Customer Reviews: Screening History
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on October 23, 2000
Gore Vidal's recent non-fiction writings have been disappointing, but this book is a gem. It is an early attempt at autobiography, years before "Palimpsest" and in some ways deeper. Vidal's early years in the thirties coincided with Hollywood's golden age, and in "Screening History" he reflects on the movies which most influenced him, particularly those versions of British and American history, such as "The Prince and the Pauper", "Fire over England" and "Young Mr. Lincoln". Vidal shares his reminiscences not only on the movies themselves but also on their historical context in the pre-WWII US of the thirties, but in far more serene and thoughtful way than in later writings, where he sounds increasingly bitter. His musings on the possible influence of 1939 movies on then President Bush are apparently not to be taken too seriously and are far more agreeable than his later simplistic comments on presidents in "The American Presidency". Altogether this is not the best, but arguably the most pleasant of Vidal's books.
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on February 12, 2016
I somehow missed Gore Vidal's Screening History when it was first published in the early 1990's. I'm glad I found this book eventually because it is a very enjoyable curiosity and a fine addition to the Vidal canon. Screening History began as a series of lectures which Vidal gave at Harvard and then modified into the essays collected in this work. Vidal uses the topic of movies as a vehicle for history as a springboard for a variety of topics, from his early years, his family, sidebars about current events, literature and so much more, all delivered in Vidal's trademark witty and learned style.

I'm guessing that Screening History, Vidal's early foray into autobiography, inspired him to tackle his later full-fledged works of autobiography, Palimpsest and Point-to-Point Navigation. I enjoyed this book not only for its views of cinema and history, but also for Vidal's views about what a modern education system should look like. Vidal recognizes that few students actually read these days, so he proposes a curriculum that depends upon an video survey of history rather than through textbooks. As an author, he believed that the age of the novelist had passed. I want to disagree with him, but, as a high school teacher, I understand what he means all too well.

Screening History will provide you with a few entertaining and enlightening hours in the presence of an American original.
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on March 29, 2016
History and movies, two of Gore Vidal’s stronger interests. What could go wrong with an excursion with Vidal on these topics? Um, quite a lot. The dust jacket gives a clue: this slim book originated as a series of lectures (“The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization”) at Harvard. For some reason, giving lectures seems to trigger a reflex of “Wing it!” in authors. The great number of still photographs would seem to point to some preparation, but so many of the photos are from the Vidal family albums, as to make research easy. The text is a mess of memory, “meta” references, and prejudices (against Franklin Roosevelt most prominently) loaded into a shotgun and fired at 92 hapless white pages. Linearity in narration? To hell with it! Start talking and when time’s up, you are done. The endless dropping of fashionable references e.g. the Japanese are going to buy American culture, a recurrent fear of the 880s and 90s, is tiresome, from 2016’s viewpoint. The best use of this book is to send it to Europe, hoping it gulls the Muslim hordes that are revising European futures, into thinking that this farrago of Lefty wishful thinking is the real America.
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on September 23, 2012
Love Vidal's sense of humor and perspective! Keeping the book to review and attempt to locate all those old movies I didn't get to watch. The time frames fit as I'm only a wee bit younger than Vidal was. His sarcastic comments on politics are so relevant!
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on September 17, 2014
Gore Vidal weaves his observations on contemporary and ancient history with its depiction in American movies.
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on December 9, 2010
Vidal complains about the influence of British filmmakers shaping American attitudes which led to U.S. involvement in World War I and II. He cites the 1937 'Fire Over England' as a "... sort of gallant-little-England picture." The film's introduction explains how "In 1587, Spain, powerful in the old world, master in the new, its king, Philip, rules by force and fear."

This, Vidal says, reminds viewers of Hitler and Mussolini. The introduction continues, "But Spanish tyranny is challenged by the free men of a little island, England."

Okay. Very noble. Brave warriors of a little island strike at the heart of their enemy's sea power, destroying the fleet to assure freedom for all. Thus, Vidal says, Americans were lured into a war against Hitler and Mussolini.

It raises an issue Vidal doesn't address: Was this film shown in Japan?

Isn't the basic theme of almost all American movies the struggle and triumph of underdogs against powerful forces? European films dwell on underdogs being crushed by tyrants and impersonal bureaucracies in a heartless state. American films are just the opposite. In U.S. films, the underdog almost always wins.

If anything, typical American films assert, " ... even if you are weak, without resources and vastly outnumbered -- you can strike a powerful blow against the enemy ..." American films are the "romance novels" of the theatre -- always a happy ending, always a triumph of the virtuous.

In contrast, consider Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will' about the 1934 Nuremberg rally by the Nazi party; the whole emphasis, starting with the opening scenes of Hitler descending through the clouds in a Junkers 52 passenger plane, is the power of the Nazi movement in crushing all doubt, dissent and opposition.

This German film is about the triumph of dominant power; it has nothing of the "little person" standing up against all the forces of fate. It is the opposite of the films Vidal and Bush watched, whether British-inspired or home-grown Hollywood dreams. The American film hero, as in most American literature, is always a flawed individual facing tremendous odds who manages to persevere and eventually triumph.

The great vitality of America is writers who question and challenge such depictions of dreamscapes.
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