01/07/14 Film Essay # , , , ,

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2014)

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2014)
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.

Present History

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.

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15/12/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin(book)
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn


Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg, portrays Abraham Lincoln’s masterful and determined political leadership in passing the 13th Amendment through the US House of Representatives and abolishing slavery by law.

As my memory serves, Abraham Lincoln was a tall and skinny man who spoke eye to eye from whatever lofty podium to whatever man, woman or child in front of him.  Perhaps the opening scene, where soldiers of the Civil War bayonet and stomp one another in hand to hand combat, serve to remind audiences that when Mr. Lincoln spoke, he had to first overcome the heartache of a trampled people in order to be heard.  To do this, the former President often tells a story that ends with a soft smile to invite the listener to come closer to his meaning.

Before President Lincoln meets the camera’s lens face on, two black Union soldiers stand before his shadowy presence as he sits atop a wooden railway platform.  They tell the man of their hopes after the war is over. President Lincoln (expertly embodied by Daniel-Day Lewis as weary, worn and regal) slowly comes into being as the man we all recognize.  Simultaneously homespun and larger than life, Lincoln asks how they’re doing.  One talks smart, making it clear his days of subservience are over.  “I don’t like the smell of boot wax and I can’t cut no hair.”  Lincoln responds with a story about his unruly, wire brush-like hair and how he wishes he could find a barber who could deal with it. They have to laugh. He makes his point. He is easy in their company but he won’t be intimidated.

Then, two young white soldiers – boys really – step in and thank him for his speech on the Gettysburg battlefield dedicating the National Cemetery. Mr. Lincoln wonders aloud, “Could you hear me?”  By way of an answer, they recite the few paragraphs he spoke.  At this point, shivers ran up my spine.  Tears flowed down my cheeks.  The black soldier who was fresh with his words finishes the last of Lincoln’s address.  Boys, really, who had only heard the speech once, committed his words to memory.  Quintessential Spielberg; there’s no way the soldiers’ memory is that sharp, but strong emotion runs straight through the scene, and from my own past. I could hear my own father’s voice teaching me those words.  As a girl, I remembered how hard it was to memorize them.  And yet they never left my mind.  Years later, as I stood in the Lincoln Memorial, I heard my father’s voice in my head as I read the inscription carved in stone declaring a new birth of freedom.  So, these boys –looking up from below, still at eye level and ready for the challenges of their day – set the mood and anticipation for Lincolnto bring forth its point.

It is, after all, a story well known: Lincoln freed the slaves.

But it is also, after all, a story not so well known.  It wasn’t the war that freed them. It was a wrangled effort, led by Lincoln and voted to victory by a cantankerous House of Representatives.

It is not well known that the Constitution of the United States of America needed to be amended to abolish slavery.  The war wouldn’t have done it.  In order for slaves to be free under the law and not just by the say of Lincoln, who held war president powers, an amendment to the Constitution was needed.  Lincoln shows the former President as an adroit politician leading and winning a bitter fight in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery before the South surrendered.  Without the 13th Amendment – that is, without being bound to a U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery upon return to the union – the Southern states could have retained slavery when the war was over.  This point the film makes clear.

Lincoln is a helluva story, not to be missed because it’s a great film nor because it’s an excellent history lesson.  There are lots of facts to be checked.  It’s the story within the story to which the film draws attention and sets off fresh thoughts about the inner workings of our democracy that make it an important film to experience.  The underlying message about the democratic process as a stage for endemic opposition upon which a dedicated reach for reconciliation of opposites plays for all seasons can be easily overlooked.

When Lincoln asks his wife’s black maid, “What will your people do once free?” she answers, “I don’t know what we’ll do with freedom, but free comes first.  I am a mother of a son who fought and died for the Union. That’s the way I’ll remember myself.”

“The door. It opens.” shouts Thaddeus Stevens to a fellow congressman knocking at his office door.  Metaphorically, this small piece of dialog captures the accomplishment of the 13th Amendment.   The film plays Abraham Lincoln’s use of power close to the vest but never in doubt. It is Lincoln’s willingness to use his power as he sees fit that opens the door for many tough arguments to follow.  What people will do with the freedom the amendment provides will result in many struggles for identity.  Lincoln felt driven to open the door, to let things happen.  He never let the mantle of authority drop, not to joke and certainly not to please.

1865 is a bare 100 years before 1965, a time when the fight for civil rights was in the streets again and dividing North and South.  Separate, but equally challenged.  Not as bloody a fight as the Civil War, but bloody enough to spur the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964. At the turn of the century, women fought for the right to vote; 1920 brought the 19th Amendment prohibiting denial to vote on basis of sex but not before women went to jail in protest.

Today, one more time, a struggle for freedom presents itself.  Many of the prejudices exhorted in Lincoln about black people in 1865 resound in current opposition to gays and lesbians.  Archaic but modern, many civil rights issues remain the same.  The Dalai Lama says compassion is the true normal for humans so when we’re drawn into heated oppositions, the return to center is what’s called for.

The cinematography in Lincoln exemplifies Lincoln’s ability to hold the outside at bay while he holds our attention on his intent: compassion.  Behind every window of darkened, often candlelit rooms and just beyond every outside scene, a white light glows and blocks the view. Lincoln’s lanky presence, brief words and lengthy stories lie within a dazzling brilliance, intensifying the masterful interiority of his vision.  His single-minded campaign to abolish slavery effects an historical victory for the world and ‘the unborn to come’ like a spotlighted, center stage act.  In the end, the light from another world comes in, shining upon his frail body lying dead in the center of a group of men in dark suits who will carry on.  However, as the victory vote came in that day so long ago in January, Lincoln stands amidst long, filmy white curtains filled with bright late light, holding his son under his arm and looking out a window where there’s nothing but the future to see.

Free is not an identity.  It’s a beginning of many searches by people who are free to argue fiercely in a ‘country where the fox and the hare say good night to one another’ (P.L. Travers).

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