If you want to read about how former US president John F. Kennedy liked to have sex in the bath, then Palimpsest, the first volume of Gore Vidal’s memoirs, is the book for you. It manages to be a splendidly outrageous document of literary mythmaking and lurid gossip-mongering whilst also being a confessional book about the man who rarely turned his pen on himself. Nicholas D. Wrathall’s documentary of the writer, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2013), largely avoids the salaciousness of Vidal’s own memoirs, and instead pushes the case for the recognition of its subject as a titan of American letters.
Vidal, who passed away in 2012, became a publishing sensation with 1948’s The City and the Pillar, the first American novel to openly deal with homosexuality. He then went on to become a prolific author, screenwriter, playwright, essayist, politician etc; like a modern day renaissance man. He quietly placed himself at the heart of key moments in 20th century cultural and political history. A picaresque wallflower, he absorbed the life happening around him and was inspired to process the myths of American history though his work. The United States of Amnesia teeters cautiously around his literary persona, focusing instead on Vidal’s politics. His was a different kind of radical, not an outlaw as were some of his peers.
Vidal was eloquent and dignified, speaking on television about the imperial compulsion of America while dressed in an exquisite suit. More fashionable contemporaries like Norman Mailer may have appeared drunk on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show or have been prone to bouts of violence, but Vidal’s formidable intellect seemed to be the real threat to the establishment. It’s this unconventional rebel that the film celebrates. As the 20th century came to a close, it’s fascinating to see the writer’s fire gathering pace; he seemed almost more incensed by his country in the years leading up to his death than he did even in the sixties.
The fact that the film still cursorily covers Vidal’s personal life while it’s clearly more interested in his political views ultimately means the picture is neither fish not fowl. The United States of Amnesia essentially points the finger at America for ignoring a genius, but it’s still content to skirt over some of the more controversial elements of Gore’s life. Wrathall, though clearly in awe of the man, also misses his more human elements. As seen in Palimpsest, he was a raconteur par excellence, with plenty of dubious anecdotes which would have gone down well on film. Vidal was a master – if only this doc had the courage to see the full picture.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.