Thursday, August 30, 2012

He of the rapier tongue: Deceased Artiste Gore Vidal

As America again endures two horribly boring political conventions, I must surely pay tribute to the most significant departure of the last few weeks, novelist-essayist-pundit-polymath (and uncannily articulate wiseass) Gore Vidal, a man who — among several hundred other honors — distinguished himself on television at a political convention many years ago (see below).

Vidal wrote over two dozen novels, several plays, many more teleplays and screenplays, but will forever be best known for his exceptional work as a commentator on American politics. He possessed a razor-sharp intelligence and an absolutely savage dry wit that ensures him immortality in the minds of those folks who still care about having a mind.

The most important thing about Vidal for me was his very deep appreciation of what America could be and isn't. Like the extremely talented writers who made up his generation of novelists —Mailer, Vonnegut, Heller, etc — he was a veteran who opposed war and a political theorist who loved exploring the ways in which this country pursued “imperial power” in the years that followed WWII, up to the present day.

Vidal’s place as a writer of fiction is secure for two reasons: his well-regarded series of historical novels about American history, and The City and the Pillar, one of the first novels with gay protagonists to gain mainstream attention (Vidal attributed this to the fact that his characters were all-American boys, the novel had “no hairdressers in it”). I will confess to only having read two of his novels, both of them smaller achievements — one in which he seemed to be channeling Terry Southern (Myra Breckinridge) and one where he seemed to have taken a leaf, unsuccessfully, from Pynchon (Duluth).

His literary pedigree was indeed very strong, but, much like his nemesis and rival (and eventual friend) Norman Mailer, Vidal will most likely be best known for his incredibly strong presence as a political theorist and pundit. We were quite lucky to have him among us for as long as we did (he died a few weeks back at 86), since I believe that he, Mailer, and the other writers who discussed the concept of America on popular talk shows (yeah, there was a time when those shows didn’t just bring out one hype-driven guest after another) were doing very important work — even if some viewers saw their appearances as merely being fueled by ego (which of course they were, but these men were SO brilliant that the egos were indeed well deserved).

So, I salute Vidal for being a great American — not in the Sean Hannity sense (which isn’t hyperbole, it’s stupidity), but because he questioned everything the government said (*always* a good policy) and because he dared to explore the darker sides of this nation’s love of power and empire-building. His mind was a national treasure, and even though it has now stopped functioning in a biological sense, he left decades’ worth of writings and public appearances that I hope will be discussed for a long, long time to come.

One of Vidal’s greatest facilities — a really rare one in this day and age — was his ability to coin aphorisms: “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.” “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” The timeless (and timely) “By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he’s been bought ten times over.” And, of course, his personal motto: “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

The single best introduction to Vidal as both personality and author is the two-part BBC Omnibus documentary “Gore Vidal’s Gore Vidal” (1995). The filmmakers include talking heads like Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and George McGovern. But, as always, Vidal is the whole show.

In this docu, we see him in NYC (a city he hated), LA (a city he loved, and the one he died in), and Ravello, Italy, where he lived for many years. He also attends a Gore family reunion in the South and takes time to dispute the auteur theory. He discusses his historical novels in depth, and also tells us what Tennessee Williams thought of JFK (“you know, that boy has a cute ass”).

In part two of episode two, Gore receives a toast from his old nemesis Norman and discusses acting in film with Kurt Vonnegut. What was interesting about Vidal was that he would take verbal swipes at rather sedate souls like Vonnegut. He confirms for Kurt that he did indeed utter the nasty line about Capote's demise attributed to him (that Truman's dying was “a good career move”)

The third part of the second half of the documentary includes him speaking about his appearance in Fellini’s Roma and one of his TV appearances that I vividly remember but is nowhere else on YT. Years before he did brief voice cameos on The Simpsons and Family Guy, he played himself on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman — if I remember correctly, though, the character turned out to be “a man who believes he’s Gore Vidal.”

Speaking of Fellini, Nino Rota’s scores for Fellini are used as punctuation in the BBC docu found above and also in this 1980s German TV documentary. In part one there is a great discussion of Christianity (Vidal, to put it mildly, was not a believer). He also holds forth on JFK as a shallow president.

