Friday, April 18, 2014

"Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia": riveting biography of one of America's most iconic gay writers

The biography and documentary “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia”, directed by Nicholas D. Wrathall, as shown Friday evening by Filmfest DC at the Goethe-Institut in Washington, before a sold-out audience.

It is a gripping documentary (83 minutes) of the controversial writer and occasional politician (1925-2012).
The centerpiece of the film is some excerpts from his televised debate with William F. Buckley of National Review, around 1968, the time of the Chicago riots at the Democratic National Convention (the subject of the film “Medium Cool”, which attracted attention when I was in the Army, as most of “us” related to it.)  Buckley insists on defending individualism and a capitalist culture that encourages wealth, and says you can’t have innovation and progress (good for everybody) without it. Vidal notes that inequality that the capitalism feeds on can stretch society to the breaking point.  If you didn’t deserve the wealth you got only by exploitation, it may be taken away from you some day by force, called revolution. He seemed to see 9/11 in those terms, and actually communicated with OKC number Timothy McVeigh.

That is somewhat the point of my own new “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book, as emphasized in the press release that Xlibris just wrote (my main blog, April 11).  If so, there must be moral consequences for the individual, especially someone who is different or “divergent” like either Gore Vidal or myself, I would argue.  If I acquire recognition or wealth that I didn’t “earn”, I might innovate, but at some point I will be called upon to give back – which might include matters beyond money or time, even emotion (openness to previously unwanted relationships) and purpose.  If I don’t, I could wind up watching my back.
The early part of the documentary covers Vidal’s WWII Army service, which took place in the Aluetians. It doesn’t mention his discreet gay affair in the Army at first, but presents his first novel “Williwaw”, written about age 19, about a storm and a naval crew with a plot a bit like the opera “Billy Budd”.  His 1948 novel “The City and the Pillar” (1948) presenting male homosexuality explicitly (apparently in the merchant marine) caused such a furor that the New York Times refused to review his works. Nevertheless, Vidal quickly became so well established that he was able to make a good living from Hollywood and live with a male companion,  Howard Austen, which he said was platonic.  He did have some relationships with women, like Joanne Woodward.
Austin was always onstage, with political and historical criticisms.  His long list of historical novels included Burr and Lincoln, and he maintained that Lincoln would do anything to keep the Union and make it into the modern capitalistic empire.  He said that Truman maintained the military draft after WWII when he didn’t have to.  He campaigned to run for the Senate in California himself in 1982, against Jerry Brown.  After 9/11, he considers George W. Bush and the necons to have created a police step. He would meet with Gorbachev himself in Venice. 
Vidal once said, "Don't have children, just have grandchildren."
The film shows Vidal's home on the Italian Riviera. He says that writers (like journalists) have to keep a certain distance from which they can look at and report the truth about the world. Yet that very distance can keep them from "giving back" in person when it is really necessary. 
One could make a comparison of Vidal to Norman Mailer. Was it Buckley who asked, "Why does Norman Mailer refuse to admit to being the woman he is?"  He also knew Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. 
Vidal talks with great acumen and detail.  Some say he uses aphorisms instead of analysis, but his speech style to me resembles the insightful and precise "feminine subjective" analysis of Paul Rosenfels, founded of the Ninth Street Center in the East Village in the 70s.  I wonder if Vidal ever visited it. I could mention here that there is a DVD, "The Paul Rosenfels Video Anthology", about an hour excerpted from talk groups in the early 1980's. (See Book Reviews blog, April 12, 2006).   
The official Facebook for the biography is here

The picture above is that of the office building near Gallery Place housing the Family Research Council. It was taken with the iPhone, and I experimented with the BW editing. I will have to find out how to use this tool and get into to the Cloud or the pictures moved easily.    

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