Maidstone and Other Films Directed by Norman Mailer (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Leonard Quart
Maidstone and Other Films Directed by Norman Mailer, Eclipse Series No. 35
Includes Maidstone, DVD, color, 105 min., 1970; Wild 90, DVD, B&W, 81 min. 1968; and Beyond the Law, DVD, B&W, 97 min., 1968. A Criterion Collection release, distributed by Image Entertainment.
Norman Mailer: The American: Directed by Joseph Mantegna. DVD, color, 85 min., 2012. A Cinema Libre Studio release.
Norman Mailer was an artistic and intellectual risk-taker and macho public bad boy who courted controversy and celebrity. Much of his life was lived on a self-promoting, exhibitionistic level. Although his ranting and raving and a seemingly compulsive need to outrage may have had entertainment value, his real significance lay in writing a number of fine books, some of which offered penetrating and profound cultural insights about the nature of American society, while others indulged in sometimes absurd, sometimes excitingly original theories about sex, disease, courage, architecture, and politics. Mailer had grand—or, more accurately, grandiose—ambitions, for he viewed art’s “final purpose was to intensify the moral consciousness of people,” to change our way of seeing the self and society in America. Consequently, he was willing to make great artistic leaps, and at times to look foolish in the process.
Joseph Mantegna’s feature-length documentary, Norman Mailer: The American, offers a brief but entertaining overview of Mailer’s life and work. It blends archival footage, home movies, and interviews with Mailer in his later years, as well as with a number of his wives, children, and others who knew him well. The documentary covers such career highlights—and lowlights—as the initial success of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948); his 1955 cofounding of The Village Voice and short stint there as a columnist; the scandal surrounding Mailer’s drunken stabbing of his then-wife Adele at a 1960 party; his public altercations with the likes of Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Germaine Greer and other feminists; the writing and public reception of several key works, including The White Negro and such “New Journalism” works as The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago; and his controversial support of the parole of author and convicted murderer Jack Abbott.
The Cinema Libre Studio DVD also contains bonus clips from a number of interviews with an eighty-plus-year-old Mailer speaking briefly and pithily on subjects ranging from writers as celebrities to the nature of success and power. A frail Mailer remembers a time when, for people like himself, writers such as Hemingway, and not movie stars, were the genuine celebrities. He argues that everyone seeks power—that it is part and parcel of being human—and people don’t listen to you if you aren’t successful. Elsewhere he explains his belief that a good novel is the best way of understanding existence, since it can penetrate deeply into the reader’s heart, while in nonfiction you are buried by “unreliable facts” that give you the false notion that you are dealing with “truth.” As these interviews reveal, even close to death Mailer’s mind was still sharp and active, and struggling, sometimes profoundly, with large ideas.
In the late Sixties, Mailer, never insecure about his artistic gifts or about taking big gambles, decided to become a filmmaker. He made a number of self-financed, mainly improvised experimental films—chaotic, self-indulgent works that were unfortunately dominated by Mailer's giant ego and evident lack of directorial talent. Presumably inspired by the New American Cinema motto that “cinema is indivisibly a personal expression” and should engage in experiments in narration and the construction of character, Mailer tried in his films to combine psychodrama with documentary technique.
Mailer made three films in a period of four years: the New York-shot, black- and-white Wild 90 (1968), Beyond the Law (1968), and Maidstone, the latter shot in color at a Hamptons estate in the summer of 1968 and released in 1970. All three films star Mailer, who by this time in his career had collapsed the distance between author and character in his work, usually making himself the central character of his prose and films. The latter film was his most infamous, expensive, and ambitious. Shot over five days and using five camera crews, it featured a cast of dozens headed by Mailer as art-house pornographer and potential presidential candidate Norman T. Kingsley (Mailer’s actual middle name is Kingsley) and Rip Torn as his volatile half-brother. His mistresses, ex-wives, friends, and some of his children also appear in the film.Maidstone is Mailer’s uninspired, tedious home-movie version of Fellini’s 8½. There is even a nebulous hard-core porn film being made within the film. Maidstone is clearly the kind of film where none of its participants quite knew what they doing, but they all gamely struggled to ad-lib their roles, and respond to Mailer’s staged provocations.
