Gore Vidal's Screening History

Screening History, by Gore Vidal. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

THE THREE LECTURES COLLECTED in Screening History, and delivered at Harvard in 1991, give us Gore Vidal at his most relaxed and digressively avuncular. His first sentence refers to that ever approaching Final Exit we must all take sooner or later—Vidal speaks of his Now as the springtime of his senescence—yet I detect no slackening of the nimble, wacky mind that summoned Myra Breckinridge in 1968. It must be said that Vidal, half politician that he is, tends to hone certain themes into aphorisms and to repeat these for years on end. Fortunately, they are usually heretical enough to bear repeating.

In the work at hand, the story of Vidal’s childhood and youth in the ’30s is shown through the prism of surrounding history, the perception of which was then and is now strongly determined by the fiction films and newsreels of the period. Movies, Vidal says, are the lingua franca of the 20th century; the printed word, especially the novel, is superannuated, and “to speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer.” Once upon a time, books were famous, among both those who did and those who did not read them. Today, the literary artist “is not only not famous, he is irrelevant to his time.”

Vidal compares the switch from print to image culture with the fifth-century shift “from the oral tradition to the written text.” This notion has been around since Marshall McLuhan, and it seems, unfortunately or otherwise, true. But Vidal, a genuine media celebrity, has escaped the obscurity of his less telegenic colleagues. To a degree, Screening History is about his own fame or inscription in history, and that of his family.

Vidal’s grandfather was a much-elected blind senator from Oklahoma (a state, Vidal claims, that his family invented). His father was FDR’s Director of Air Commerce, and the founder of several commercial airlines; his thrice-married socialite mother, less famously, managed “to drink, in the course of a lifetime, the equivalent of the Chesapeake Bay in vodka.” It was Vidal Sr.’s dream that every family should own, not just a car, but a plane as well. Thus the author, at age ten, was captured by newsreel cameras piloting a Hammond Y-1.

Vidal’s maiden appearance on the big screen left less of an impression on him than the spectacle of Mickey Rooney in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Vidal wanted to be Rooney and to play Puck. (At the time of his Harvard lectures, Vidal notices, Rooney is doing a book signing at the Harvard Coop.) Other key films of the period were Love Song of the Nile with Ramon Navarro, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Mummy with Boris Karloff. The latter inspired Vidal’s fleeting wish to become an archaeologist, while another Karloff film, Isle of the Dead, mysteriously impelled him, years later, to complete his stalled first novel, Williwaw.

Regarding The Mummy: “Fifty-eight years later, I watched the movie for the first time since its release and I became, suddenly, seven years old again, mouth ajar, as I inhabited, simultaneously, both ancient Egypt and pre-imperial Washington DC.” Our relation to memory is paradoxical in a culture of images, where history is easily altered, edited, and suppressed. The movies and television allow us an easy form of time travel, which Vidal, in numerous fictions, has given three-dimensional palpability. In Myron, 1973, the hero/ine plunges into the television set and lands inside the 1948 filming of Siren of Babylon, starring Maria Montez. The characters inhabiting Duluth in Duluth, 1983, are sometimes real, sometimes the fictional creatures of a romance novelist with three names, and slither back and forth, according to the whims of the Creator’s word processor, between the world of Today and that of Hyatt Regency England. Vidal’s latest novel, Live from Golgotha, has late-20th-century TV executives ferrying via laser beam to the period of the Crucifixion.

Vidal’s sense of time as a porous and flexible medium is fascinating when applied to his own many years on the public stage. He’s so good at playing himself that his undoubtedly authentic memories sound almost too neatly trimmed, as though contrived for the occasion. His description of old Washington movie emporiums is marvelous—the Belasco, the Capitol, Keith’s; he remembers the Dentyne stuck to the seat bottoms at the Metropolitan, the smell of honey in the Translux. Vidal works such seminal movies as The Prince and the Pauper, with Erroll Flynn and identical twins Bobby and Billy Mauch, into his memories of the Depression, demonstrating by his own intense identification with these screen figments the complex way in which modern reality is invariably mediated through the symbolic.

The book has even more than Vidal’s usual tossed-off hilarity. The bemused, sardonic ring of his speaking voice is clearly audible throughout: “Generally,” runs one sparkling line, “a narcissist is anyone better-looking than you are.” Epiphanic observations flash through the text with striking casualness. Of the U.S. in World War I, for example: “The world was not even made safe for democracy, a form of government quite alien to the residents of our alabaster cities, much less to those occupants of our fruited plains.”

Vidal moves us through the Depression into the immediate prewar period (The Three Musketeers, Fire Over England, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, The Prisoner of Zenda, and, of course, Gone With the Wind). We see him at age 13 on a school trip to Europe; he, inevitably, spots Daladier in a military parade, and sits very close to Mussolini at an outdoor opera in the baths of Caracalla. Early on, Vidal can’t resist yet another swipe at Truman Capote’s mythomania; even Capote might’ve thought twice, though, about throwing Daladier and Mussolini in the path of the same 13-year-old. But Vidal said it, I believe it, and that settles it.

The final lecture, “Lincoln,” winds things up with more Washington memories, war and postwar recollections, and some apt, canny remarks on George Bush’s world view, the Persian Gulf bomborama as a television fiction, the Japanese acquisition of Hollywood, and the odiousness of the New York Times. All in all, a stirring performance, not least because Vidal has covered much of this territory many times before yet manages rather pithily to make it new. He remains the most useful, entertaining, and, why not say it, wise speedboat designer in America.

Gary Indiana is a writer who lives in New York.