even after the New York Times stopped reviewing his books after The City and the Pillar dealt openly with homosexuality. He romps through Wrathall’s documentary quite like he did life. Never a dull moment and always something to talk about.
Was he really so psychologically ignorant that he didn’t recognize that his disdain for his mother was the bedrock of his greatest talent? Where did he think that viper’s instinct for hypocrisy came from? “She hated witnesses. She was always hiding something.” Yet Gore, when asked if there was one thing he would change in his life, said “Yes, my mother.” His keen instinct fueled his writing and his punditry, piercing illusions built on any sleight-of-hand grandeur. He felled the attempts of politicians to cover up mistakes and failures with aplomb, trusting his readers and listeners to be more active with truth than lies. Even John F. Kennedy, an early friend and political ally, was analyzed as a poor president and left him determined to be even more wary of charm. And yet as revelatory as his less than flattering conclusions of the Kennedy presidency were, he hesitated to criticize the spirit that defined the man. Spirit trumped fact in Gore Vidal’s words as it did in his life.
Joie De Vivre
Novelist, critic, prophet, idealist, essayist, aristocrat, bisexual, genius, controversial, politician, critic, promiscuous, pundit, pirate, genius, historian. Gore Vidal excelled at them all…and makes you want a list of your own just as long – and as furiously, factually personal. As you consider the friends with whom you’re talking about this film, you can’t quite help wanting to give each other encouragement to get on with adding to your own list. His own writing still vies for popularity with the gossip published about him. Gore Vidal loved writing. He wrote 22 novels (e.g. Lincoln), numerous movies (e.g. Ben Hur) and plays (e.g. The Best Man) as well as essays, which makes his comment that he never worked a day of his life provocatively personal and further fodder for conversation.
Most importantly, Gore Vidal raises awareness of a U.S. political shift from Republic to Empire, a country invading other countries for dubious reasons. The documentary marks the growth of militarism, stage by stage from WWII to present day, reminding us that we did not have a conscripted army before Truman nor an industrial-military complex at the heart of U.S. peacetime economics before Vietnam. His popular book, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, a probing critique of U.S. reasons for going to war, developed a counter narrative of American politics. American journalist, Robert Scheer, states that Vidal became tougher in his criticism of the U.S. in his last years and recommends United States of Amnesia to any and all students of history; perhaps students with inquiring minds of all ages.
With Iraq exploding in June, 2014, United States of Amnesia is a timely film. Gore Vidal may have died in 2012 but his voice didn’t. Now dead, his voice is heard via film urging us to remember recent, nay, present history in Iraq and not fall victim to the convenience of amnesia. “War on terror is a slogan”, not a plan, he cuts and thrusts, demanding discourse. United States of Amnesia appears at a critical moment to stimulate conversation about war and about how to respond to conflicts in other countries. We need to remember, think about and use our history to be smart about what we do next. We’ve personally observed what we need to remember in Iraq; our memories are relevant.