For his delightful, rather reticent memoir Screening History, Gore Vidal apologizes that he has at last succumbed to “the American writer’s disease, the celebration if not of self, of the facts of one’s own sacred story.” He has “always been able to imagine what it is like to be someone else, but now I begin to wonder what it is like to be me, a figure that keeps cropping up in the lives of others, usually wearing an impenetrable disguise.” In fact he does not really succumb to the American writer’s disease, which is ordinarily to write about how I became Me. This is an autobiography in the nineteenth-century, or even eighteenth-century mode, about how the writer’s case illustrates some trend or constant of human history, more or less as John Stuart Mill wrote an autobiography to illustrate the efficacy of Headstart.
Vidal was born in 1925 to attractively rakish, prominent, rich parents. His glamorous mother married three times, once to a man who would later marry Jackie Onassis’s mother, and “she never baked a pie, but she did manage to drink, in the course of a lifetime, the equivalent of the Chesapeake Bay in vodka.” His father, a founder of airlines, and Roosevelt’s director of Air Commerce, let him solo in a plane at the age of ten. It was from his formidable, blind grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, that he derived his interest in politics and his sense of coming from a ruling class that ought to be involved in politics—here was a boy who kept a diary at age fourteen in which he recorded instances of labor unrest.
Uprooted throughout childhood, sent off to private schools, at seventeen he joined the Army and served on a freight supply ship. (“I was a dangerously poor navigator, but at least my luck was better than Lord Jim’s.”) After the war he returned, took up writing novels, and, boycotted by critics for treating the subject of homosexuality in his early novel The City and the Pillar, supported himself by writing for film, and eventually for the stage and television. He wrote some brilliant essays, more novels, both historical and satirical, including several whose formal innovations were more or less obscured by their racy charm, and also ran for Congress, later for the Senate, unsuccessfully.
It is from his love of films that he comes to the central thesis of Screening History, “How, through ear and eye, we are both defined and manipulated by fictions of such potency that they are able to replace our own experience, often becoming our sole experience of a reality become as irreal as the Turkey of Oblomov’s coffeehouse, or the Alaska of my dreams” (or, one might add, the Duluth or Golgotha of his novels).
“In the end, he who screens the history makes the history.” Since the world sees whatever a producer chooses to make it see, to understand America we must understand “how we were shaped by the movies that we saw, and why they were what they were.” He uses himself as an example of a movie-struck American, discussing the films that influenced him at each period of his life and influenced many of us who saw the same movies. He was bewitched by A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream with Mickey Rooney into reading all of Shakespeare when he was ten. Traveling to Europe at thirteen, he was already familiar with the French Foreign Legion which paraded by the Petit Palais—he had seen Under Two Flags. The Mummy, Fire Over England, The Prince and the Pauper, The Prisoner of Zenda—he suggests very convincingly that our view of history would be different if the studios had not been run by Europeans and Anglophiles: “One wonders, not so idly, what sort of a country we might have had if, instead of being bombarded by the screened versions of Nelson and Napolean and Queen Elizabeth, we had been given films about Jefferson and Hamilton and the Lincoln presidency.”
His preoccupation not only with American history but with American history as film has been central to his work as long ago as Myra Breckenridge (which some think his masterpiece, a Calvino-esque Hollywood tale or, perhaps, given the chronology, an influence on Calvino). The redoubtable Myra observed in 1974 that “in the decade between 1935 and 1945, no irrelevant film was made in the United States,” and that “any profound study of those extraordinary works is bound to make crystal-clear the human condition,” but perhaps people didn’t take her seriously enough. As Vidal notes in Screening History, “Cassandra was not much listened to, but her gloomy presence introduced a mood of foreboding. How she would have been ignored if she had made the mistake of being funny!” Myra was too funny, and Vidal himself has paid a price for his wittiness, in that a tone of high seriousness is a prerequisite in America to a work’s being taken as Serious Art.
Vidal is witty in the mode of Voltaire or Wilde; yet the solitary and bookish boy-moviegoer emerges from behind his jokes as a surprisingly austere, scholarly intellectual with a disappointed romantic’s impatience with his country, and obsessed with the question: What is one to make of a country whose idea of reality is “carefully distorted for us by the churches and the schools, by the press and by—triumphantly—the movies, which are, finally, the only validation to which that dull anterior world…must submit.”
