Tuesday, January 02, 2007

 

Point to Point Navigation by Gore Vidal

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. Naturally, Sex and Art always took precedence over cinema but neither ever proved as dependable as the filtering of present light through the moving strip of celluloid which projects past voices and images onto a screen.

By Edward Copeland
The above passage marks the opening of Gore Vidal's new memoir — and movies play a large part in the narrative he's assembled. Like Vidal's first memoir, Palimpsest, Point to Point Navigation is no conventional autobiography but instead resembles a stream of consciousness remembrance of things past, but Vidal's effort on his later years turns out to be nearly as compelling as his previous look at his early years.

Some may accuse him of basically doing little more than namedropping, but fascinating namedropping it is. As Palimpsest earned most of its emotional mileage from the death of his young first love on Iwo Jima in World War II, Point to Point Navigation touches the most as Vidal casts an unsparing eye on his own aging process and the death of his longtime partner Howard Austen.

In fact, the memoir ends up reading at times as if it's a long obituary column, where Vidal shares thoughts on various friends no longer with him such as Johnny Carson and Tennessee Williams, to name but two. Of course, it wouldn't be Vidal without touching on politics and his preoccupation with the United States' imperialistic tendencies, which can often be on target (as with Iraq) or way off base (by calling Afghanistan an illegal and unnecessary war, even if we've botched that one too).

Still, Point to Point Navigation isn't depressing in any way and isn't all death, all the time. In fact, much of its best moments concern movies and film-related gossip. I'd long heard the tale that Clark Gable got George Cukor fired from Gone With the Wind because he was uncomfortable with the director's homosexuality, but I'd never heard the story that Gable's unease stemmed from Gable being a male hustler in his pre-stardom days and that Cukor had been one of his johns.

Another tale new to me was that Greta Garbo didn't willingly leave Hollywood when she did but decided to call it a career when Howard Hughes canceled a post-war project for the actress. His discussion of movies isn't limited to sordid stories though, as he notes that his lifetime has run nearly simultaneously with the advent of talkies and how important movies have proved to all of us.
Also, it must be recalled that in those days, if you saw a movie once, that was that. The odds were slim that you would ever see it again. There were no Museums of Modern Art or film retrospectives. Today, thanks to videocassettes and DVDs, one can see a film as often as one likes. But since we knew back then that we would have only the one encounter, we learned how to concentrate totally.

In a way, I'm envious of him for being able to see so many films that way, as often repeated viewings have weakened my initial reactions to movies and many a moviegoing experience has been ruined for me by chattering twits and cellphones that have made every audience member act as if they were in front of the TV in their living room instead of sharing a communal experience with others and acting accordingly.
I don't think anyone has ever found startling the notion that it is not what things are that matter so much as how they are perceived. We perceive sex, say, not as it demonstrably is but as we think it ought to be as carefully distorted for us by the churches and the schools and by — triumphantly — the movies, which are, finally, the only validation to which that dull anterior world, reality, must submit.



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