It seems like we’re well beyond the age of the public intellectual, or even the public author who may show society the way. Writers like Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Paul Goodman, and others used to appear on television debating issues, commenting on culture, trying to diagnose whatever malaise was in society at large.
For a while there was Christopher Hitchens, though he passed away in 2011, and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris seem to have receded from the public spotlight. Noam Chomsky is still an institution of public intellectualism to some degree, but he doesn’t have as much pull or as much presence as he did in the past.
I think in some ways the documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is not just a celebration of Vidal the public intellectual and the wit. It’s also a fond look back at a time when public intellectuals would be on the airwaves talking about things that mattered. Maybe there’s a subtle call for other writers, social critics, and raconteurs out there to take up the gauntlet of the gadfly, because a vital democracy needs intelligent irritants to thrive.
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Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
Director: Nicholas Wrathall
Release Date: TBD
Vidal had the uniquely privileged upbringing that joined young scholarship and erudition with early political consciousness. His grandfather was Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, a blind man who was nonetheless highly educated and supposedly accepted no graft from the oil companies of his state. Vidal was so inspired by his grandfather’s side of the family and what they represented that he took on the surname “Gore” as his first name, which does beat the heck out of Eugene.
What becomes clear about Vidal is that he was ahead of his time in many respects. He advocated for gay rights back in the middle of the 20th century, and was even blacklisted from The New York Times‘s book reviews simply for his sexuality. Back in the ’60s he talked about the dangers of income inequality, which have only gotten worse in the decades since. Vidal was also against the war in Vietnam before Johnson escalated the conflict. Vidal’s close association with the Kennedy White House also meant greater disappointment in Kennedy as a president. He doesn’t sugarcoat his feelings about JFK, and regards him as a substandard leader highly regarded for dying young who did plenty of objectionable things (e.g., Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs).
But the political and social critic side of Vidal is just part of his personality. He was also a great entertainer. He and his partner Howard Austen hosted celebrity guests at their seaside, mountain-top Italian villa for years. All his life, he was a scenester with feet in Washington politics, Hollywood stardom, and New York publishing. He counted Paul Newman as one of his many close friends, and if I remember right, Newman supposedly threatened to beat the hell out of William F. Buckley for calling Vidal a queer on television.
Director Nicholas Wrathall juggles material in his documentary, going between classic footage of Vidal on television and interviews with Vidal from a few years ago, with occasional Vidal aphorisms as a buffer between scenes. Sometimes this archival footage is more interesting than the recent footage. There’s no shortage of delight in watching Vidal tussle with Buckley since the two were evenly matched intellectual heavies on opposite sides of the political spectrum. There’s also joy in seeing the classic clip from The Dick Cavett Show in which Norman Mailer postures like a literary thug while Vidal and Cavett dismantle him. And yet Vidal’s meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev a few years ago pales by comparison. Interesting sure, but not as captivating on film as I would’ve thought, probably because it’s civil rather than acerbic.
There’s a surprising lifelong consistency to Vidal. His disdain for President worship and flag waving, for instance, endured. There’s footage of Vidal watching Obama’s speech on election night 2008, and he rolls his eyes wearily at the slightest pander to overt patriotism. This seems like the necessary stance of the gadfly: to avoid fawning, no matter who it is or where his or her politics align with your own. Sadly there’s no footage of Vidal opining on Obama’s successes and shortcomings in his first term, or on the early stages of the 2012 Presidential election. Vidal passed away from pneumonia on July 31, 2012.
Part of the film focuses on who Vidal’s heir will be, and for a while it seemed like Christopher Hitchens. At one time Vidal even anointed him as his official successor. Things soured between them over Hitchens’s support of the war in Iraq. Vidal was staunchly against all wars, and even relates a moment in his youth that may have solidified his opposition to armed conflict. This rift in their friendship was never mended, and Wrathall captures their last meeting on camera. Hitchens passed away in December 2011.
It’s a bit hard to say who the successor to Vidal is since there’s no one right now who currently occupies a similar position in the literary, celebrity, and political landscape. The country is without a Vidal figure in the same way it’s without an H.L. Mencken figure, though it has its surrogate Mark Twains in writers like George Saunders and satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. More gadflies wouldn’t be a bad thing.
What’s surprising is that while the left continues to have its critics, satirists, and wits, the right has experienced a severe deficit of them. The intellectual rigor of the right has been replaced by staunch anti-intellectualism. Gone is the possibility of someone like William F. Buckley representing conservative causes. He’d be shouted down for being a pointy-headed intellectual even though he voiced distrust in pointy-headed intellectuals. The Buckley brand of conservative commentary has since been replaced by dunderhead provocateurs peddling garbage infotainment, like Glenn Beck, Dinesh D’Souza, and Rush Limbaugh. If Buckley saw the state of The National Review today, he would probably weep zombie tears and then sock Jonah Goldberg in the mouth before replacing him with someone like Reihan Salam. (It’s also sad state of affairs for conservatism when Victoria Jackson can be considered a worthwhile representative of an ideology, even a fringe one.)
That’s all really a tangent to the film, but something I found myself wondering for a while after the documentary. That might be the point. The subtitle of the documentary is The United States of Amnesia, and we’re a country that so eagerly forgets its own history, so dutifully absolves itself of its own sins, and refuses to look back on events with any thoughtfulness. The United States of Amnesia reminded me of all that public discourse I wasn’t alive to see but keep watching or reading online, and why I keep watching and reading and seeking out that stuff: it’s worthwhile, it’s still relevant, and we haven’t learned a damned thing.
In celebrating the life of Vidal, I think Wrathall really reminds Vidal’s fans and latecomers that what The United States needs the most are its critics and historians. They’re the mirrors and the healthy kicks in the pants that help the country wake up and do something, even if that something is as simple as the mere act of thinking.