Vidal auditioned for this role

Monday Book Review

February 08, 1993|By Scott Eyman

SCREENING HISTORY. By Gore Vidal. Harvard Universit Press. 96 pages. $14.95.

IT'S a shame; the wrong Gore Vidal book has gotten the attention. The one that people should be reading is not the horrendous "Live From Golgotha," but rather "Screening History."

For virtually the first time, the Mandarin Prince of American letters lifts his veil of gentle contempt and reveals something of his own history, and his feelings about that history, and does so in remarkably open fashion. The book's opening sentence sets the confessional tone: "As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies."

Ostensibly, "Screening History" is about how history and movies have intertwined during this tumultuous, ravaging century, but Mr. Vidal just uses that as a pretext for something approaching a personal summation.

Mr. Vidal clearly likes his father, who started a couple of airlines, served in FDR's cabinet, and was clearly nobody's fool. "He was," Mr. Vidal writes about Gene Vidal, "the first person to realize that there was absolutely no point to cellophane."

The book offers some fascinating family snapshots of Mr. Vidal's father with FDR, and the nascent author himself with his beloved grandfather, the blind (clinically, not politically) Sen. Thomas Gore, a hardcore cynic ` or realist ` who, one realizes, influenced his grandson a great deal.

As for his mother, the writer says that "I cannot say that I ever

liked [her] but she had a rowdy flapperish charm . . . [and managed] to drink, in the course of a lifetime, the equivalent of the Chesapeake Bay in vodka."

Age seems to be rapidly rendering Mr. Vidal incapable of hewing to a direct line. The book, which derives from three lectures Gore Vidal gave at Harvard, wanders alarmingly from disquisition to confessional to professorial rant. At times, each paragraph introduces a new subject. But Mr. Vidal's years have also given him a breadth of vision. He points out, for instance, the odd fact that American films have seldom dealt with historical or political subjects.

Mr. Vidal sensibly excepts "The Grapes of Wrath" for the latter and "Citizen Kane" for the former, saying "If [Orson] Welles had been less prodigal with his great gifts, he might have screened a good deal more of our history for us. Welles was deeply political; he had worked with Roosevelt; he was a miracle of empathy, and he knew all the gradations of despair that the oyster experienced as it slid down his gullet. But the romantic genius aims not for perfection in his art but for poignant glamour in his ruin."

Along the way he synopsizes the decline of the modern novel, which in his youth "was the work of victims who portrayed victims for an audience of victims who, it was oddly assumed, would want to see their lives realistically portrayed," and has now devolved to the point where "the only reality required by popular fiction is that the description of luxury goods with brand-names be precisely rendered."

There is something enormously touching in Mr. Vidal's enthusiasm for the movies of his childhood, titles like "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Prince and the Pauper" (the 1937 Errol Flynn version). Revisiting them after 50-odd years, you can tell there is still something there that moves him. Like the very best critics, he lands on the things that draw us back to movies over and over again; not the plot, but the subtext, the drift of emotions, the intellect.

Mr. Vidal approvingly quotes a line from "The Prince and the Pauper," in which Henry VIII confides to his son, "Never trust so much, love so much, need anyone so much that you cannot betray them with a smile."

"This is true Machiavelli," notes Mr. Vidal, "and must have seemed startling to an audience imbued with such Christian values as turning the other cheek while meekly obeying your master. But I am now convinced that my generation of Americans either went to church or to the movies for spiritual guidance."

As a third generation atheist, Mr. Vidal's choice was obvious. He theorizes that people like George Bush ` with whom he feels a generational, if not political kinship ` see the world in relation to movies, a point often made about Mr. Bush's predecessor as well.

You might say that Gore Vidal has spent his life auditioning for his role, and that "Screening History" is his overt acknowledgment of it.

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Scott Eyman is book editor of the Palm Beach Post.

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