The first image we see in Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, a handsome new
documentary byNicholas D. Wrathall, is
of Vidal at the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C., standing over what will
soon be his own tomb.He’s heavier than
we remember, leaning on a cane for balance. He recalls a few friends who are
already buried nearby, mentions his “pathological hatred of death,” and ambles
away. This is the titan at midnight, crumbling at the edges,still formidable.
The movie’s cryptic opening segues into a respectful,
occasionally moving, look back at Vidal’s life. It’s more a tribute than a
full-blown biography, for Wrathall presents Vidal as a kind of intellectual
colossus, utterly devoid of faults, a near perfect thinker, and the last lion
of America’s golden age of liberalism.The movie stops short of hagiography, but just barely.What keeps it interesting is Vidal, a born
entertainer who, even in his final years, could still spin a tale, drop a name,
or do an impression of JFK.
Vidal seems a natural subject for a documentary - there
have been several already, including a 2004 episode of the PBS American Masters
series - for his life was very much like a long, American novel of the 1920s.
His mother was a ditzy alcoholic. His father was an aeronautics instructor at
West Point, had an affair with Amelia Earhart, and wanted to be the Henry Ford
of aviation. The job of raising Vidal was left to his blind grandfather, the
fiery Senator T.P. Gore of Oklahoma.When
Vidal reminisces about the senator, the respect and awe is palpable.T.P. passed on to Vidal not just his liberal
politics, but also a love of literature, and a fearsome oratory skill.
After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, Vidal
went on to become a scandalous novelist, a playwright, a screenwriter, a
television dramatist during TV’s golden age; he was a self-described member of
the ruling class who struggled to escape it; he never referred to himself as
‘gay,’ but wrote books and essays defending bisexual and homosexual lifestyles;
he was deeply involved in politics, and later, was a TV gadfly, appearing on
The Tonight Show a dozen times, as well as many other programs, even lending
his voice to The Simpsons and Family Guy.
Wrathall taps most of those aspects of Vidal’s past
(not, alas, the cartoon work), but focuses mainly on Vidal the political
commentator, the weary traveler who sees America as a series of shams and
failures, the gruff grumbler. Indeed, the movie shows Vidal holding court at
various speaking engagements; all he has to do is call George Bush “a fool,”
and the walls of the joint practically come down.If the movie has a glaring fault, it’s that
we see Vidal go from being a young author of gay themed novels to a
socio-politico bon vivant, with very little in between to illustrate his
journey. Instead, Wrathall relies on nameless, faceless narrators to offer such
bromides as “Gore was everywhere, like a shape shifter.”
The cornerstone of any documentary about Vidal will be
his televised 1968 debates with William F. Buckley. Wrathall includes a hearty
helping of them here, and they still bristle nearly 50 years after their first
airing on ABC. Buckley is especially fascinating – he’s so effete he doesn’t
even know how to show anger. He bites his lip and cranes his neck like a man
having a fit.Vidal doesn’t come off
well either. He and Buckley were both trying so hard to be witty, and so unable
to conceal their hatred of each other, that whatever topic was on the table
grew cold quickly.
Much of the footage comes from late in Vidal’s life,
when he was bothered by physical problems and needed help getting around.
Hence, we see Vidal being helped up stairs, helped across bridges, helped up
hills, helped onto a stage at the 2005 Pen awards, and carted around in a
wheelchair.These scenes are interwoven
with a sort of “greatest hits” collection from Vidal’s past, where the great
pundit railed at this and that, his words rolling over his enemies like a
tank.The effect is entertaining enough,
and if Wrathall intended to depict Vidal as a fallen hero, he sort of succeeds.
Still, a more thorough and less deferential documentary might have considered
some of Vidal’s resounding flops. Remember Caligula?
Vidal’s long life, which included friendships with
Tennessee Williams, Paul Newman, and other bright lights of our popular
culture, can’t be jammed into a 90 minute documentary. For instance, Truman
Capote is barely mentioned, whichis
akin to leaving Joe Frazier out of a movie about Muhammad Ali.The saucier aspects of Vidal’s life, such as
his affairs with women, are not mentioned here, either.His engagement to Newman’s future wife,
Joanne Woodward, is ignored, although there are several odd photos of the
Newmans with Vidal, including one of Vidal and Newman fondling a statue’s
Wrathall doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on Vidal’s
books, or the notion, held by many, that Vidal possessed a great facility with
words but could not quite write a masterpiece. Instead, Wrathall gets cute and
shoots close-ups of Vidal’s pithy quotes, including “Whenever a friend
succeeds, a little something in me dies.” And, “Never offend an enemy in a
small way.”Anyone who doesn't know
better might think Vidal composed blurbs for fortune cookies.
Where Wrathall succeeds grandly is in showing Vidal’s
soft side. It's touching to hear of Vidal's relationship with longtime
companion Howard Auster, and Wrathall is smart to let the camera linger when
Vidal turns melancholy. Watch how Vidal pauses when recalling a childhood
friend who died in WW2, or the way his eyes mist over when he recalls “school
boy’s stuff, at a boys’ school, long, long, long ago.”These moments, and the gorgeous scenery
surrounding Vidal’s Italian home, make the documentary worth seeing. Wrathall’s
movie is like one of Vidal’s novels in that it’s not great, but very good.
(The film has just opened theatrically in New York. Click here to view trailer.)
