Movie review: Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2013)

I grew up reading Gore Vidal’s historical fiction. I loved his books. They were windows into history. They drew me into the lives and the stories of the long, and sometimes recently, deceased historical figures, making them real to me.

Somehow I drifted away over the years, but I remember those books fondly and think of Vidal as one of those die-hard liberals—a thinking man. So when I stumbled across a movie that documents his life, his works, and the times he lived in, there was no thought about not watching it.

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is a wonderful dive into his thoughts about American society and politics as well as a summary of his life. Vidal died in mid-2012, before the move came out. The movie is a series of interviews with Vidal, punctuated by photos, narration, and interviews of other people. His words and perspectives give me pause and something to think about. They sometimes challenge me to view things in new ways, for example, JFK.

Vidal enjoyed a close relationship with Kennedy. However, in his eyes, Kennedy was the worst president ever, despite the myth of Camelot that surrounds him. His words inspired, did they not? Yes, but Kennedy was all words, all charm, no action. Nothing actually got done during his presidency. And there was no reason to think that if Kennedy would have lived, that we would have gotten out of Vietnam. In fact, Kennedy would have likely gotten us in deeper, like Johnson did.

Vidal is all about reexamining assumptions and beliefs, looking behind the façade at reality. He questions and then debunks a lot of myths—the myth that the US started as a democracy, the myth that WWII was a patriotic war.

Vidal merely points to the percentage of the population that was allowed to vote at the birth of the US—white landowners—to debunk the myth of democracy. George Washington, our hero, the great general, never won a battle. The Constitution was written to protect property. Everything is all about money, not freedom per se, not our rights as individuals.

Or the bitter letters from his classmate, Jimmie Trimble, who fought and died at Iwa Jima. The myth of WWII as a great, patriotic war was a creation. The idea that it is a noble thing to give your life for your country is a myth. It was not believed by the troops. They, like Jimmie, were well aware that the war was about money; there was nothing patriotic about it.

It is easy to see why Vidal brought controversy on himself. His comments and observations demanded that people think. Myths are nice and cozy and speak to something deep within us. Truth can be quite stark and not at all comforting.

The books he wrote also invited controversy, leading to people refusing to read and review his writings and to newspapers refusing to print anything about them. A recognized author at 19 with Williwaw, he encountered acrimony with his second book. The City and Pillar was a frank novel about homosexuality, decades and decades before its time.

To make money to be able to write what he wanted to write, he wrote for television, he wrote plays, he wrote. He also ran in two elections but lost both times. In the late 60s, he routinely debated Buckley, that famous conservative pundit, in heated rows. He went head to head with Norman Mailer, another intellectual author of the times, fighting for feminist views.

He rejected love, appropriating Samuel Johnson’s description of patriotism as being the last refuge of scoundrels. And he saw sex used as a means to keep people in line. This gave me pause to consider the ways this statement is true. People and society as a whole define what is acceptable, whether it is the moral majority or the Merry Pranksters, whether it is access to contraceptives or laws preventing the teaching of sex education.

The movie touched on his life-long relationship with Howard Auster. Vidal insisted that the relationship did not have a sexual component, that “sex destroys relationships”. One loses interest and wants something else. Again, another pause to think this over.

He wrote non-fiction but was probably best known (at least in my mind) as a writer of fiction. “A novel is the way you reflect society”. Through novels, Vidal wrote about the exertion of power.

A novelist delves into people’s minds. A historian does not, he explained. The subjective vs. the objective perspective, I thought. The one is concerned with understanding motivations and intentions. The other is concerned with exclusive facts, facts that are always seen through filters, though people like to pretend that is not so.

Vidal’s words during the 1982 campaign still ring true today: “Socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the poor.” It is all about money. Vidal fought for a true republic and attacked the empire that the US had become. The US is not a democracy, but rather a combination of force majeure and money, he expounded. Our educational system teaches us to confirm and consume.

I think it is time for me to turn back to Gore Vidal’s works…and get ready to think and question everything.

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