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Michael Conniff

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The United States of Gore Vidal

Posted: 09/27/2013 9:36 am

It's not every day that you get to see the original video of William F. Buckley Jr. calling Gore Vidal "a queer" on network television, but people in Aspen will get that chance during Aspen Filmfest with "Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia," a terrific documentary from Nicholas Wrathall. The showing is Frday September 27 at noon at the at the Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen.

Among the multitude of amazing things about the writer-celebrity-raconteur Gore Vidal is that he never hid his homosexuality. Unlike so many of his peers, he was way out of the closet as early as 1948, when he published "The City and The Pillar" some 65 years ago. (That's 65 years ago.)

And that's not the least of it nor the best of it. Gore Vidal's oeuvre is not just his books or his plays or screenplays but Gore Vidal himself. He was not only ahead of his time but also completely of his time--a creature who played the media like a Moog synthesizer. He wrote bestselling historical novels, Broadway plays, and the screenplay for "Ben Hur," the Academy Award winner for Best Picture in 1959. He was also an ex-patriot who lived most of his adult life in Italy.

Most of all he was a political animal, raised in Washington, D.C., by his blind grandfather, Thomas Gore, the United States Senator from Oklahoma. Vidal changed his first name to "Gore" to better emulate his sainted grandfather and thus was Gore Vidal born.

"What was compelling for me," says director Nicholas Wrathall, "is his ability to speak truth to power, to analyze motivations, to understand why people do things."

Vidal existed mostly in a time of monopoly newspapers and three television networks but was never black-and-white. Instead--with Buckley and Norman Mailer and Truman Capote--he became the intellectual as celebrity, an anti-Zelig always in the foreground of events.

Here's an example. The actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon and their families were visiting Vidal at his Italian villa, where he spent most of his time. Vidal said some friends were coming over for dinner--his friends Sting and Bruce Springsteen and their wives. Perhaps you've heard of them.

The moveable feast never really ended, not even when's Vidal's partner in a proudly nonsexual relationship, Howard Austen, passed away. Even when he was wheeled around in a wheelchair at the end of his life, Vidal always stood read to fire away, which he did with glee that knew no atrophy.

Never was that more evident than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the criticism that stoked Wrathall's documentary interest.

"He was one of the voices in the wilderness in the rush into war," Wrathall, 47, says now.

Vidal railed against the national amnesia: our vestigial inability to embrace the obvious lessons of the pass, particularly the lust for empire at the point of a gun.

"'Amnesia' is something Gore says in the film," Wrathall recalls. "He's written essays about it. We don't learn from our mistakes. We go around and make the same mistakes again. That comes out in the film. All through his life he's been so far hear of his time, warning us of imperialism throughout the ages, like Vietnam and Iraq."

Vidal saw nothing conspiratorial about our mistakes because the players on the stage were strutting about in the open. You might even say the Iraq War worked out perfectly for the amorphous cash-sucking beast President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, called "the military-industrial complex" in his farewell address of 1960.

"They got what they wanted," Wrathall says. "They have their war. They destroyed the country. The oil market in Iraq is permanent. They achieved expansion and dominance in the Middle East."

The best thing about Wrathall's film is the way he captures Gore Vidal in his twilight, when so much that he predicted had come true--a bittersweet turn of events.

"It was amazing," Wrathall says. "He had such a sharp intellect. It was an honor and learning experience for me. He could speak on any subject, with parallels back to ancient times. He knew Australian politics, where I'm from. He not only knew ex-Prime Ministers but he was a mentor to them. It was astounding to see the breadth of his knowledge and reach.... He was still very angry and disappointed about the way things were going. He saw [President Barack] Obama as another gatekeeper. He was hopeful about the Occupy movement and happy when he saw young people marching in the street."

The documentary begins and ends with Gore Vidal at his grave, his tombstone ready beside his beloved partner's at the end of a long and unprecedented life.

"He was proud and content with the work he'd done," Wrathall remembers. "He did as much as he possibly could. He worked very hard every day of his life. We're trying to keep his legacy alive."

If Gore Vidal had not existed, you could not have made him up. Amnesia or not, there's no way to forget him.

 

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