Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia documents a lion well past winter

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A documentary by Nicholas Wrathall. Rating unavailable. 

It’s hard to imagine that the USA ever had public intellectuals. The anti-egghead strain is now so dominant, we can barely remember a time when American-type people would turn on their TVs to see what professional thinkers like Susan Sontag, Carl Sagan, and, god help us, William F. Buckley, Jr. had to say—and the way they said it.

Of this crowd, no one had more patrician standing or a more archly raised eyebrow than Gore Vidal, the amazingly prolific author of novels, screenplays (Ben Hur, no less), memoirs and, especially, essays about politics and history.

Centring on footage shot in his mid 80s, as he was shuttering his long-time home in Italy and looking forward to an eternity in the remainder bin, Nicholas Wrathall’s admiring film documents a lion well past winter.

Vidal’s life as cultivated curmudgeon (“When he sees a wound, he doesn’t heal it—he jabs it!” explains one contemporary) and forthrightly gay iconoclast is recounted well in this compelling mix of recent interviews with archival footage and snippets of accumulated history that detail his varied obsessions, not to mention long-running feuds. Particularly entertaining are his legendary takedowns of macho writer Norman Mailer, the notoriously bitchy Truman Capote, and the reptilian Buckley.

Overall, he may bring to mind an 18th-century writer in the Voltaire vein, but the endlessly witty Vidal was an exemplar of the last century’s main tensions. The fact that he turned his laserlike, expat attentions to America’s past as his beloved country turned ever rightward was no coincidence. Distantly related to Al Gore and a confidant of the Kennedys, Vidal—who died in the summer of 2012—stuck around long enough to see Barack Obama elected president, but this did little to change his view of the U.S. as a punch-drunk, forgetful, and teetering giant. He almost seemed relieved to go first.

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