Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia Remembers a Great Man

Categories: Interview, Movies

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If you've been looking for an excuse to leave work early Wednesday, you're in luck, because that's when Nicholas Wrathall's documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of America has its West Coast premiere at 2 p.m. at the Castro Theatre as part of 2013 Frameline Film Festival.

It includes the final on-camera interviews with the singular American writer, essayist, and relentless intellectual gadfly, and functions as both primer for those unfamiliar with the man, as well as those of us who already fans but are never not amazed by the sharpness of his wit -- and his frequent snark.

We spoke to director Wrathall about the making of the film, things Vidal left unsaid, and recommended readings.

How did you come to direct this film? Had you met Mr. Vidal before embarking on the project?

Yes, I had met Gore in LA a couple of times through his nephew Burr Steers, who is a good friend of mine. It was always fascinating to be in his presence, as he was a wealth of knowledge and incredibly witty. I was always drawn to his political positions and inspired by him as a courageous and outspoken American who was always speaking to truth to power. I soon realized that there might be an opportunity to make a film about him.

I also felt strongly that people needed to hear what he was articulating about the Bush Administration, and in general about the motivations and machinations of America Imperialism as he saw it. He can draw the most convincing historical parallels between different administrations and as a Washington insider, one who grew up in the house of a senator -- his grandfather -- his words carry a lot of weight. The people involved in the actual positions of power could never be so candid.

Also, his energy and his courage motivated me. I felt that it would be a terrible lost opportunity if I did not make this film. When I learned that he was selling his villa in Italy and moving back to LA, I rushed out to Ravello and, fortunately, arrived just in time to record his last few days there. From there, the film developed organically as he invited me to a few speaking engagements and on various trips, at the same time I began to research the archival footage from his many television appearances that make up a big part of the film.

(Note: the version of this legendary clip used in Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is of much higher quality.)

For a few weeks after Mr. Vidal died, there was a memorial for him at 18th and Castro in San Francisco. But whoever put up the memorial didn't even hint at his career as a writer or even as a pioneering gay man; in fact, a passerby unfamiliar with Mr. Vidal might have gotten the impression that his life's work was an anti-circumcision crusader, since those were the only quotes of his used. So, my question: while it's impossible to cover the full scope of anyone's life in an 83-minute movie, are there any particular positions or opinions of Mr. Vidal's that you weren't able to include in the theatrical cut of the film?

Yes, it's so true that it is impossible to cover his life in an 89-minute movie. There are many, many things we had to leave out. Whole parts of his life are skipped over very quickly or left out. For example, as a young man he lived in Guatemala in his early days as a writer and had an affair with Anias Nin. I had no easy way to get this into the story, except to read it from his biography -- when I asked him in person, he dismissed it or went into detail about the politics of the time rather than his life. Some of his important literary works such as Julian are also not covered in the film, as there is just not enough time to cover all his books.

I also went on a trip to Cuba with him which I wanted to include in the film, but it was such a tangent from the flow of the film and his life that so we had to cut it. Gore was a sort of Zelig character who knew so many people all over the world and popped up everywhere, and there is simply no way to include his entire life in all its rich detail in a single film. I could have made three films and still not covered it all. There are several biographies out there if you want all the details, as well as his own memoirs.

Have there been any particularly negative reactions to the movie from people on the right or the left who were offended by Mr. Vidal's politics?

Thankfully, there have hardly been any negative reactions to the film. Only one complaint -- that we could have included more -- but of course I feel that, too. Many people obviously disagree with his politics, and one person at a Q&A felt we could have had more criticism of Gore's positions in the film, and of course we could have but what would have been the point of that? We hear those points of view in the media propaganda that bombards us constantly.

Christopher Hitchens criticizes Gore in the film, and I think he represents the criticisms that most people would have of his politics. Also, I didn't want to have lots of people saying great things or negative things about Gore in the film. I always wanted more of Gore. Simply to let him speak for himself.

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Burr is the book which seems to get discussed the most in the film, but if you were to personally recommend a single book of Mr. Vidal's -- not the one which is necessarily the most representative, but the one that speaks to you the most -- what would it be?

Burr is probably one of my favorites, which is partially why it features. But there are so many that are interesting. Lincoln for example is astounding, to see into the working of Lincoln's mind, or at least Gore's interpretation of it. I think Kalki is a also a fascinating read in the age we live in, I just reread it and it's like a modern day science fiction movie. There is an endless amount of good reading to be done when it comes to Gore's novels. I am also a massive fan of Gore's essays, as I am sure a lot of people are, and then what about The Best Man and his other plays? You can see why it has been revived over and over again. It feels very current and could be set in any modern day election cycle.

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia plays on Wednesday, May 26 at 2:00pm at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, S.F. Tickets are $10. For more info, go to frameline.org.

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Sherilyn Connelly is a San Francisco-based writer. She also curates and hosts Bad Movie Night at The Dark Room, every Sunday at 8pm.

Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF (follow Sherilyn Connelly on Twitter at @sherilyn) and like us on Facebook.


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