Two Happy Warriors: Roger Ebert and Gore Vidal

November 27, 2014 — Leave a comment

gore-vidalI know all those SEO experts tell bloggers to stay within their niche – which, let us not forget, means not only a specific market but also a comfortable position, i.e. not where a critic should be – but I’m going to go slightly off-message by mentioning a theatrical release: Life Itself (CNN Films – also available on some demand platforms) a documentary about American film critic Roger Ebert, based on his 2011 memoir of the same name.

Ebert’s name might not mean a lot in the UK but to generations of Americans he was film criticism. This comes across strongly in Life Itself but unfortunately, and unlike the memoir itself, which is wholly charming, at two hours the film is stretched into a slightly repetitive hagiography. The man wrote good film reviews and was a successful blogger; he also wrote a nondescript novel and the script for a terrible Russ Meyer film; but he should be championed for bringing any kind of critical skill to a popular audience.

Along with Gene Siskel, Ebert found fame presenting film review and preview programmes that became the dominant voice not only in US film criticism but in the cinema industry as a whole – like a couple of Sesame Street Roman emperors, films lived and died by a flick of their thumbs. The famous thumbs up/down may have been a gimmick – and we can hardly blame a TV show for possessing that – but the first thing to say is that of course they couldn’t convey the detail of a written review in, say, a five minute segment of airtime, but that doesn’t mean consumer advice, as one  talking head describes it, isn’t a valuable part of film reviewing.

Unfortunately it does raise the more general question of whether the vast majority of film criticism – written or otherwise – serves any other purpose. If a critic strove to write only about films with artistic merit he might get one gig every two months. This is why even such an exacting (or ‘pretentious’, as Ebert himself – wrongly, I think – said) a critic as John Simon must review schlock and dross, and why readers love to bask in the warm glow of freshly poured scorn.

But why the animus towards Pauline Kael in the film? ‘Fuck Pauline Kael,’ says an Ebert friend. Whereas Ebert, I think I recall even from the memoir, was a great fan of Kael’s and counted her as a huge influence.

When it comes to reading book reviews, however, it is certainly more pleasurable to read a paean powered by delight than a hatchet job. Anthony Burgess once complained that whilst he was confined to 1,000 word reviews, Gore Vidal was allowed a leisurely minimum of 10,000, and people need go no further than his mammoth essay collection United States to find delight. Not that Vidal was shy when it came to lashing out at hypocrisy, pomposity and mendacity, in both the literary and political worlds, which was part of the pleasure of catching Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia on Sky Arts 1.

Vidalophiles will be familiar with the life of the novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, politician manqué and public intellectual, but this documentary had plenty of old footage I was unfamiliar with, even parts of the famous spat with arch-loon Bill Buckley (who was not without his own patrician grandiloquence). Most interesting, however, was more recent footage, shot in the years before Vidal’s death in 2012, including an exchange – and there must be more of this somewhere – with fellow-octogenarian Mikhail Gorbachev. As well as a touching somber moment when he refers, with evident regret, to Jimmy Trimble, his one great love, as ‘schoolboy stuff … long, long ago.’

Vidal claimed not to go in for regret and thankfully he never regretted, or turned down, a chance to appear on television – no intellectual ever made himself more public – thus, for those who can’t see this documentary (it isn’t even on limited release in the UK), Youtube is a great boon; particular highlights are the BBC’s Gore Vidal’s Gore Vidal and PBS’s The Education of Gore Vidal.

Televised bons mots, however barbed, are no substitute for reading his work, the best place for the essays being already mentioned. Some say the novels are too long but I suppose that depends how interested you are in the history of power in the US, and the other novels – the ‘inventions’ – Myra, Duluth, etc. are slimmer and possibly even more rewarding. His two memoirs, Palimpsest and Point to Point Navigation, are raucously rewarding panoramas of the 20th century, the former nudging right up there among Vidal’s best work.

People – and you’ll find them in the comments below the videos mentioned above – are wont to regret that we have no more Vidals, or even Norman Mailers, and probably we never will again, at least not in exactly the same mould. Society is not kind to mavericks, as Dr William Masters is warned, and subsequently learns, in the marvellous Masters of Sex (Showtime), the first season of which I watched over a few days on Amazon Prime. And in so doing, wondered why I’d waited so long.

This is an absolute smash of a drama – peppered with, if not black, certainly grey humour – which charts the attempts of Masters and his assistant, Virginia Johnson, to glean a scientific understanding of human sexuality – and how very clever to have devised the only TV programme that would be inferior without nudity. Of course the fact that the only nudity is female suggests that, perhaps, we haven’t progressed very far from the taboos Masters and Johnson sought to overturn half a century ago.

Michael Sheen portrays Masters as buttoned-down but seething below, and also as a great humanist, which surely he was – more so, anyway, than merely prurient. Lizzy Caplan, as Virginia, is mainly unbuttoned, but still dignified, and is, I dare say, almost too gorgeous to watch – it is credit to the casting that she is also a brilliant actress whom we focus on more for her character than her sexuality. It does seem a little unbelievable, however, that her character, even in the 1950s, would forgive a man – by any measure already a putz – for striking her across the face. I suppose we all have our foibles.

Next week: Lectures on Norman Mailer and more sexual morality.

Jacob Knowles-Smith

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