Gore Vidal was a man of many talents, obviously writing being his foremost, but I would say his biggest talent, the one thread that wove through all his books and essays, as well as his numerous media appearances and interviews, was the ability to confound.
That he confounded those on the right is not news, but the way he stymied the left was, I think, lesser known, and always a joy to watch.
In my mind, he was a man with a wickedly sharp tongue, a beautiful way with prose and the only the mind that seemed to actually understand the history of our country -- and this is the man celebrated in the documentary "Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia," which screens at the Clark Art Institute on Saturday, Nov. 2, at 8 p.m. as part of the Williamstown Film Festival.
The film is not a dissection of the man, but I always found him a bit of a mystery over the years, and this documentary is a welcome chance to get to know him, while also giving people less familiar with his ideas and work a solid primer that points you in further directions.
What's important about Vidal is that he not only took on the Republicans in the ‘60s, he also pronounced the JFK presidency to be a disaster. That takes guts, and it gets to the core of what he was about -- the refusal to accept the myth of America, and instead urge people to fight for a better reality.
What's jarring in watching the footage of Vidal in the ‘60s and ‘70s is the revelation that he was talking about all the political issues that are still being talked about today in our post-Occupy world -- having to do with corporatism and self-serving landscape of politics -- as well as extremely progressive views on gender and sexuality that he was voicing on TV at the time, when even now so many wouldn't be caught dead doing so.
And he was a lovely novelist.
Director Nicholas Wrathall weaves all this together with a lot from Vidal himself, as well as old clips and testimonials from friends. What emerges is the portrait of the one wealthy, rich, Anglo-Saxon Protestant in America who decided to use his advantage for what was right, with the understanding that, unlike so many of the politicians he sneered at, he had nothing to lose. He could tell the truth without pause.