Sunday, January 13, 2013

Mailer's Stage: The Criterion Collection of Norman Mailer's Films - Wild 90, Beyond the Law & Maidstone

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Devin McKinney, to our group.

Norman Mailer, who died in 2007 after a long reign as top dog among living American writers, was also a filmmaker, and he seems to have made films for two kinds of people – those who loved him, and those who hated him. In the first group is anyone sufficiently fascinated by the man’s literary output (The Naked and the Dead, Advertisements for Myself, An American Dream, The Armies of the Night, The Executioner’s Song, Harlot’s Ghost, etc.) and cultural presence (philosopher, debater, politician, provocateur) to find the films interesting as addenda to his larger accomplishment. In the second group are those whose aversion to Mailer’s macho pomp and alpha antics is so complete that it finds perverse gratification in the spectacle of, as he himself put it, “Mailer making an ass of himself.”

Is there a third audience for this work? It’s difficult to imagine that the three films recently released by the Criterion Collection in its Eclipse series will hold the least allure for a viewership indifferent to the encompassing phenomenon of Norman Mailer. Objectified, Wild 90 (1968), Beyond the Law (1968), and Maidstone (1970) are not disturbing, beautiful, corrosive, or innovative enough to captivate eyes not already looking to be turned on or off by Mailer’s charisma, obsessions, brilliance. If you don’t care about him, you probably won’t care about them.

The films – true independent productions, financed and distributed out of pocket by their director – range from awful to better-than-awful. But each is a blast of experiment from days when that thing mattered – when experiment was the very fuel of culture, high and low. The point of experimentation, obviously, is not that every trial run be a success, but that the attempt itself push things on (or out) a bit. Mailer’s combination of documentary technique with mostly improvised fictional set-ups was part of a larger experiment being carried out at the time by other exponents of American fringe cinema. His instincts were valid to the degree that his films today look like pioneering pseudo-documentaries, wrestling bravely, albeit obnoxiously, with truth-fiction blur effects elaborated upon in pictures from Brian de Palma's 1970 satire Hi, Mom! to The Blair Witch Project and beyond. (Whether that blurring has sharpened our sense of inherent ambiguity or merely deadened our feel for the real is, you know, another question.)

Norman Mailer. (Photo by Diane Arbus)
Mailer won nearly every available writer’s prize, made and lost numerous millions, and attained top clearance in the literati, glitterati, and politerati of his era. But before that he was a beatnik, alley-dweller, and co-founder of The Village Voice. Plugged into the underground, haunting Greenwich Village art houses, Mailer could see the lines being drawn in early-sixties films like BreathlessShadows, and The Connection, in the work of Brakhage, Warhol, and the Leacock-Pennebaker documentary collective. (D.A. Pennebaker, the Forrest Gump of sixties filmmakers, shot all three of Mailer’s independent features.) Excited by what appeared to be – and was – a concerted yet spontaneous attack on cinematic convention, Mailer conceived his first two films in terms of documentary punch and underground dirt – grainy, jittery, heavy on ravaging close-ups and impolite confrontations. This means a lot of volatile energy and brute force, just as it means unfocused shots, boom mikes poking into the frame, and audio that sounds, in Mailer’s words, “as if everyone were talking through a jockstrap.”

Wild 90
Wild 90 was shot in March 1967 during the off-Broadway run of The Deer Park, a play Mailer based on the 1955 novel that was in turn based on his brief, unhappy time in Hollywood. The author and two drinking buddies, Deer Park cast members Mickey Knox and Buzz Farbar, play “the Maf Boys,” low-level hoods in hiding, who pass the time by striking poses, talking trash, and generally trying to out-ugly one another. The most and best to be said of Wild 90 is that it is something rare – a feature-length fiction film that eschews narrative, development, insight, and beauty. It might be compared, in its repetitive battering of the eye, ear, and brain, to going six rounds with a muscular, enduring, but drunken and essentially stupid opponent. Not that you come out with nothing to show for your bruises. You can see Mailer spar timidly with Jose Torres, former light heavyweight champion, at that time training for his unsuccessful rematch with Dick Tiger. You can learn how camels screw. And you can get your fill of Norman grunting, growling, even barking at a bewildered German shepherd (top dog syndrome in extremis). Wild 90 may be the most monotonous film in existence, but it’s far from the least amusing. Chalk it up to experiment.

