Editor’s note: The second annual Brattleboro Film Festival runs Nov. 1-14 and features more than 30 films with something for every taste and all ages. View from the Fest is a series of articles previewing some of the festival’s film selections. For more information, visit www.brattleborofilmfestival.org.
The United States of Amnesia"
It’s no mistake that the opening scene of Nicholas Wrathall’s "Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia" takes place in a graveyard. Vidal, a "literary juggernaut" who penned over 30 books, hobbles in on a cane and raps a tombstone as if daring it to yank him into the ground. Vidal died just months before Wrathall’s film -- a hot item right now on the festival circuit -- was released.
A cross between Noam Chomsky and Oscar Wilde, Vidal was a polarizing figure, loved by some, derided by others. Vidal broached everything with a clinical detachment that would have made Dr. Spock envious. A shape-shifter by nature, he was equally at home with celebrities and statesmen. He counted John F. Kennedy and Tennessee Williams among his closest friends.
Best known for his essays and historical fiction, Vidal made the chronicling of the "American Experiment" his mission in life. "I am reflecting on the United States," Vidal said. "What is this country? Is it anything new under the sun?"
Gore Vidal, says Wrathall, "is someone who’s always at war to save the Republic and defeat the Empire." Vidal’s grandfather was a Senator and isolationist who had once aspired to the presidency. Vidal himself ran for public office twice, saying he was taking care of "unfinished business" in the family.
Although he could play the detached observer, Vidal was also quite a provocateur. "If he sees a wound, he doesn’t heal it, he jabs it," says critic Jay Parini. This was true not only of politics but of sex. His 1946 book, "The City and the Pillar" was one of the first major American novels to depict homosexual sex explicitly. The New York Times refused to review it, but that didn’t stop Vidal.
Twenty years later, he published "Myra Breckinridge" -- a satirical, transsexual comedy that was made into a Hollywood film.
More than provocation and urbane eloquence, it might be that Vidal is best remembered as a modern day Cassandra. Nearly 40 years before the Occupy Wall Street movement, Vidal was warning of percentages and revolt.
"You’re going to have a revolution if you don’t give the people the things they want," he said, castigating archconservative William F. Buckley during a 1968 debate. "Does it appeal to you that five percent of the population owns 20 percent of the wealth?"
Wrathall pokes holes in Vidal’s smooth façade to reveal -- in stolen glimpses -- a little boy vulnerability rarely seen during the writer’s life. When asked if he’d ever been in love, Vidal becomes wistful before mentioning a classmate at Exeter who was later killed in Iwo Jima. "That was long, long ago," he says. When Buckley called him a "queer" later in the debate (and in front of a nationwide audience), the camera lingers on what would have been a perfectly composed Vidal had it not been for the look of bewildered hurt that flashed across his features.
No, the great Gore Vidal was not as bullet proof as he seemed, Wrathall suggests, a fact that Vidal himself acknowledged. A case in point: Although JFK was "the most enjoyable company on earth," his presidency was a "disaster."
JFK made some marvelous speeches, Vidal tells us, "but no action ever followed." For years, Vidal kept a picture of JFK in his library. "Not as an icon," he says, "but (to remember) never again to be taken in by anyone’s charm."
As friends and lovers died and Vidal watched the United States spiral down into corruption and disarray, the film takes on a darker cast, with an increasingly frail Vidal pondering the growing discrepancy between the ideals of the founding fathers and the state of the union. "The United States has become an empire of the most predatory kind," says. At film’s end, we are back where we started: in the graveyard. Now, however, Vidal is in a wheelchair, the U.S.government is in shutdown, and 1 percent of the population own over one third of the nation’s wealth. "It is the United States of Amnesia. We miraculously forget everything. So the lessons we should be learning we probably will have forgotten in no time at all."
"Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia" (2013 Nicholas Wrathall, 83 minutes) plays twice at the Latchis Theatre: Sunday, Nov. 3, at 6:30 p.m., with a post-film discussion led by Marlboro College Professor Jerry Levy, and Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 8:30 p.m.