“Some people would probably say he’s a traitor to his class. But when you’re born into a certain class you never really get out of it. You may consciously decide to get out of it but of your upbringing is there; it’s ingrained in you. ” The “he” filmmaker Nicholas Wrathall is speaking of is Gore Vidal—the subject of his new documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia which IFC films premiered in New York and LosAngeles and via Landmark cinemas plays in some twenty U.S. cities.
Documentaries have in recent years gone from specialized “art house” items to “blockbuster”-sized ones thanks to the success of such diverse fare as Bowling for Columbine, Paris Is Burning, Grey Gardens and Hoop Dreams. Unlike those films, Wrathall’s sports a built-in advantage as it centers on a genuine superstar. For some seventy years Gore Vidal has made a name for himself as a novelist exploring Americn History (Burr, Lincoln), ancient antiquity (Julian, Creation) his old wild imagination (Myron, Duluth) and what he refers to in Wrathall’s film as his “dark heart” (Messiah, Kalki) for over the course of his long and multifacted career (which addition to novels includes, plays, screenplays and scores of cogent, incisive essays) Gore Vidal has never been one to stroll “the sunny side of the street” when the dark clouds on the other hold the truth. Said truth involves facts about our history our rulers would prefer we not remember—hence the “amnesia” Vidal speaks of. He spent his life making sure said amnesia was answered to. And the Australian-born Wrathall (who has distinguished himself as a maker of music videos and documentary shorts prior to this new feature) is well aware of this.
“I was familiar with his work through my parents, really,” Wrathall recalls on a visit to Los Angeles as part of the U.S. rollout of the film. “But when I really started paying attention to him as an adult was when he was very outspoken about 9/11 and he wrote those pamphlets.” Wrathall is referring to Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (Thunder’s Mouth Books, 2002), ” in which Vidal dares to point out that Al Qaida’s September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon didn’t come out of the blue but in reaction to longstanding U.S. policy in the Middle East that resulted in the deaths of far more people that those who died that day.
“I read those pamphlets. I was living in New York so I was very affected by the whole situation and felt like he was a voice of reason in the media landscape at the time. It was only then that I came to realize the breadth and depth of his work. It was soon after that I got to meet him. “
That came about through the intervention of Wrathall’s friend, and Vidal’s nephew Burr Steers—a filmmaker whose Igby Goes Down deals with a modern day “class traitor.”
Uncle Gore has a cameo in his nephew’s film, as he has in such outre items as Gattaca, With Honors and Bob Roberts. He loved the movies as his classic satire Myra Breckinridge attests. But his relationship with them has been a very mixed bag. While his screenplays for Ben-Hur and Suddenly Last Summer (both 1959) were satisfactory experiences, and the film version of his play The Best Man (which he produced as well as scripted) first rate, the Mike Sarne film Myra Breckinridge (1970) was a desecration of the book of the same name. Likewise Caligula (1979) Penthouse magazine entrepreneur Bob Guccione’s rendition of Vidal’s original screenplay about the mad Roman emperor—which top-lined a stellar cast (Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud) who were brushed aside in favor of a clutch of porno adepts. Wrathall’s film makes no mention of these cinematic misdeeds, being concerned with Vidal’s last years and how he spent them in the wake of the death of his very longtime companion Howard Austen—who he met one memorable evening at the Everard Baths (once New York’s most notorious gay bathhouse.) Austen was as cheerful and bubbly as Vidal was reserved and dour. But as his half-sister Nina notes in the film “Theirs was the only marriage in the family that worked.”
“That was a real shame for me, that Howard had already passed when I met Gore,” Wrathall laments. “We could only include him through the material that was available. ” But he did have fresh material dealing with Vidal closing his house in Ravello, Italy, and moving to Los Angeles for good, where he’s feted by friends both fair (his half-sister Nina Straight) and fair-weather (writer Christopher Hitchens who Vidal pointedly snubs at a party) But as Wrathall shows the most important person is Vidal’s life was his grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma. Vidal made his grandfather’s last name is first name (chucking Eugene Luther, Jr.) for good reason—for though blind his grandfather opened the boy’s eyes.
“His grandfather’s influence is so big, ” notes Wrathall. “His drive, his stoicism in a way. He used to tell stories of being in his grandfather’s house and his grandfather, despite being blind had this incredible library, and he would send Gore upstairs to the fourth shelf in the north wing to get the seventh book from the right. He just had this photographic memory and I think Gore did too. That was his education. “
Of course the creation of Gore Vidal wasn’t all his grandfather’s doing, Wrathall observes: “Gore had no trouble expressing himself from a very young age, and was out very young having written The City and the Pillar [a novel of gay love that while mild by today’s standards was a scandal of the first order in 1948, with the New York Times declining to review any of Vidal’s books for years afterwards] provocative and outrageous in the things he said throughout his life—even in the fifties. So maybe he was out of time but he lived the life he wanted to live.”
That freedom, one suspects figured as much if not more than anything else in the antipathy Conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. had for Vidal—made plain for the world to see in their 1968 television set-to on the occasion of the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago—where police attacked anti-war demonstrators in the streets with a fury seldom seen. Buckley approved. Vidal needless to say did not. It came to a head in an exchange—happily included in the film in which Buckley calls Vidal a “Crypto-Nazi” to which Vidal replies “The only Crypto-Nazi here is you,” after which Buckley snarls “You queer!” and threatens to physically attack Vidal—who knowing this won’t happen laughs in Buckley’s face, and taunts “Remember Sharon?”
“Sharon” was not a person but rather a town—Sharon, Connecticut—referring to an incident in Buckley’s past, when he and his siblings desecrated an Episcopalian church there because its rector sold his home on the Sharon village green to a Jewish family in protest of a restrictive covenant prohibiting ownership by Jews.
“You could make a whole film about the Gore-Buckley debate,” says Wrathall. “So much of their back and forth dealt with issues that are still with us today,” says Wrathall. “I left ‘remember Sharon’ in, but it’s such a tangential story and could lead down a dark path.”
Perhaps a documentary now in pre-production, Vidal vs. Buckley, will go down that path. There have been Vidal documentaries before Wrathall’s, Gore Vidal: My Life (2002), and American Masters: The Education of Gore Vidal (2003) being the most significant. Gore Vidal: The United Staes of Amnesia calls itself “Gore Vidal’s last word and testimony” being that it was the last made while he was still alive. But an artist as protean as Vidal has ways of surviving far beyond anything as quotidian as death. And as Wrathall shows, thanks to the Occupy movement, he’s as contemporary as ever.
“I think that’s part of Gore’s power. There’s such a denial of class [in] the facade of an egalitarian society. That’s something Gore has always been at pains to point out throughout his career. I think Gore found the whole ‘Occupy’ movement interesting because they were pointing it out again. It was great to see him excited about it. Someone was speaking about it the other day and being very dismissive of what they had achieved. But bringing that conversation into public discourse was quite an achievement.”
And that conversation shows no signs of coming to an end.