Gore Vidal was a political and social critic, intellectual, avid researcher, and literary giant of his time. I am familiar with Vidal’s historical fiction about America, and have read his essays, Julian, his autobiographies, Point to Point Navigation and Palimpsest, to name a few. With his passing in 2012 we are hard pressed to find another elegant patrician from an elite background, who attended the finest private schools…yet cared for the “little people” and spoke for the disenfranchised.
He was a master story teller writing historical novels that in many instances are more insightful than most American history books culled together by lackluster historians and plopped into the high school and college texts. Most of that pap (especially when I was in high school), was actually revisionist, peddling an America which never existed: fairy tales of our leaders to inspire three-year-olds. In his Narratives of Empire series, Vidal weaves an impeccably researched tale of our republic and its human, flawed leaders. He reveals our country’s politicians to have disingenuously embraced colonialism, making our nation an empire builder; the tradition is still ongoing today in our war policies.
In Vidal’s passing we lost a truly singular and maverick voice. That is why Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is a treasure. Wrathall allows us to see Vidal operating full throttle, with footage archived from some of his most interesting and controversial TV appearances. Wrathall spent eight years making the film. This frame of reference gave him the opportunity to go back repeatedly to interview Vidal in a longitudinal project where we see the man age, in some ways soften and become more philosophical. Wrathall’s fascinating documentary reveals Vidal’s importance as a seminal intellectual and political critic of our age. His genius was the pithy bon mot, the clever aphorism, and crystallized kernel of truth delivered with a sledge hammer blow to make us think. Wrathall shows how Vidal’s perceptions are timeless and acute; he is the prophet railing against the powerful with a rapier wit that excoriates those who most deserve it. And he knew them all, the politicians, the elites, the global leaders, the presidents, the Queen of England, and the celebrities (some of the intellectual ones who read, and there were many in those days).
I could go on, but Wrathall’s film is a fabulous chronicle and should be seen for its comprehensive portrayal of Vidal and of the United States spanning his lifetime. This is Vidal’s history, this is our history through his keen, unadulterated knowing.
I screened Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia and reviewed it for Blogcritics. At the time I was able to catch Wrathall for a brief interview to share what it was like to work with the brilliant and caring American patriot, Gore Vidal.
I’ve looked at some of the interviews you’ve done that are on Youtube and I’m going to try to ask a few different questions.
How familiar with the Narratives of Empire series were you initially when you started and as time progressed and you were interviewing him more and more.
Initially, I wasn’t very familiar. I think I’d read Burr and then right away I read Lincoln, so when I first met him, I think I’d read only those two. And then I continued reading the Empire series. I had read quite a few of his essays. When I first really started paying attention to Gore again was around the time of 9/11 when he was very outspoken against the war, and he wrote those pamphlets against Bush, you know Dreaming War and Blood for Oil and other things. Then I started re-reading the essays. I had memories of him from my parents and the bookshelves at home and seeing him on TV as a kid. I was a different generation. But right away I started reading everything. There’s so much to read, obviously. The film took a long time. We really struggled to get the film financed and so I had a lot of time to read during that period. Then I read his plays.
I still have not read everything, which is a shame. Hopefully, I will get through it all as time goes on. But I have certainly read a lot and I really enjoyed the Empire series. I think it’s really important…that work is really important as a different way of looking at the history of America. I really do think it should be studied more in a university environment or colleges; even high schools, especially Burr and Lincoln. It’s an important way to look at the history. I’m sure that Daniel Day Lewis must have read Lincoln in studying for the movie.
There is a play coming out about Alexander Hamilton, loosely based on Ron Chernow’s work.
And I saw a reading of it at Vassar and Ron Chernow was present.
I’m not sure they have read Gore Vidal’s work. Vidal’s portrayal of Hamilton is spot on. Did you discuss with him how he does his research? I think that’s really important.
I asked him about his research quite a few times. What he would say is that everything he included is in the historical record. You know, of course, he invented characters that allowed him to look at the character of different people and comment on them. But everything that people said was in the historical record. You know he went through congressional papers. He did a lot of in depth research before he wrote those novels.
I think it was mentioned in the interviews that he went primary source material.
Yeah. Part of the reason I think he first moved to Rome was to have access to the American Library there when he was writing Julian. He was there and then he discovered other material. He spent a lot of time researching in those libraries.
That’s interesting, to get the first hand source documentation. Now Burr Spears
Burr Steers is in the film just briefly. Gore Vidal dedicates his work, Burr, to his nephews, one of whom is Burr Steers. How long did you know him, and did you know his uncle was Gore Vidal?
