Who Will Pick Up the Baton? Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

Australian Nicholas Wrathall, the producer/writer/director of the new documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, sees his film as a call to arms in the name of democracy and freedom.

Author, playwright, and intellectual Gore Vidal, who passed away in 2012, was an outspoken critic of American culture as well as a celebrated wit. The United States of Amnesia shines a light on this enigmatic and charismatic figure of 20th century pop culture.

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The inspiration to make this film came from reading the pamphlets “Dreaming War,” “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace,” and “Imperial America” that Gore Vidal released after 911. At the time, he was one of the only intellectuals in mass media that was speaking out against rushing into war in the Middle East. It was then that I started rereading his older work. A few years later, I had the opportunity to meet him in person through my good friend, his nephew Burr Steers. In our first conversation, we bonded over Australian politics, in which he was very interested since he actually knew many key players personally. He saw Australia as an outpost of the U.S. system, like a Roman state on the outskirts of the old empire. In my opinion as an Australian, in many ways this is true, as Australia is always ready to rush into America’s wars.

The filming process started when I visited Gore in Ravello, Italy on the weekend that he was packing up to leave his house. I rushed out there at his invitation when I heard that he was closing the house up permanently. The film slowly developed from that initial shoot. Filming continued on and off between 2005 and 2011.

The film started with me getting to know Gore, spending time with him, doing interviews and simply following him around to his many speaking engagements and events. While we were filming, I also researched his previous on-camera appearances by looking at an enormous amount of archival footage. This consisted of interviews he had done over four or five decades, including talk show appearances that I dug out of the archives at the British Film Institute that were hitherto unseen by the American public. Then came the mammoth task of sorting and editing this material, which was really a matter of selecting the most exciting and dramatic moments from his on-air appearances. This process revealed just how many subjects he had addressed over the years. Gore loved to be provocative and his sharp wit made for good television.

After the first pass at editing, I did even more filming with Gore to try and get him to address his personal life in more detail. On camera he always steered away from certain subjects. I decided that some other voices were needed to fill in the detail. I interviewed his sister Nina and close friends Jodie Evans and Tim Robbins, who were able to give new insight to this relationship with Howard Austen. I was also lucky enough to get an interview with Christopher Hitchens not long before he died. Gore and Hitch had initially been close, but then had a dramatic falling out over the Iraq War.

Altogether, we edited over a period of nine months and several different editors were involved at different periods. I wanted the pace of the film to be appealing to a contemporary audience, so we used many of Gore’s funny and often poignant words to punctuate the film and bridge different eras.

I feel that it was a great honor to know Gore late in his life. In my opinion, one of his greatest attributes was his courage to speak honestly about power. He had grown up as the grandson of a senator, and so he understood power and the motivations and machinations of those who wielded it. He was not afraid to confront it head-on or to expose the lies that help to maintain it. He understood the media, and with his wit and intelligence was able to position himself as a public intellectual. He was a go-to person for many journalists that wanted a comment on politics and culture. The state of the nation was always his favorite subject, and he was often scathing in his assessment.

Having listened to Gore speak both privately and publicly many times, I do think that this film represents the Gore I witnessed in his last great act. The issues on which he was focused in his final years are in this film: his concern for the Constitution and the loss of habeas corpus, his concern about the voting process, his dire warnings about the U.S. focus on empire building and war mongering, his disgust during the Bush era and his warnings about the elite agenda and corporate control of America. He was horrified by the direction in which this country is headed and especially bothered by the acceleration of wealth and lack of concern for the poor. He did, however, hold out some hope that things could change through the action of the citizens and was a supporter of the youth and protest movement Occupy Wall Street.

This film needed to be made to remind people, especially young people, of the courage of Gore Vidal. Even though he was of a different generation than I, his spirit and ideas are relevant today. He was always ahead of his time. The same issues he was addressing back in the ’60s and ’70s, such as corporate control and inequality, are even bigger problems today.

The question that people seem to ask most after watching the film is, “Who will pick up the baton now that Gore has passed on?”

I am afraid I don’t really have an answer for this. I hope that the film will inspire a new generation to question the media and mainstream press and to demand truth from those who hold power in our society. I see it as a call to arms; the last word of a great American provocateur. MM

Watch the trailer:

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia opens at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza in New York City on May 23, 2014 and at the Nuart in Los Angeles on June 6, 2014. Learn more about the film at www.gorevidaldocumentary.com.

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