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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

On Thursday night I attended the world premiere of The United States of Amnesia at the Tribeca Film Festival, a documentary on the life of Gore Vidal. In the audience was Jay Parini, Vidal's literary executor,  filmmaker Nicholas Wrathall and producer Burr Steers, Gore's nephew and a distant relation of Aaron Burr. The film -- which is beautifully shot -- begins with Gore, standing at his grave, narrating. Against the reality of impending death Gore, always somewhat dry and grave even at his wittiest, takes on his last, greatest role: that of godlike essayist, all-too-human. Gore narrated how he bought the grave, and it is noted that the grave is half-filled with his partner, Harold Austen, now deceased. For those who loved and admired Vidal, this is a beautifully shot but bittersweet way to begin such an endeavor. Kudos to the directors of photography: Derek Wiesenhahn, Joel Schwartzberg, Armando De’Ath. Job well done.

The film does't remain so maudelin throughout. The cinematography, as well as archived film from a memorable life and interviews with friends and sometimes foes, is beautifully done. The film features candid vérité footage of Vidal in his final years. The music -- particulary Couperin's Barricade Mysterieuse -- celebrates the life of an American outsider. But the visuals are incredible. The scene with Gore Vidal and Mikhail Gorbachev travelling the canals of Venice is priceless, as is the emotional -- a word I previously would not have used in the context of Gore Vidal -- scene when Vidal has to give up his majestic house with the astonishing view because of arthritis.

This documentary goes through the stuff Vidal fans are well aware of -- well born Gore's stormy relationship with his mother, Gore at Exeter, Gore in the Aleutian islands during WW2 (where arthritis first emerged), Gore the successful writer, Gore v Buckley, Gore as expat and, finally Gore, wise old American -- but it excels at humanizing Vidal and placing his political wisdom in context. Gore, being carted around in a wheelchair in his last years, never allowed himself to be depicted as so frail. And yet frailty, in old age, is a Truth -- and Gore Vidal never shied away from the Truth; but self-revelation is a bit alien to the great writer. His subjects have always been Life, Art and Politics -- but never his life, always the life of statesmen from various periods of history. Here he is the subject.

Vidal was ahead of the curve on so many issues that it is difficult nowadays to see the political courage it took to, say, argue on behalf of gay rights in the 1950s and 1960s on television and in print. His first novel, which depicted gay sex got him essentially blacklisted by the New York Times. The philosopher Richard Rorty, in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity argued that there are two kinds of public intellectuals. One kind -- Marx, Burke, Dickens -- awaken us to great political Truths, they are communitarians. Another kind -- Kierkegaard, Nietzche, Nabokov and, I would argue Vidal -- pursue a goal of private perfection in Rorty's words. He sought and succeded in perfecting himself, of living a beautiful life.

Gore, of course, was an atheist, a sophisticated pagan. And so it is of no surprise that he ended up in Italy, off the Amalfi coast, in an ancient house overlooking the Atlantic ocean. Of Vidal's legendary house in Ravello, author Matt Frei writes:
Vidal's spectacular house La Rondinaia, the Swallow's Nest. Ravello, if you haven't been, is one of those truly unforgettable places. It is perched on top of a cliff high above the Amalfi coast. Richard Wagner came here to convalesce and compose parts of Parsifal. Henrik Ibsen came to convalesce and write A Doll's House. Gore Vidal came here to ruin his health and entertain his friends.
That seems just about right. As Sting -- who is, curiously, in this movie -- says, "it is only fitting that the Gods life on a mountain." No higher praise. It is one of the regrest of my life that I never attended a Gore Vidal party in Ravello. And yet I soldier on through life.

At the Q & A after the film I asked Nicholas Wrathall if it was difficult getting Christopher Hitchens -- my first writing mentor -- to talk about Vidal on film. Vidal had named Hitchens his literary heir years ago when they both wrote for Vanity Fair. Then, after 9/11, Hitchens ran with the neoconservatives, arguing for war in Iraq and attacked Vidal -- in the pages of VF -- as something of a conspiracy nut. Vidal rescinded his literary heir offer. Nicholas Wrathall told me that he didn't have a problem getting Hitchens to talk about Gore -- quite the contrary. He felt that Hitchens, towards the end of his life, wanted to make amends to Gore, become friends again and that he felf he was using him as something of a go-between. When Wrathall brought this up with Gore, he said, Gore shrugged. The friendship had been irrevocably broken. Both ended up dying without ever making up. Sad that such intellectual heavyweights who believed in so many of the same things could not come together once again before death.

But in death, to paraphrase Lucretius -- a favorite philosopher of Vidal -- all things become as one: matter.

See this documentary if you can. It is wonderful.

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