Beyond the Law
Its three stars are back in Beyond the Law – Knox and Farbar as vice detectives, Mailer as a right-wing police lieutenant whose Irish accent broadens with the booze in his system. Shot in October 1967, confined to one night’s action in a precinct house and nearby eateries, the picture is authentically rough and jarring: some scenes are in striking anticipation of Law and Order, not the TV series but Frederick Wiseman’s 1969 documentary about Kansas City cops. The picture is more evolving and involving than Wild 90, if no less bellicose, with the lieutenant delivering Maileresque conflations of spirit and scatology (“God and asshole are the essence of criminality. To mix the two is the beginning of all evil!”). Experimentally, it goes further in illustrating the possibilities and pitfalls of unfettered improvisation. Actor A will deliver a line and then pause before the next, hoping to draw out the drama of a moment; Actor B, misjudging the silence, will pipe in with some tangential witticism, which goes splat against Actor A’s follow-up line. Such stillborn moments pile up fast in Mailer’s films; while true to life, they no more reveal character or psychology than a smear of greasy fingerprints identifies a criminal.

But Beyond the Law is in other ways a measurable advance. Scenes begin familiarly (the cop with existential constipation, the embittered wife) before veering into stranger, grubbier realms. Mailer and his cast bark at the dog of drama, and eventually it barks back; the viewer’s earnest attention, largely unrewarded by Wild 90, culminates in a nervous sense of not knowing what will happen next, or where it will go. A combination of alcohol, Method bravura, and complete freedom of language transforms the simplistic police procedural-slash-character study – what one character calls “that Detective Story bullshit” – into something raw and substantial, if still fundamentally shapeless. The experiment begins to take hold.

Maidstone, making another advance, has a shape. The shape is found in an actor’s improvisation, and is a logical result of the violent spontaneity Mailer seeks and insists upon. Shot in color on several Easthampton estates in June 1968 – just weeks after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy – this is Mailer’s most elaborate and expensive production, as well as the most contrived, post-produced, and visually attractive. With major stories in The New York TimesEsquire, and elsewhere, the filming became a media event. Many fists and fucks were traded on the set; a then little-known dwarf actor named HervĂ© Villechaize (Fantasy Island) almost drowned in a prominent publisher’s pool. And all of this was before Rip Torn pulled the hammer out of the bag.

Mailer plays a superstar director and prospective presidential candidate named Norman T. Kingsley, who is casting his latest film; reigning over a motley mob of sidekicks, interrogators, and conspirators; and grappling with his admirers, his enemies, his women, and his muse. Three of Mailer’s wives are in the picture, along with his children, and along with Rip Torn, star of the off-Broadway Deer Park, as Kingsley’s half-brother and second-in-command. So this, it seems, is Mailer’s portrait of the artist as auteur: instead of Detective Story, the forerunner is . But Mailer actively discourages the sympathy, even the pity, that is usually sought by directors shooting their autobiographical fantasies. We first see Mailer-Kingsley humiliating a series of actresses (including an African-American one, whom he taunts with racist come-ons); throughout, he veers between playing the woozy decadent and the steely dictator, between Emperor Nero and General Patton. This is Mailer in full force, boorish and overbearing, smarmy and manipulative. He doesn’t stint on serving up his worst qualities, for his project – as he explains to his cast and crew near the end – is to stage a military-style “attack on the nature of reality,” and reality begins and ends, as ever, with himself.