One of the few things of interest about this shapeless, excessive film is that it provides a cornucopia of Mailer motifs: the assassination of political figures; the romanticization of street toughs and poverty; the conspiracies of the rich and powerful; his attraction to the jet set; his almost obsequious hunger for black approval; his antagonism towards liberals for their being tepid, conventional, and lacking imagination; and his sympathy for the irrational. Finally, there is Mailer as the misogynistic and sexist lover (a mixture of courtliness and a controlling and harassing manner) of a harem of beautiful women, who are supposedly auditioning for the sex film he’s making.
Mailer, as the swaggering, sadistic, bare-chested, brawling, and haranguing Kingsley, his hyperbolic alter ego, dominates the film. Kingsley is the master of orgiastic revels, lord of the manor, and center of the universe. Surrounded by an entourage of hoodlums and street fighters known as the Cash Box, he fantasizes that he’s so politically dangerous that people want to assassinate him. One character even mentions him as the “American Buñuel”—a striking example of Mailer’s rampant megalomania. Speaking in an accent that shifts in no particular order from Harvard, to Southern, to Irish, to Brooklyn, the often drunk and stoned Mailer/Kingsley delivers, in characteristically staccato fashion, a torrent of words—a few of them incisive, but most vaporous.
Mailer had large ambitions for the film, vaguely desiring it to “make an attack on the nature of reality,” and believing the aggressive, confrontational nature of his direction would get at the true, contradictory essence of its characters. He rejects the “carefully structured” and “unilinear” film for one that tumbles from one reality to another. The aspiration is interesting, but the result is a muddle rather than a vision of how an anarchic and irreducible reality can’t be reduced to a single line of development. There must be some directorial control of improvisation for it to work as art. In addition, the only character that truly comes alive is Mailer’s Kingsley. The other cast members, except for the theater and film veteran Rip Torn and a tough, combative Beverly Bentley (a professional actress and soon to be Mailer’s ex-wife)—merely pass before the camera, mouthing their lines with little skill or conviction.
Mailer’s Kingsley tends to posture, however, and the character often seems like a parody of all the worst of Mailer’s faults—unbridled egoism, insensitive provocation, and a fascination with and exultation of violence and the criminal underclass that was both dangerous to him and to others. In this sense, Mailer does not seem shy about flaunting all of his flaws on screen. If he is, on one level, a strutting, garrulous, self-inflated clown, on another, his character is a vital, even riveting personality who speaks perceptively, if rhetorically, about America “crumbling” and facing an “end game.”
The strongest scene comes near the end of Maidstone. Most of the film’s cast has left, and the barely shaped narrative about the presidential candidate Kingsley threatened with assassination has concluded. At that point, Rip Torn, playing Kingsley’s wild-eyed brother (who in an earlier scene looks utterly mad and possessed), nevertheless decides, perhaps because of his own personal, real-life rage and resentment towards Mailer, to end the film with an assassination. With the cameras rolling, he smashes Mailer over the head with a hammer, continuing to beat and bloody him. The two fall to the ground, wrestling with each other, hurling insults like two adolescents in a schoolyard driven to prove their manhood, until a shrieking Beverly Bentley breaks them up. Accompanying her screams are the cries of Mailer’s frightened children. It’s a moment of real pathos, and shocking reality, that turns out to be the only memorable scene in a film characterized by self-aggrandizement, cacophony and verbosity.