Seven years after his blockbuster success producing the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure, Irwin Allen revisited the same story for a sequel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. The 1979 film represents all the reasons that sequels to most hit films are generally disdained. Yes, there was The Godfather trilogy to buck the trend, but there were also those God-awful sequels to Jaws. Beyond the Poseidon Adventure opens the morning after the capsizing of the cruise ship. Michael Caine is Mike Turner, the financially destitute captain of a small vessel who is facing bankruptcy after losing his cargo in the same violent storm that destroyed The Poseidon. On board his boat are his first mate Wilbur (Karl Malden) and Celeste Whitman (Sally Field), a perky but klutzy young drifter the men have befriended. They stumble upon the capsized wreck of the Poseidon and Turner immediately smells financial opportunity in the tragedy. If he can make his way through the hull and down to the purser's office, he can raid the safe and abscond with the riches that are inevitably stored there. This is the first of any number of absurdities in the script. With the Poseidon the worst maritime disaster since the Titanic, Turner and his crew discover that, with the exception of one French copter that is conveniently leaving the scene upon their arrival, there is literally no other sign of the international rescue forces that would be omnipresent at the scene. Instead, after rescuing the few people who managed to make it onto the hull in the preceding film, those forces are in no hurry to get additional manpower to the scene in order to search for additional survivors before the ship sinks the bottom of the ocean. Inexplicably, while the rescue forces can't make a timely arrival at the scene, a small craft under the command of Captain Stefan Svevo (Telly Savalas) does. Svevo claims he is a doctor who is there with his crew to enter the ship and search for any survivors. (Absurdity #2: Svevo is about to undertake this arduous, grimy and potentially deadly task while attired in a snow white designer suit!). Turner buys his story and forms and uneasy alliance with Svevo and his team, who are also clad all in white and resemble some of those bands of henchmen from the old Batman TV series. Once inside the ship, movie magic takes over and the group finds every chamber to be brightly lit, thus making it possible to move about freely. True, there is the hazardous task of finding your way around an upside down vessel, but that problem is solved when they conveniently find a map that lays out precisely where everything is located. Soon, Turner discovers what even the most naive viewer has already realized: that Svevo is actually a villain with his own agenda. In the third major absurdity, we learn that the Poseidon was transporting plutonium that Svevo wants to acquire for nefarious purposes relating to bomb building. As if that isn't enough it turns out the ship was also transporting a huge shipment of assault weapons and stockpiles of ammunition. It's a wonder there was any room for those joyous conga lines to dance around on that fatal New Years Eve.
Since a hallmark of any Irwin Allen film is the presence of respected actors peppered throughout the production, it isn't long before familiar faces start popping up in every room, like those celebrities who used to stick their heads of windows and make wise-cracks on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Slim Pickens, in full scenery-chewing hayseed mode, comes stumbling out of nowhere, drunk and protecting a precious bottle of wine. He pretends to be a Texas tycoon but it turns out he was the ship's wine steward and regards the bottle of expensive vino as a life long dream to acquire the lifestyle that has always eluded him. Then there is Shirley Jones, who emerges and announces that she is a registered nurse, which is certainly more practical to the group than if she were a butcher by trade. Angela Cartwright is a young woman who was on the cruise with her father, a bull-headed Archie Bunker type played by an unusually over-the-top and embarrassing Peter Boyle. Every Allen film needs a sympathetic older couple to wring a few tears from blue-haired old ladies in the audience so this time we have Shirley Knight and Jack Warden substituting for the previous film's Shelly Winters and Jack Albertson. Allen throws in the kitchen sink by making Warden play a blind man. Not to be politically incorrect, but the sequences of Warden stumbling around the upside down wreck of the Poseidon with a cane and wearing sunglasses begins to resemble a Monty Python sketch. Then there is Veronica Hamel as the prerequisite "bad girl" who slinks around in a drenched evening gown showing ample cleavage- oh, and young Mark Harmon has a major role as a young hunk who finds love with Angela Cartwright in the bowels of the sinking ship. If that isn't enough, we learn that lovable ol' Karl Malden's character is terminally ill and the symptoms manifest themselves while he's holed up in the upside down ship. (Somehow Allen showed restraint by not introducing killer sharks to the mix.)
Irwin Allen had the good sense to have seasoned directors Ronald Neame and John Guillerman direct his two biggest blockbusters, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno and they remain enormously entertaining films. However, he became convinced that he could save a few bucks by doing the job himself. Thus, the man known for making disaster movies became better known for the man who made disastrous movies. The first slip was The Swarm, a 1978 flapadoodle that we always refer to as the worst "Bee" movie of all time. The movie was a bomb but that didn't teach star Michael Caine and co-star Slim Pickins a darn thing, since they re-teamed with Allen right away for Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. (Many years later, Caine said he was ashamed of this period of his career when he took virtually any job in order to earn an easy pay check.) With Allen back in the director's chair, Beyond was destined to be another camp classic and it has the look and feel of a TV movie. Caine looks understandably embarrassed, Field is in Flying Nun cutesy mode and Savalas channels his inner Blofeld as the villain. Allen packs in everything from an ax murder (!) to a full blown shoot-out in which every day people turn out to be as adept at handling machine guns as Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. There are some reasonably impressive sets on view but many of the special effects are sub-par. The most hilarious are found in the opening frames in which we see Caine at the helm of his storm-tossed boat in the midst of a hurricane. The sequence was apparently filmed with the ship on rockers and the violent rainstorm was simulated apparently by having some guy off camera spray garden hoses. It's quite possibly the cheesiest effect I've ever seen in a modern, major studio production.
The Warner Archive has released Beyond the Poseidon Adventure as a burn to order title. With the film itself a dud, there is at least the saving grace of an interesting bonus extra: a vintage 22 minute TV special about the making of the film. It affords some excellent behind the scenes views of the production and makes it clear that a lot of talented people put a great deal of work into creating films that often turn out badly. There are also some nice trailers for the main feature, The Swarm, Twister and The Perfect Storm.