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Gore Vidal - The United States Of Amnesia

by Louise Adams
Tuesday Oct 1, 2013

Nicholas Wrathall's exquisite panegyric "Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia" opens in a cemetery, where the famed writer and muckraker reflects over his tombstone, his 1925 birth year inscribed on the left, with 2012 soon to be added on the other side.

The 90-minute documentary is a Gore Vidal compendium, and required viewing for this oblivious generation, lest we forget a foremost ground-breaker who challenged Americans to think deeply about politics, religion and sexuality.

Born into a privileged, political family - his blind grandfather was a Senator, his estranged mother a part of the Kennedy clan, himself a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt's - Vidal moved far left of his Exeter-educated roots to become an outspoken novelist and essayist.

He said, "You don't decide to be a writer; you are one or you're not one," and his post-WWII books were first lauded, then considered too shocking to be reviewed (his "The City and the Pillar" was the first to depict explicit homosexual content).

So he moved to L.A. to earn money writing teleplays and script-doctor pictures like "Ben-Hur," and assembled an influential Hollywood coterie including Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Vidal became a staple television pundit and a frequent guest on friend Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," among other panels. Vidal repeatedly, and skillfully, sucker-punched William F. Buckley with mere rhetoric - naming him "always to the right, always in the wrong" - even as the conservative slammed him as "a queer."

Vidal "passed all the American myths through his fiction and turned them on their heads to create a counter-narrative."

After his own unsuccessful Senate runs on both coasts, Vidal and Howard Austen, his lifelong partner (platonic, said Vidal), moved to a breathtaking Italian villa to write, entertain friends, and to be able to "see his own country from a distance." Among other output, there he completed his U.S. power trilogy ("Burr," "1876," "Washington, D.C." ), where Vidal "passed all the American myths through his fiction and turned them on their heads to create a counter-narrative."

A "mix of Mark Twain and Henry James," Vidal skewered religion as a "born-again atheist," and, when many other journalists shied away, held politicos in the 80s, 90s, and aughts accountable due to his "great shit detector."

Vidal's political predictions have come true with a vengeance, such as the unchecked rise of American empire that has united the Muslim world against this country, and that George W. Bush was a "goddam fool, answering to his boss Cheney." He also foresaw the termination of the Republican Party (fingers crossed).

The film skillfully weaves a half-century of interviews and stills, notable quotes, and conversations with acolytes including Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, actor Tim Robbins, and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Gore Vidal worried "We learn nothing because we remember nothing." Watch this documentary to stave off our collective amnesia.

Louise Adams is a Chicago freelance writer at www.treefalls.com (and a nom de guerre).


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