Mailer’s other two films are, if possible, much worse. Wild 90 portrays Mailer and two of his pals playing at being Mafia gangsters confined for weeks to a Brooklyn apartment. Without a script, the actors improvise a great deal of profane and unintelligible banter (the film’s sound recording is awful), with Mailer stomping around in a three–piece suit, swigging a bottle of Scotch, endlessly combing his hair, and making faces in front of a mirror, howling, barking (he goes nose to nose with a German shepherd), grunting, and cursing.
Watching the film, you can see that Mailer loved playing an ex-fighter/gangster—sparring with light heavyweight champion José Torres (there is nothing more important for the short, squat, intellectual Mailer than demonstrating his toughness and masculinity to a Hispanic man, who here serves as his sentimentalized and inverted racist notion of male authenticity), doing bad imitations of Jimmy Cagney, bullying his confederates, and giving the finger to the law. Wild 90 is a contrived vanity production, characterized by hand-held, claustrophobic camera work, poor lighting, and amateurish acting, which is a challenge to watch.
Beyond the Law— the portentous full title is Beyond the Law, alias Bust 80, alias Gibraltar, Burke and Pope, alias Copping the Whip, or A Fantasy of the Angels, the Downtrodden and the Dispossessed, otherwise known as The Velvet Hand and the Iron Tongue— is composed of different police interrogations all taking place in a precinct house on the same night. The action sometimes shifts to a fancy restaurant where two detectives are trying to impress two women with precinct-house tales. Mailer is a fedora-wearing police officer, Lieutenant Francis Xavier Pope, parading a poetic soul that mixes self-conscious sensitivity with tough-guy profanity, and an intermittent parody of an Irish brogue. All too predictably, he is the film’s power figure, presiding over the brutal interrogations and growling questions at the suspects. The film is much more skillfully shot than Wild 90, although its sound is often indecipherable. It intercuts a series of short scenes that at least keeps the film moving, and some of the close-ups artfully employ light and shadow, making the characters (especially hippies played by Rip Torn and poet/playwright Michael McClure) visually striking. Torn’s volcanic, unpredictable presence is always a positive, despite the tedium of the dialogue.
Mailer’s governing notion behind the film is that each encounter between cop and suspect reveals that there is not much difference between them. But the film does little more than have the cops mistreat the suspects, with some of the latter acting out their rage against authority. They all improvise—adhering to Mailer’s commitment to existential creation—but little of it is credible or revelatory. There is one witty scene when George Plimpton, parodying a patrician Mayor Lindsay ineffectually breezing into the station house during a walking tour, cursorily checking on claims of police abuse, says to Mailer’s character, “This was a humdinger of a precinct.” Beyond the Law is, in the main, another self-indulgent vanity production that is only a slight improvement over Wild 90, because it has a ghost of a narrative that holds one’s interest a few minutes longer.
Mailer was a complex figure. If he had no gift for filmmaking, he had hubris, and was willing to risk falling on his face. He didn’t mind making films that gave his actors little sense of where they were heading. I suppose the fact, according to actor/director Stephan Morrow who worked with Mailer, that he had “the inspirational power of a preacher or rabbi” convinced people to work with him. It didn’t seem to matter that the only real distinction Mailer’s films had was his personality, and that he never restrained himself from asserting it before the camera.
Mailer will always be better known for his existentially edgy writing, however, than for his neophyte attempts at filmmaking. Mailer’s prose sometimes sprawled, often seemed turgid and too ornate, but at its best it leaped off the page, rich with epiphany and metaphor. At those times, he perceived the world and American society in truly original ways. He offered a unique way of seeing that, while it always risked being wrongheaded, could also get at the essence of a character, a place, or an event in a way few other contemporary writers ever could.
Mailer was the Brothers Karamazov and their sponger, buffoon father Fyodor, all wrapped up into one charismatic, larger-than-life personality. Being a filmmaker was only one small part of that.
To purchase Maidstone and Other Films Directed by Norman Mailer, clickhere
To purchase Norman Mailer: The American, click here
Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, most recently the fourth edition of American Film and Society Since 1945.
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