In part five he again lets loose with his anti-auteurist sentiments (he did in fact write an article in American Film that was later responded to by Andrew Sarris). The cause for his belief that the writer was the true author of a film is pretty obvious, but here we learn that decades later he was still furious with Arthur Penn for firing him off of The Left-Handed Gun, which began as one of his teleplays (and later was made into a cable movie with Val Kilmer, with a script approved by Vidal).

Here is the only time I saw him comment on the movie version of Visit to a Small Planet with Jerry Lewis (he refers to it as a “low comedy”); it was commonly known that he hated the movie adaptation of Myra Breckinridge. He also takes the time to bitch out Mailer (“he looks like Colette these days”) and his true nemesis Truman Capote. (“a pathological liar”). The documentary ends with Gore labeling beliefs in an afterlife and reincarnation as being “not only ridiculous but tragic.”

One YT uploader, a heavy Vidal fan, has assembled a montage of clips that includes Gore on Johnny Carson. He’s seen discussing how the true American art is that of the television commercial; he also talks about U.S. leaders, aging, and death.

There were writers that Vidal respected and befriended (like Tennessee Williams) and others that he openly despised (Capote), but as the years went on it was interesting to hear him reflect on younger writers, including Christopher Hitchens, whom he had called his “successor” when Hitch was leftwing; when he swang wildly to the right, Gore took back his endorsement of the younger writer.

There was a mutual admiration between Vidal and Noam Chomsky, who is thankfully still with us. Chomsky is of course one of the most brilliant voices of the Left, although he is such a sedate and scholarly type that one can’t imagine him qualifying as “appointment television” on a talk show the way that Vidal and Mailer did. Here Vidal talks about his respect for Chomsky.

And, as this is being written in the week of the 2012 convocation of heartless bastards that is the Republican Convention, I must spotlight the series of in-studio televised debates that Vidal had with William F. Buckley during the ABC broadcasts of the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1968.

Labeled “controversialists,” the two certainly represented the more intellectual wings of the Left and Right. The debates from the Republican convention have surfaced online in color, but the much more heated one from the Democratic convention can only be found in grainy b&w (just as it would’ve been seen by most Americans back at the time it originally aired).

The initial debates, which aired every night of the Republican convention, started off with Vidal reflecting that “Republicans are not a party…. They’re a class.” He says their platform amounts to “socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor” (oh, how times haven’t changed!). He calls Nixon a “hollow man” and discusses Buckley’s history of advocating bombing of America’s enemies. For his part, Buckley has ammunition at the ready concerning Vidal’s then most-recent book, Myra Breckenridge.

As the debate proceeds, Gore shows his flair for the aphorism by noting that “[Buckley] is always to the right and almost always in the wrong.” He also calls attention to what he terms Bill B’s “Latinate and slightly inaccurate style.”

By the fourth debate, Vidal takes time to call attention to the fact that Buckley is sweating on camera, but even more importantly (and quite profoundly) remarks that “this is one of the strangest countries on Earth, that nobody’s record ever matters at all. I must say I think the public’s memory is four weeks at best. I say this sadly on all issues….”

The debates between Vidal and Buckley might have been sharply acidic during the Republican convention of ’68, but the one from the Democratic convention that is vividly remembered by everyone who saw it (including mine own parents) was an electric encounter. The two are very calm at the beginning, with Gore taking the part of the protestors outside the convention hall in Chicago, and Buckley saying the police who rioted were indeed “bad apples” (but then noting that they had reason to act violently).

By the third part, Vidal extends an invitation to Buckley from “our mutual friend Norman Mailer” to see how Buckley’s “beloved cops are behaving” in the streets. The fourth segment is the killer, though, as it represents the moment that Buckley lost his cool – and the debate – in one fell swoop.

The topic is, as it always was, the Vietnam War, and Vidal once again condemns the behavior of the police outside the hall. Buckley defends it, and Vidal calls him a “crypto-fascist,” leading Buckley to call Gore a “queer” and to threaten “I’ll sock you in your goddamned face and you'll stay plastered” (Bill was not very poetic when he was angry).

A great-looking copy of the essential clip can be seen here, but the full context can be found here:

Thankfully we also have access to what followed this explosive moment. Buckley was obviously frazzled – notice the large grin that comes over Vidal’s face when Bill threatens him with physical violence (thereby completely ceding control of the argument and losing his renowned cool). Vidal’s summarizes his position with the question, “what are we doing fighting in Vietnam if you cannot freely express yourself in the streets of Chicago?”