That “attack” often engenders a species of boredom characteristic of the era's experimental cinema – discontinuous editing, arbitrary juxtapositions, the aesthetics of the cut-up. At least a third of Maidstone is given over to these energy-draining longueurs. But Mailer has somehow gotten a foothold on chaos. We’re living, Kingsley says, in “an extremely apocalyptic time, where the best and worst of people are both rising to the top at a great rate.” As the movie wears on, it accumulates dullness and beauty, babble and insight. A layer of dread builds beneath the apparent nonsense. That rising of the best and worst is Mailer’s vision in Maidstone – his theme, his fear, and his desire. Kingsley ascends to his complete pomp in a wild party scene that is part Roman feast and part Warhol Factory freak-out. In the next scene Mailer appears with his then-wife, actress Beverly Bentley, and for the third time in as many movies, the emotional if not dramatic climax is provided by Mr. and Mrs. Mailer doing a Dick-and-Liz routine. After which, Mailer takes off Kingsley’s leather cap, sits his people down, and explains what he believes has been the point of it all.

Rip Torn in Maidstone
That would have been the end of things. But Rip Torn had other ideas. Soon after Mailer’s summing-up, Torn went after his director with a hammer. Though shocked and infuriated in the moment, in hindsight Mailer knew that Torn’s instincts trumped his own, for he edited his footage toward this culmination: hence the film’s possession of the shape its predecessors lacked. Torn’s attack is bookended by an early scene of Kingsley sparring with a friend, warning him not to go for the head (“I’m knocking the crazies out of you,” the friend prophetically says); and many quick cuts near the end show Torn looking like he’s up to something. The editing and imagery that precede the attack – adults and children wandering the countryside, slight sound of breeze, female voice humming like a spirit of the afternoon – is gorgeously portentous.

The young Rip Torn was handsome, wicked, intense, and apparently fearless. (Just an example: in One P.M., Jean-Luc Godard’s collage film about revolution – filmed in 1968, unreleased until later, also shot by D.A. Pennebaker – Torn engages a Brooklyn grade-school class in a discussion of race while wearing the uniform of a Confederate officer.) His performances from this period, mostly in movies that are weak, ridiculous, or just not quite there (Tropic of CancerComing ApartPayday), deserve review, and Maidstone profits enormously from his presence. A focused improviser, he has the good actor’s sense of what drama requires – even when his auteur doesn’t. So he pulls a common carpenter’s hammer from a bag left in the middle of a field.

“Where does that leave us now?” someone asks from offscreen. “We just have to search … and search,” Torn replies, smiling sadly. “Maybe if we just wait for a while …”

Torn advances on Mailer beneath a tree. He swings the hammer twice. Mailer, stunned, his crown bleeding, gets Torn in a vicious clinch. The experimenter has alchemized a reaction he didn’t foresee. Mailer is not on his knees, barking at a restrained dog, but on his back, fighting for his life – or at least his dominance, his top dog’s superior sense of reality. With terrific effort, the men are pulled apart. They walk on at wary angles, exchanging insults and self-justifications. Mailer talks his trash in a terrified whisper. Possessing the upper hand, Torn reminds Mailer that he’d been insisting all along on something uglier, more violent. He’d been insisting – not just in Maidstone, but in all the other films, novels, essays, TV appearances, stabbings and brawls, displays of antisocial bombast – on transgression, explosion, assassination.

Torn hammers Mailer in Maidstone
“That’s your story, man,” Torn whispers in the dusk. “That’s what you’re pushing. It’s what you’re calling for.”

Mailer makes his feeble rejoinder, something about Rip never shutting up if a camera’s running – and Torn hoots in hilarity and disbelief, pointing the finger back at Mailer. End scene. End movie. Rip has torn Mailer out of his act, off his stage, and into the reality whose nature he has so wished to attack. That Mailer almost bankrupted himself to make these films; that he assembled them in the exact hope of provoking clashes between reality and fiction; that through them he pursued extremes of freedom, danger, glamorous outlawry – all illustrate the dimensions of Mailer’s ego. But it’s also significant that, rather than burn the hammer footage, Mailer sculpted his magnum opus to showcase and justify it. The hammer is not just catharsis and climax, it is epiphany – of the exhilarating and deadly risks inherent in the often crazed game Mailer and others were playing, publicly and privately, in the sixties. It testifies to Mailer’s objectivity, humor, and even grace that he gives Rip Torn, his attacker and accuser, the last word – or the last hoot.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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