Vidal’s serious and unsettling point about film’s influence on history has been nicely illustrated by at least two recent books. Aljean Harmetz in Round Up the Usual Suspects, about the making of the film Casablanca, writes about how she
was in elementary school during World War Il; I did my part in the war by rolling tinfoil and rubber bands into balls and bringing them to the Warners Beverly Theater on Saturday mornings. World War II has receded with all its certainties and moral imperatives, leaving muddy flats behind…. I believed the romantic interpretation of Casablanca then—love lost for the good of the world—and believe it now.
Because film can be as formative as family of our views and values, she cannot now believe some more recent re-interpretations, for instance that Rick and Ilsa were sick of each other, or that Ilsa was only using Rick. (Of the same period, Myra says, “We were, despite our youth, a throwback to the Forties, to I mean of course the war…. I would give ten years of my life if I could step back in time for just one hour and visit the Stage Door Canteen in Hollywood, exactly the way that Dane Clark did in the movie of the same name….”) Harmetz’s account of how Hollywood, cooperating with the Office of War Information, dutifully and enthusiastically shaped fictions to affect public opinion, shows in detail how looking at the assumptions of those script changes and casting decisions can help to illumine our understanding of the period, for instance how public and official attitudes to the war shifted between 1942 and 1945 with changes in the progress of the fighting, or how film undertook the selling of the war to an ambivalent nation.
If World War II was “the last moment in human history when it was possible to possess a total commitment to something outside oneself” (Myra Breckenridge), the managers of other, less virtuous, wars learned something from the role film played in it. Vidal notes how the defeat in Vietnam “screened daily on television, was then metamorphosed into a total victory in the Rambo movies, films which not only convinced everyone that we had…won that war but which made almost as much money at the world box office as we had wasted on the war itself.” H. Bruce Franklin, in M.I.A., a heated account of the persistence of the myth of POW/MIA’s, believes that film helped this issue to assume its mythic role in the lives of tens of millions of Americans, who persist in believing in the face of all evidence that thousands of Americans are still alive in Asian prison camps. True believers include former president Ronald Reagan and such influential media figures as Clint Eastwood, who were actually involved in backing real-life rescue missions:
The basic technique was to take images of the war that had become deeply embedded in America’s consciousness and transform them into their opposite. For example [in The Deer Hunter]…a uniformed soldier throws a grenade into an underground village shelter harboring women and children, and then with his automatic assault rifle mows down a woman and her baby. Although the scene resembles Life’s pictures of the My Lai massacre he is not an American soldier but a North Vietnamese. He is then killed by…Robert De Niro.
Americans are pushed from helicopters, a sadistic Asian general puts his pistol to the temple of a prisoner and shoots, exactly reproducing the familiar photograph, but the victim here is an American, and so on, to produce a veritable album of images reversing photographs already known to American audiences in which the Vietnamese were the victims. According to Franklin, a prominent Sixties activist, this reimaging of the Vietnam war was perfectly conscious—although one can see that it could easily be unconscious on the part of a film maker anxious to profit from the country’s revisionist mood.
Vidal’s observations and Franklin’s examples lead one to speculate on the revisionary function of all mythmaking, a function different from the propaganda objectives of some of the World War II films. The mythmaker wishes to make emotionally acceptable the unacceptable in human experience—a point Vidal makes about Boris Karloff’s film The Mummy, which offers a form of eternal life.
Writing during the 1992 presidential campaign. Vidal notes other consequences of the American view of history as influenced by film. “Certainly, no reality intrudes on our presidential elections. They are simply fast-moving fictions. Empty of content at a cognitive level but, at a visceral level, very powerful indeed, as the tragic election of Willie Horton to the governorship of Massachusetts demonstrated in 1988.” (He thinks George Bush was imprinted with the movies of 1939—The Wizard of Oz, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Gone with the Wind. Perhaps he might explain Bush’s imperviousness to the national mood as owing to his not having gone to enough movies since then.)
Interviewing, Vidal in QW, Larry Kramer, the playwright, says to him, “I bet there is a big romantic streak in you. Perhaps that’s why you are so angry.” If Vidal is angry, he is not yet prepared to say he is so for any reason other than the very rational one of disappointment in a country for which he had great expectations and a sense of responsibility. One finds in all Vidal’s work, from the historical novels like Lincoln and Burr to the comic Myra Breckenridge and Duluth; the outrage of disappointed political illusion—outrage the reader might have shared if he had been raised like Vidal with the same lively sense of noblesse oblige—the need not only to write about matters of serious public concern but a demand that his writings have an effect, too: with Live From Golgotha he says he wants to undermine the Judeo-Christian tradition.