The debate with Buckley established Vidal’s unflappable killer instinct in debates and remains the nastiest anyone ever got with him on TV (so much for Buckley’s much-vaunted gentility), but the piece de resistance, the crème de la crème of Vidal’s TV debates, is his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show on December 15, 1971 (journalist Janet Flanner is the other guest on the program).

I heard about the show from my dad the day after it aired, and it certainly was “water cooler TV,” in that you had two extremely famous authors (seen right in later years, when they were friends, with Sontag and Talese) tearing each other down verbally, while one of them insinuated physical threats (the only author-on-author violence actually occurred before the show, when Mailer headbutted Gore in the dressing room).

The clip below gives a taste of one of the tenser moments in the show, but my two personal favorite moments (both of which I will paraphrase, since I don’t have access to the show on tape) involve Gore saying that he respects Mailer as a man, has no problem with him personally, but that Norman’s prose had gotten flabby (as with the “crypto-Nazi” remark to Buckley, Vidal knew how to set an opponent off).

My favorite Mailer moment (you can see the moments just after it here) occurs when he stops to ask the audience, in true heel wrestler style (at his most gonzo on TV, Norman resembled nothing less than a heel wrestler or a forerunner of Johnny Rotten), whether they were applauding more for Vidal because they agreed with his points “or because you’re all morons.” Priceless.

Vidal was always eager to be interviewed on television (see his maxim about television and sex above), so here is he at the outset of the Reagan presidency (January 1981) on The Merv Griffin Show. He mocks Reagan’s hair, insists that his election was not a mandate since so few people voted, and once again cuts right to the quick by saying that Reagan swore to “get government off the backs of the people – I wonder where he will then put it.”

He also discusses how religions should not be tax-exempt (huzzah) and notes that abortion seems more important to the right wing (at this time represented by “the Moral Majority”) than unemployment or inflation. (Another timeless observation.)

Continuing on the theme of religion, which Vidal knew quite a bit about thanks to his voluminous historical research, I turn to his appearance on a London Weekend Television talk show in 1999. The show is hosted by the great Melvyn Bragg, and Gore delivers quite a lot of salient points.

He defines his own feelings about spirituality as aligning with the Atomists — ”we are forever part of the universe, like it or not.” When discussing the possibility of an afterlife, he says that that notion makes God “a blackmailer, the warden of the prison.” He notes the ways in which the Christian church appropriated signs and myths from older religions, and makes the common-sense point that “’being a good Christian’ is merely being a good human being.”

Vidal had been a strong presence in the last fifteen years, during the rise of “alternative media.” Here he is on Democracy Now on the subject of George W. Bush (“a little terrier”) and the “craven media” who failed to question his decisions.

Vidal on the BBC talk show HARDtalk, again on G.W. Bush and the fact that he considered the U.S. a police state in the 2000s. He also debunks the notion of “a good war” and says straight out that “we [Americans] have been immoral from the beginning.” His forecast? “The going out of business.”

He did indeed seem extremely downbeat and negative in his final television interviews (notice I didn’t say misguided or inaccurate). On “The Real News Network,” he discusses the fact that fighter planes were clearly told to “stand down” on 9/11. His prescription for an American revival was a restoration of the Constitution in full, including the right of habeus corpus.

The single best lengthy on-camera interview I found with Vidal was, once again, conducted by Melvyn Bragg on a 2008 episode of The South Bank Show. Too often Vidal’s interviewers would let him continue on without contesting what he said; Bragg at one point in this chat jokingly notes that Vidal is not as uncertain as he claims (telling Gore with a smile, “I’m not having it”). Vidal also spotlights the touching "Old Lions" photo to the right, which depicted three WWII vets, all great American writers, who opposed George W. Bush's foreign policy.

The single most interesting statement in the program (especially given the fact that many of us who admire and endlessly respected Vidal were not avid readers of his fiction) is his pronouncement that “essays will last longer than novels.” The reason he supplies is that “our educational system is designed to kill all curiosity. That killing of curiosity killed the novel.”

Bragg also gets him to discuss the subject of the “gay identity” (he didn’t believe there is one). And yes, there is some mud slung when Gore mentions what he calls “Updikery” in fiction. He notes that Updike was “very modest… with good reason!”

And, since it’s always best to close out with a song, I have put a spotlight on this privately shot footage of Vidal at a party warbling Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

His mind will be missed, but his ideas live on.

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