art feature
 April 10, 2014

 


Remembering Gore Vidal

by Bruce Rodgers

Every so often the best interpretation of American cultural and political history comes from an outsider, a non-American. The complexities, absurdities and contradictions of America appeal to an artist’s sensibilities and creativity. The urge to reveal and remind the native-born inhabitants of this country of their shared truths and follies rarely seem to come from an establishment person — enter Gore Vidal and Australian filmmaker Nicholas Wrathall.

Wrathall spent his childhood in Australia and Canada, developing his craft first through music videos then later gaining recognition for the documentary Abandoned: The Betrayal of America’s Immigrants, which was featured on PBS’s Independent Lens. His latest finished film is Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia, released last year and to be shown at this year’s Kansas City Filmfest.

Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia is a superb film — enlightening, funny, accurate, provocative and most of all, a tribute and chronicle of Gore Vidal, novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, TV political commentator and self-described “defector” from the establishment.

“This was Nick’s dream passion,” said Chad Troutwine, one of the film’s executive producers who helped with the financing of the project and was instrumental in bringing the film to Kansas City. Troutwine said early on Wrathall “hit it off” as a friend to Vidal’s nephew Burr Steers, a director and actor. “Those are the two who have been there from the very beginning.”

Wrathall first started filming Vidal in 2005. The project took four years of filming, ending before Vidal’s death in July 2012 at 86, and two years to edit. Vidal gave his complete blessing to the project, said Troutwine.

“The film is an incredibly intimate look,” said Troutwine. “Like a lot of documentaries, it really spends an enormous amount of time with its subject.”

Not surprising, Gore Vidal was quite the subject. His life seems almost a made up one, a Forest Gump-like exposure to the famous — expanded to a first-name basis — including some of America’s most powerful political personalities and relationships with Hollywood film stars, internationally known musicians and notable literary figures.

In the film’s beginning, Vidal stands above his gravesite, one he shares with Howard Austen, his long-time partner. It’s an old Vidal, dropping names of people he knows buried in the same cemetery, pointing here and there with his cane, recalling his first love, Jimmy Trimble and looking down at Austen’s name carved on the stone slab. It’s a near-tender beginning to the film.

We learn about Vidal’s parents; his father, Eugene Luther Vidal, an aviator who wanted to bring an inexpensive airplane to the masses and a lover of Amelia Earhart, and Nina Gore, mother, unstable, distant and attracted to alcohol. When his parents divorce, Vidal goes to live with his blind grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore. Gore, an anti-war and isolationist Progressive Democrat, elected to Senate from Oklahoma in 1930 and later a lawyer in Washington D.C., introduced the young Vidal to the political arena and back alleys within the beltway, and had a profound influence on him. Vidal commented that his grandfather died poor in Oklahoma, a testament to his honesty in public life. The film uses old photos and film clips throughout in chronicling Vidal’s early life.

After World War II, Vidal, at 21, publishes his first novel, Williwaw (1946), to great acclaim. Two years later The City and the Pillar causes an uproar with its open presentation of homosexuality. Years ahead of the Stonewall riots, it was Vidal alone who placed homosexuality before the American public without fear or apology.

“It’s as natural to be a homosexual as it is to be heterosexual,” Vidal said.

In the film, friends talk of Vidal while holding to the relevancy of his ideas, and archival TV footage repeatedly highlights the charm and sagacity of what was then (1960s-70s) America’s most public intellectual, sometimes including the entourage of other famous and non-famous people around him. Most fun is clips from the notorious 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention debate with conservative writer and intellectual William F. Buckley Jr., where Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley calls him a “queer,” and the two nearly come to blows on live television.

Quotes, spoken and on screen, from Vidal appear throughout Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia, reflecting his opinions on homosexuality, race, the Vietnam War, celebrity status, democracy, writing, politics, JFK, both Bush presidents, classism, sex, love, style, religion, friendship, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 9/11, Obama — Vidal points his laser beam intellect on every aspect of American life from the last 60 years.

Listening to Vidal and reading his quotes — almost hearing his brain engage like someone flipping through an old library reference card catalog — can be an exhilarating. For people who wonder about nearly everything, ask questions about most things close to them, shake their head at human stupidity and selfishness, Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia releases the pressure valve in a joyous realization that thank God there was someone on America’s public stage with courage, intelligence and wit to cut through the bullshit.

Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times upon Vidal’s death said, “Mr. Vidal was, at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right.”

Maybe so, but let’s hope not.

As the film demonstrates, Gore Vidal was that unusual combination of aristocrat and populist, emitting a dry-ice kind of cool where people around him sought to find his soft center as if to share in his essence. For America, he was the best kind of patriot, almost a reincarnation of one of this country’s Founding Fathers brought back to set things right.

Of Vidal’s historical novels, Jay Parini said in the film, “All the great myths of American history pass through Gore Vidal’s fiction, each of them is reinterpreted, often turned on its head and Gore showing us his counter narrative.”

Troutwine said director Wrathall struggled with the title of his documentary on Vidal, finally settling on using a quote from Vidal.

Speaking of his country, Vidal said, “It is the United States of Amnesia; we miraculously forget everything so the lessons we should be learning we will have forgotten in no time at all.”

This film challenges that conclusion, making it important that we remember Gore Vidal and what he had to say about America and about just about everything.

Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia will be shown Friday, April 11 at 6 pm, and Saturday, April 12 at 5:45 pm, both showings at the Palace at the Plaza. Producer Chad Troutwine will appear there Friday, April 11 from 6-7:30 pm. Go to http://kcfilmfest.org for more information.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publisher_editekc@kcactive.com.