I have this idea that if I read/listen to intellectual people speaking on behalf of, well, anything, then I myself will become an intelligent person as well. In theory, this is a good thing to believe. In reality, it’s not always the case. Still, I have my intellectual heroes, who I strive to become in some way or another, be it in how I dress or what opinions I have about things. One of those intellectuals is Gore Vidal.
I was first introduced to Vidal when reading his highly acclaimed novel The City and the Pillar, a bestseller that was the first of its kind to discuss homosexuality in fairly explicit detail (this was 1948, after all). I was completely mesmerized by every stitch of its existence: the characters, the denouement, the pacing and how it dealt with such themes that were quite taboo (again: the 1940s, WAY before Ellen and Will & Grace could even bring such topics to light). I was so impressed with Vidal’s work that I completely avoided all of his other stellar works, because I was afraid I might compare everything else to The City and the Pillar and be completely disappointed. However, just because I haven’t read any other works by Gore Vidal, doesn’t mean I haven’t read about Gore Vidal.
And what a life he led! Vidal was indeed an intellectual man: sharp, quick-witted and—above all else— egotistical. He was born into political privilege and rubbed elbows with the social elite. He was known for his harsh criticisms over just about everything, specifically American government. He was a gay pioneer (yet never fully acknowledged it), a brilliant essayist, and he relished any opportunity to speak his mind on camera. A grandiose figure in American culture, I hold on to his every word and firmly believe I become smarter because of it. Now, you can too.
The United States of Amnesia, the 2013 documentary chronicling Vidal’s career as an outspoken writer, is currently streaming on Netflix and is a must-watch simply for the film’s central subject. This documentary works because it allows Vidal to be the star. You get to hear his view of his life over what everyone else—biographers, family, close friends, etc—says on his behalf. The film weaves together archived interviews with newer segments of him recalling major moments of his career. Some of the more interesting tidbits featured include his on-air confrontations with such notorious commentators as William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer. Naturally, each confrontation seems instigated and won by Vidal. The sight of such stoic, respected writers coming close to blows that would equal any best-of montage from Jerry Springer is truly the highest low-brow form of entertainment.
The film is bookended by Vidal’s visit to his very own cemetery plot. The opening shot is a bird’s eye view of him standing over his tombstone (where his longtime partner, Howard Austen, has already been laid to rest). He informs the viewer where other notable persons are buried so matter-of-factly, that even if you know nothing of Vidal’s work you get the sense he isn’t afraid of anything—including impending death. Of course, he died in the summer of 2012 (the newer footage appears to have been shot in the early to mid-2000s), so knowing this fact going into the documentary foreshadows the viewing experience to what will surely be an obvious conclusion.
While Amnesia includes other commentators—Nina Straight, Vidal’s sister; actors Tim Robbins and Joanne Woodward, Vidal’s biographers—none of them hold a candle to Vidal himself. He once remarked that one should never miss the chance to have sex or be on television, and with the vast amount of stock footage of interviews Vidal has given, he makes each frame worth it. There’s a scene towards the end of the film with Vidal watching Barack Obama’s victory speech during the 2008 presidential election. For such a historic moment, the camera catches Vidal rolling his eyes at Obama’s inspirational speech. “I would like to think of him as completely virtuous—I suspect he’s not. Why do I suspect this? Because I know how politics works.” Always the wise braggart, his comments prove slightly prophetic six years later.
Like most documentaries, sometimes the more intriguing parts are the moments that unfold while the camera is still rolling. As the interviews with Vidal progress, his health appears to be failing. There are moments when Vidal appears clean-cut and full of vigor, and then moments where he appears frail and disheveled. Such health concerns are captured on film as Vidal must leave his Italian villa for the more accessible Los Angeles. These are the quieter moments of the documentary, when Vidal shuts up long enough for the camera to capture him alone, revealing how isolated and restrictive his old age has progressively closed in on him. Needless to say, one can only guess how the film will end.
Overall, The United States of Amnesia is an entertaining and informative documentary detailing the storied career of one of America’s most treasured intellects. While the factual tidbits of Vidal’s life are noteworthy, it is his own remarks that remain most quotable. The documentary in fact gets its title straight from Vidal’s mouth regarding the history of America: “It is the United States of Amnesia: We miraculously forget everything, so the lessons we should be learning we have forgotten in no time at all.” As I said prior to this review, I feel smarter after reading or listening to Gore Vidal, and if there is anything you take away from The United States of Amnesia, it should be the philosophy according to Vidal. Vidal wouldn’t have it any other way.