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10 Jan 2014

PSIFF: A Chat With the Director of 'Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia'

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Gore Vidal meets Mikhail Gorbachev, as shown in Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia. Gore Vidal meets Mikhail Gorbachev, as shown in Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia.

The late Gore Vidal was a lot of things—playwright, screenwriter, novelist, man of letters, historian and political commentator. Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia gives a look at all those facets of the late author’s life in detail.

All of three of the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s screenings of The United States of Amnesia sold out. During the Thursday, Jan. 9, screening at the Palm Canyon Theatre, there was not an empty seat in the house. After nine months on the film-festival circuit now, The United States of Amnesia deserves a wider release.

Another publication’s review of the film stated that there were many surprises in the film; however, fans who have read both of Vidal’s autobiographies—–Palimpsest and Point to Point Navigation—won’t find many surprises. His feuds with William F. Buckley, his split with John F. Kennedy over foreign policy, and his arguments with Truman Capote and Norman Mailer are all well-documented.

The 89-minute film, showing Vidal throughout his life, is a detailed production.

“The documentary was five or six years in the making,” Wrathall said during a recent phone interview. “I always found him to be a very inspiring writer. I was very interested him as an intellectual—someone who was outspoken against the general media’s representation of things.”

The documentary starts shortly after the 2003 death of Vidal’s longtime companion, Howard Austen. Vidal is seen visiting the resting place of Howard in a cemetery in Washington D.C.; it’s also where he would be buried next to Austen after his death in 2012, at the age of 86.

The story of his childhood follows. Vidal was born into a life of privilege. His father, Eugene Vidal, was in the aeronautics industry, and tried create a line of planes that were easy to fly. His mother, Nina Gore, was an alcoholic. Vidal was later raised by his grandparents, Nina Belle and Thomas Gore, a Democratic U.S. senator from Oklahoma who was also blind.

“He had a difficult time as a child,” Wrathall said. “His parents divorced when he was very young; his mother was drinking a lot; his father was absent a lot because he was working in the airline industry, so for much of his childhood, he was brought up by his grandparents. As a child, his main influence was his grandparents. His grandfather was a quite famous senator; as a blind man, (his grandfather) put himself through law school. He opposed America’s entry into both world wars, and was very outspoken.”

While Vidal was born into the American establishment, he eventually spoke out against it. In the film, he is seen telling a group of people standing in an unemployment line during his failed U.S. Senate run in California in 1982: “It’s socialism for the rich, and free enterprise for the poor.”

Vidal was known for his staunch left-wing political views, anti-war activism and intense criticism of President George W. Bush. However, Vidal said he believed he was a conservative in the old sense of the word.

“I wouldn’t call him a conservative,” Wrathall said. “I’d say if anything, maybe you could say republican with a small ‘R,’ meaning a republican in the old sense of the word. He believed in the republic in America; he believed America should be focused more on taking care of its own and not expanding and empire-building. He didn’t believe in getting involved in Central America, and he didn’t believe in getting involved in the Middle East. I think he was anti-imperialism, and he was one of the first to coin the phrase ‘American empire.’”

Wrathall talked to Christopher Hitchens about Vidal shortly before Hitchens’ death in 2011. Hitchens is also seen in the film attending a release party for Point to Point Navigation in 2006.

“Gore was sort of a mentor to Hitchens,” Wrathall said. “They were once friends, and then, of course, they had a falling out. Right before they had a falling out, Hitchens made sort of an abrupt right turn into support for the Iraq War, which Gore saw as a real abomination and a traitor to his roots. He cut him off and didn’t want to speak to him again after that point. When I filmed that footage of the release of Point to Point, Hitchens was there in the room at the reception, and Gore sort of brushed him off.”

After the death of Austen in 2003, Vidal had to leave the mountaintop villa they shared in Ravello, Italy, because he was becoming more immobile. He returned to America and settled in Los Angeles, and some have said that the last years of his life were his best politically, as he took on the Bush administration and educated the public about what he saw as the end of our habeas corpus rights via the Patriot Act.

Vidal is shown in his old age being asked about what kind of legacy he wanted to leave behind. He answers very slowly: “I could care less.” That’s fitting for a man who said a long time ago, “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

Wrathall, on the other hand, does care how Vidal is remembered.

“Gore was an incredible intellectual and a very multifaceted person, given he wrote novels, screenplays essays and plays,” Wrathall said. “He was a provocateur, pointing out the problems of the world and being brave enough to speak the truth. I don’t think that many people are willing to do that, and he did it all his life. Many of the things he’s shown in the film saying in the ’50s, ‘60s and ‘70s are still very current. He was very much ahead of his time.”

For more information, visit www.gorevidaldocumentary.com.

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