“A narcissist is someone better looking than you are,” is one of the many quips that made Gore Vidal one of the funniest men on the planet during his lengthy sojourn. Of all the documentaries about comedians at the Tribeca Film Festival this year – Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, immediately come to mind – it is the documentary about Gore Vidal, “The United States of Amnesia” that made on me the strongest impression.
What’s that? You never thought of Gore Vidal as a comedian, per se? Perhaps more of a literati, a polemicist, an intellectual, you say? And yet it is impossible to extricate the comedic side, the acid wit, from the politics. Go ahead: I dare you — try. Have you ever heard Gore talk about human sexuality? Have you ever heard Vidal describe Charlton Heston’s limited acting range? Gore Vidal, particularly on the lecture circuit, was one of the smartest stand-up comedians of all time, employing impersonations as well as improvised skits illustrating, always, the stupidity of politicians. The stupidity of the ruling class – which Gore was born into – is his favorite target. It was with the honey of comedy that Gore administered his medication, a frank political populist message delivered to the masses. Vidal was “occupying Wall Street” decades before the movement sprung up around him and he was still preaching its gospel after everyone went home.
The film begins on a morbid note: Gore, intoning with that patrician accent, as he stands over the grave he will soon occupy in Washington DC. The tomb is half full, already occupied by Howard Austen, his partner of five decades. The film doesn’t remain as maudlin throughout. The cinematography, as well as archived film footage from a memorable life on two continents (Ravello, Italy; Venice; Beverly Hills) as well as interviews with friends and sometimes foes – Vidal had quite a few of those — is beautifully done. The film features candid vérité footage of Vidal in his final days, and while he is brilliantly witty, there is also a sense of sadness because he is about to die, that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, and that the country he loves so much – these United States – is in rough shape.
At the screening during the Tribeca Film Festival rarely a minute went by without Vidal’s on-screen commentary eliciting raucous laughter from the knowledgeable fans, critics and VIPs assembled. Even Robert DeNiro, the festival’s founder, has said that the film stands out. Nicholas Wrathall, the film’s director, had full access to Gore Vidal’s last months and captures the man in full, winding down his worldly affairs, moving out of his house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Ravello, Italy because he can no longer walk unaided. The film briefly looks backwards at Vidal’s vivid life. But Wrathall mainly focuses on the last days, allowing Vidal and his contemporaries to give their impressions of his life and times. It is like Gore presiding and present at his own wake. That is something that every author craves.
The cinematography is exquisite. The directors of photography: Derek Wiesenhahn, Joel Schwartzberg, Armando De’Ath do a fine job of capturing everything from that gloomy cemetery in Washington where the film begins to the unique natural light of Venice. Everything is gloriously vivid, and the archival footage blends seamlessly into the meat of the film, the present, where Gore Vidal is getting ready to exit stage left.
Gore Vidal was, in many ways, the last patrician comic. . “As I looked back over my life,” Gore Vidal once said, “I realized that I enjoyed nothing–not art, not sex–more than going to the movies.” When he died, at age 86, in 2012, Nicholas Wrathall was still editing this documentary. It is to all of our benefit that this winding down of affairs was captured for posterity. Vidal’s lived an extraordinary life on two continents: he wrote great books, he threw legendary parties, he spoke great truths honeyed with a sparkling wit. Nicholas Wrathall had the luck to be at the right place at the right time, but also the great skill and the help of solid collaborators to present the Gore Vidal story.