Yeah. I mean I’ve known Burr Steers since the early 90s. I lived in New York at that time and we met through mutual friends and became friends and stayed in touch. I used to work in LA a lot and would see him there and when I was in New York he’d call me often. We’ve been friends a long time. I’m actually his daughter’s godfather. You know, we’re very close. I know his wife really well. I know his mother. And I’d heard stories about Gore through him, many times and eventually was lucky enough to meet Gore in a very private way. You know, I spent Easter with them, Easter lunch and started talking to Gore about Australian politics, of all things, which is where I’m originally from. It turns out that it was something that Gore knew about. He knew all the individuals on the Left, personally, and they were friends of his and he sort of mentored some of them. So that somehow bonded us because it was something that I knew something about. You know, there were many things I could never have conversed with him about at that time. But Burr was a great sort of soft entry into meeting Gore and opened the door to the whole process and was very involved in facilitating things in the beginning and then again in the end. He is credited as one of the producers. Even though he was not very hands on during the process, he was key in making the film and is a great friend and a great filmmaker.
Yes…I checked on IMBD and noted that I’ve seen a number of his works. Is there anything that you wish in retrospect that you could have asked Gore that came up later that you thought about.
Usually, I went back. I was lucky to be able to go back many times. Yeah…I mean there were things that I would have liked him to answer more directly that he wouldn’t, you know about his personal life. I would have loved to have had him talk more about Howard. He just couldn’t and he wouldn’t, you know. He always kept his personal life out and away from the cameras away from the public discourse. He had his agenda, usually and the things he wanted to speak about. You know, luckily I had those couple of days in Ravello with him and was able to capture his mood to feel that Howard’s absence was palpable then and there.
There were many things about his personal life or about his mother that I would have loved to speak to him about but he didn’t open up emotionally on camera. Sometimes after a few drinks he would talk about it in a way, occasionally. And yeah, there are things that I wish I asked him more at the end…maybe about Obama. People sometimes ask me that…but what he said in the film is what he really felt. He thought that Obama was very compromised. He thought that anyone holding office would be regardless of their true intentions. It’s a shame…I think Gore was the kind of person you could ask about anything. He could talk to you about Confucius or anything. He seemed to know about everything and draw political comparisons and parallels back to ancient Greece and compare them to what was happening now. You know, it was astounding to be in his presence and have these discussions. He could remember everything, like conversations he’d had thirty and forty years before.
So he was not in any way slowing down?
No. Well, at the very end, of course he was…
Because he was sick….
Because he was sick and the last six months of his life, of course, he slowed down. When I met him in the late 2000s he was physically slowing down but mentally he was sharp and of course, at the very end, the last year or so, everybody slows down, but..
The interview with Jay Parini at the 92nd St. Y, that was a year before he died?
No, that was two years, no well, maybe it was only a year or so before he died.
Vida’s humorous response about his mom…was “I’ll take anybody’s mom”…but I thought the interview in the car with Nina his half sister discussing his mom showed annoyance. Was that earlier?
It was like he was resigned about her, almost accepting, by the time he spoke with Jay. And I thought that difference that you noted with the different film clips was wonderful.
No…it was. I never planned to make a film over such a long period of time. It really added another dimension to the film to see him aging, to give me time to get to know him and do more research. And he did become a little bitter toward the end. I mean he was always sarcastic and ironic and so forth, but he was a little bitter toward the end. I think he really felt like all the promise of the country was going down the tubes. He was always hopeful…
Yes, but his heart was broken?
His heart was broken…and the sort of dismantling of the Constitution by the Bush administration. He saw those people really as criminals.
Yes, they are (I laugh). If you read my review on the film, I highlight that you have allowed him to speak that point about the administration and it’s very important for the generations that are coming up.
I think so too. And I really hope that the younger generations get a chance to see the film. We are talking to some education distributors and hoping we can get it out to some universities as well. I tried to make the film in a contemporary way so they could relate to it. I think many things that he says are so prescient, even things he discussed with Buckley in the 60s feel like the same discussions going on today…
Absolutely. It’s not like he’s diverged.
No, he’s been very consistent.
Christopher Hitchens changed his views and his mind.
Yeah… Gore never did, although as a young man I don’t think he was as left leaning. But once he sort of formed his opinions and ideas…he stuck to his guns.
I loved a number of things in the film…one was his discussion about Kennedy. I’m so glad you included that because there are many who are like…”Oh, the Kennedys”…(gushing awe)
Yeah, so many hold the Kennedys on a pedestal. You know, Gore knew him personally, very well, and Jackie and Bobby. He was around in the White House and he loved him and them, but he was very clear that he didn’t think he was a great president.
That was brave for him to say. Also, I thought it was great that you ended the film as you did…not back in the cemetery with him under his gravestone, but with him speaking into the camera.
Yes, I could have ended back in the graveyard, but in this way, I wanted to end with hope.
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