Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia documentary review: repeating history

Gore Vidal The United States of Amnesia green light

A hugely entertaining biography of one of the great observers of the American century whose witty, bitter obstinance is essential in highlighting how far the U.S. has gone off the rails since WWII.
I’m “biast” (pro): I worship Gore Vidal

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I so needed to see this movie right now. Cuz it reminded me how much I love Gore Vidal, and how essential his witty, bitter obstinance has been in pointing out how far America has gone off the rails since WWII, and how much I need to keep aspiring to be even a tenth — nay, a hundredth — of the writer and cultural critic he was. Because to match even such a tiny percentage of his genius would be a tremendous accomplishment for a lesser mortal. Whether it was politics, society, sexuality, or Hollywood, he had something wicked and startlingly insightful to say about it all.

This hugely entertaining documentary biography, from filmmaker Nicholas D. Wrathall, intersperses fantastic vintage footage — such as hilarious gobbets from Vidal’s TV sparring with his polar opposite, right-winger William F. Buckley, from the 1960s and 70s — with new interviews with and about the writer, before his 2012 death at age 86, to celebrate the life and work of a man who was “almost insidiously intelligent.” A child of privilege and power who turned his back on that at the earliest opportunity, he climbed right back up again under his own steam to become “a celebrity intellectual” — perhaps one of the last, I fear — who laid bare the American myth in his fiction and criticism even as he waltzed right through the middle of 20th-century mythmaking. He hung out with Amelia Earhart when he was a kid. Look! There he is, with JFK and Tennessee Williams at the White House!

Vidal’s flirtation with politics — he unsuccessfully ran for Congress from New York in 1960, and for Senate from California in 1982 — offers a tantalizing peek at an alternate history: What if he’d won either race? Would he have become a force for progressive good the likes of which the U.S. has not seen since WWII? Or would he have been corrupted by corporate money as he claimed is an inescapable eventuality for anyone who runs for higher office?

From his angry declamations about the “national security state” put in place by Truman to advertising as “the only artform my country has ever created” to love as “a fan club with only two fans,” there is so much of Vidal’s glorious rage and humor on display here that I am tempted to just list it all. But I must leave something for you to discover — or rediscover — about the writer who will surely be remembered as one of the great observers of the “predatory” American empire, and to see just how much of what he was railing about 60 years ago is still a problem, and worse, today.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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