One can understand Vidal’s frustration with our country. But there is also a note, harder to sympathize with, of a rather unwarranted sense of having been ignored. Critics, like prophets, are always ignored and they ought to expect it; and anyway Vidal has not been ignored. He may have been too visible. All writers would be actors if they could, someone has said, and it goes without saying that some actors are stars. The evolution of writer into Personality follows from the bond between writer and reader that is established with every act of reading, independent of both the work and the narrator of the work. Thus we have a sense of Jane Austen from her novels that is not the same as our sense of her narrators or characters, and it is to the real Jane we address any possible objections to her ascribed limitations (but you were never married!) and peculiarities.
Readers of Gore Vidal have an even more tangible sense of him because he is more present in his novels than Austen in hers. Though he has been the least autobiographical of writers, an exasperated Vidal figure, recognizable by its obsessions on certain subjects, is apt to come crashing into his texts like a burglar through a skylight. Add to this the likelihood that the reader will have seen him on television or in the movies (see him in Bob Roberts acting the part of a senator), handsome and funny, like a star, and it does not seem amazing that he more than most writers is the object of that peculiar form of celebrity desire that allows strangers to feel acquainted, involved, even entitled to their connection to the living man behind his books. This has not always furthered Vidal’s literary reputation. The novelist John Calvin Batchelor, for instance, reviewing Vidal’s latest novel, Live From Golgotha, remarks that the reader may be shocked “that Gore Vidal, self-promoting charlatan and conscientiously strident bear-baiter, is in truth a sincere Pauline intelligence in the hard-minded tradition of Augustine, Calvin, Beecher, Niebuhr and Martin Luther King.”* His adhominem characterization of the author would seem to be based on Vidal’s extra-literary performances. Nevertheless he places Vidal in a venerable religious tradition which may, as he notes, surprise.
Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal concerns a Zionist plot led by Jesus, a.k.a. the Hacker, Lucifer, or Marvin Wasserstein the film maker, to derail or change the crucifiction as it was being staged, through the wonders of time travel and computers, for Prime Time Live by Saints Timothy and Paul, with Judas substituted for Jesus, on account of Jesus’ cumbersome obesity. Speaking of Live from Golgotha to Larry Kramer, Vidal says, “I’m really interested now in trying to destroy monotheism in the United States. That is the source of the problems.” One sees what he means. The kindly and expedient religion of the English parsonage and the orderly mandates of Moses have been disgraced and discredited by cults with Uzis, book-burning bigots, sex-obsessed cardinals, and a couple of messiahs waiting in the wings. But the hope that he has done in monotheism by writing a book in which Saint Paul is in love with Timothy, “who is straight, to use that word, and puts out only to get on the road with him,” seems literally optimistic.
The plot, in which Zionists travel backward through time to try to erase with computers all historical record of the crucifixion, recapitulates Vidal’s view of history as a product of revisionist images. But his point about monotheism being bad for America may be missed in the antic plot. Irreverence only shocks the reverent. The ex-seminarian Batchelor, however, is unshockable. He congratulates Vidal for creating a Jesus who “clearly schemes and sweats,” and for his “dare to make St. Paul vibrant, admirable, and visionary, even as a dirty old man.” In Batchelor Vidal has perhaps an ideal reader, determined to ignore or find some good in “every Rushdie-like blasphemy.” But as for destroying Christianity, Vidal, a considerable scholar, may not realize how biblically illiterate the rest of his readers are, and he has himself noted how powerless books are. Perhaps Live From Golgotha will be made into a movie.
And as for the power of living role models to affect history? Larry Kramer criticizes Vidal for ducking the responsibility of personal testimony, and not talking enough about his life. Vidal replies, “You have to take into account our temperaments. You’re a subjective and romantic writer, I’m an objective and classical writer….we see the world entirely differently.” If one thinks of romantic and subjective as the spirit of the age, it is easier to see in the contrast between Larry Kramer and the Olympian Vidal the defining qualities of Vidal’s work, which may well be some of the ones he claims for himself—skepticism, and an interest in politics and “justice,” the Constitution, history, film scholarship, religion, Sainte-Beuve—an array of subjects so unfashionable, or recherché, that people have, like Kramer, usually refused to believe his plainest statements that these are his subjects. Screening History seems to be, so far, his most personal testimony. He does tell Larry Kramer that we may expect another, a kind of summing up of his six historical novels in which he will be the narrator. “After that I’ll let drop the feather.” And Larry Kramer objects, “No! I think if anything you’re getting sharper and wiser.” And so he is.
April 8, 1993