Letter from Thessaloniki

The 78-year old novelist Gore Vidal has a very sharp tongue. One of the most «Vidalian» assertions is: «It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.» Or, even: «The sexual attitudes of any given society are the result of political decisions.» For more than 50 years now, in 25 novels, films, plays and non-fiction works, Vidal (it was Charles Lindbergh who piloted the first aircraft young Gore went up in) has wisely advised his readers about politics, culture, history and – highly contested – morals. In the years since the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Gore Vidal has written two best-selling books on the subject. Two years ago in an essay titled «Dreaming of War,» Vidal – a Democratic ex-candidate for both the US House and Senate – speculated on whether the Bush administration knew about the 9/11 attack in advance and let it happen anyway. Last week this grandson of Thomas Pryor Gore, who helped create Oklahoma and became a senator in 1907, and the semi-stepbrother of Jaqueline Kennedy (they had the same stepfather, at different times) struck again: He leaped to defend «Alexander,» describing Oliver Stone’s $160 million film as «barrier-breaking for its frank depiction of bisexuality.» In a recent interview with Reuters, Vidal said the film was «a breakthrough in what you can make films about. Movies are always the last to register changes in society and this movie does it.» No kidding. Although in recent years there are more gay-theme independent films than ever, «Alexander» is by all means not one of those films that have unexpectedly come out of the celluloid closet and into the movie mainstream. The worldwide discussion on whether the Macedonian king was homosexual or not is still going on. And, if I am not mistaken, one of the declared aims of the film was to tear off the labels of stereotype, the better to consider the common fabric of our emotional lives. Whatever. «The confusion that there are two teams – one good, straight; one bad, gay – is not helped by reversing the adjectives,» Gore Vidal wrote in an essay referring to playwright Tennessee Williams in 1999: «It is the virtue of a great writer like Tennessee to know that there is one team, the human, and the rest is politics.» In a state of terminal hysteria on the subject of sex in general and of Alexander’s homosexuality in particular, outraged Macedonians are still wondering what constitutes proper sexual performance in regard to one of our all-time conquerors. The argument that in the ancient world homosexual relations between heroes were often celebrated, and that this proper movie reflects the pagan mores of about 330 BC, were blandly rejected. Even after Friday’s trouble-free premiere in Thessaloniki, there were still angry lawyers threatening to sue director Oliver Stone – whose works include «JFK,» «Born on the Fourth of July,» and «Platoon» – and the film’s distributor Warner Bros for «twisting history.» And all that for a movie so wholesome that you could take your mother, your sister, your Christodoulos or your uncle George Bush and it would be OK. Vidal, who also accused the critics of failing to see «Alexander» as the seminal movie it is only because of its treatment of the Macedonian king’s bisexuality, is a keen student of ancient Greek literature and culture. His historical novel «Creation» is set in the fifth century BC. Pericles, Thucydides and Confucius are among the book’s characters. Not to mention «Julian,» his engaging piece of historical fiction about the Emperor Julian, more familiar as the Apostate. He has been in Greece several times and in his memoir titled «Palimpsest» he recalls Kimon Friar, the poet Nicos Gatsos («who could eat a pound of pistachio nuts in a sitting») and the late Andreas Papandreou. «One afternoon we sat at Floca’s, while a small revolution took place in the streets. Nicos (Gatsos) was very cool. After all, Papandreou, the head of the Socialist party, was sitting near us, and it was his forces that were attacking the government – or was it the other way around…?» he notes. Regardless of whether Alexander was gay or not, what this film has finally achieved is that instead of ghettoizing the gay experience, it integrates it into customary territory. In the movies – and mainly Greek TV’s leveling of practically everything – gays are customarily scorned. It still seems impossible to live openly as a homosexual in permissive Greece unless you are in the arts, or in the theater, or very brave. There is no doubt about it: Alexander the Great was very, very brave.