There is a lot one could say about Gore Vidal so naturally Nicholas Wrathal found himself spoilt with access to rolls of archive footage. That was on top of the footage Wrathal accumulated of the late author over several years. There would’ve been plenty of substance for United States of Amnesia even without the interviews conducted. By this time, Gore Vidal was in what he described as the ‘bright spring of my senility’ though even as an octogenarian he was still confident that there was no problem that could not be solved if people would only listen to him. All in all Wrathal seeks to strike a balance between the personal and the political. Of course, the personal is political but in the case of some the character and private life follow through into politics and chime together in unison.
It would be impossible to cover one and not the other. The film opens with Gore at the grave of his partner – a grave he now shares, as he knew he would then – speaking with some solemnity and distinctive witticism. Vidal was not one to give away too much on private matters, certainly not the five decades he spent with Howard Auster. The word ‘love’ was conspicuously absent in his vocabulary, instead he described his relationship with Auster as a business arrangement and even as platonic. As he himself put it “I can understand companionship. I can understand bought sex in the afternoon, but I cannot understand the love affair.” And yet we find a very different Gore Vidal penned love letters to Anaïs Nin in his early twenties. “You are quite necessary to me as you know” he wrote before offering marriage and a new life together. This was not a subject included in the film.
In a way this is appropriate as it would go too far in one direction and serve to over-humanise the subject. We are what we pretend to be, as Vidal’s friend Kurt Vonnegut once remarked. This astute observation captured the extent to which the performative fictions we undertake are constitutive of our reality. It’s not just that it was the work he produced and the ideas he kept as a reservoir are what drew people to him. It was that the show he put on – as we all do – was more who he was than the vulnerable and desperate letters of a nascent writer in the 40s. It was more becoming when Gore remarked “I am exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside.” It was this Gore who was on show in the public feuds with William F Buckley, Jr., Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.
The love letters to Anaïs Nin were written around the same time as The City and the Pillar (1948) which shocked readers in its depiction of homosexuality not only as a kind of sexual conduct but as a form of love as well. It was a love affair between two all-American boys, no deviants or fairies to be found. It provoked quite a storm and Gore found himself effectively blacklisted by The New York Times. He would write for television and theatre to make money as he was effectively ostracised by the literary establishment. In his own words Wrathal wanted to look at the US in the last half of the 20th Century through the eyes of Gore Vidal – a viewpoint often neglected. Rightly then Wrathal includes not just the way in which Vidal contributed to the changing perceptions of homosexuality, but the celebratory inventions he devoted to ‘triumphant women’ in books like Myra Breckenridge (1968) as the prospects of sexual liberation flourished.
Gore Vidal had become a litterateur by this point and was thoroughly embroiled in the American political discourse, especially when it resembled nothing more than a bloodsport. Under the slogan ‘You’ll Get More With Gore’ he ran for office in 1960 and won more votes than any other Democrat in decades. Shocked further left by the Kennedy administration and its depredations in Cuba and Vietnam he became involved in the People’s Party in an effort to break the duopoly. The Party had called for a maximum wage and maintained a tough stance on the Vietnam War. He would later reflect that this made sense given that the last potentially revolutionary moment in the US was in the 1930s. In the end Gore threw his weight behind the McGovern campaign – probably the last liberal progressive campaign to be waged – and once the McGovernites were vanquished Vidal later ran against Jerry Brown in California to challenge the Reagan era as it was ushered in.
The way he had refused to concede any ground to the thuggish anti-Communism of the Cold War was admirable to put it mildly. With this in mind Wrathal arranged for Gore Vidal to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev and take a boat ride in Venice. The film charts Vidal’s opposition to Vietnam through to his historical fiction and the controversial view he takes of Roosevelt’s entry into WW2. To the accusations of being a ‘conspiracy theorist’ on such matters Wrathal lets Gore speak for himself. It is in these clips that the journalist he once considered his ‘dauphin’ appears on screen to contribute. Wracked with cancer Christopher Hitchens gives his viewpoint and we are shown the last meeting between the two of them where Gore shows some reluctance to engage. By then the late Hitchens had broken with his former comrades on the invasion of Iraq and Vidal was among those who denounced him. Not surprisingly we find the passing of Hitchens was much more mourned by the liberal intelligentsia than Gore. The reason is obvious: the Hitch had conceded in principle where Vidal remained stern. Vidal saw the American Republic in ruin, or approaching it at least, its institutions crumbling and an economy heavily militarised. It was a system to be criticised and even condemned, but not defended in such dark times.
This article was originally written for Red Monthly.