Tough Guys Don’t Storyboard: The Films of Norman Mailer
There may be not be a more unlikely home-video release this year than Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer. Here, on two DVDs, are the three feature films that Mailer starred in, paid for, and, to stretch the definition of the word, “directed” between March 1967 (when shooting began on Wild 90) and September 1970 (when Maidstone finally opened in New York, after an extended stay in the editing room). Mailer’s fling as a self-described “filmmaker” coincided with the period when he published the novel Why Are We in Vietnam?, participated in the 1967 March on Washington and turned that experience into The Armies of the Night, covered the 1968 political conventions for the articles that were collected as Miami and the Siege of Chicago, covered the Apollo 11 moon landing for Life (which resulted in the book Of a Fire on the Moon), and ran, energetically and at least half-seriously, for Mayor of New York City. (For more on that last one, seek out Managing Mailer by Village Voice columnist Joe Flaherty.)
It was a busy time when Mailer was not only on a creative hot streak, doing perhaps the best work of his life, but also redefining himself, the literary possibilities of deadline journalism, and the role of the writer as a public figure in an America that seemed less and less interested in giving attention to serious writers, even as celebrities. Mailer’s debut film grew out of the Off-Broadway run of his play The Deer Park. He must have had visions swimming in his head of becoming not just America’s Greatest Writer, but the King of All Media, and in the late 1960s, that title would still require him to take the movies by storm. Mailer had nothing to do with the two movies Hollywood had adapted from his novels, Raoul Walsh’s 1958 The Naked and the Dead (with Cliff Robertson, Aldo Ray, and Raymond Massey) and the 1966 An American Dream, starring Stuart Whitman, besides cashing the checks. The books had been dumbed down and indifferently cast, turned into, respectively, a conventional war movie and a tepid soap opera, and though Mailer, as someone who prided himself on knowing the score, couldn’t have allowed himself to appear surprised by this, as an ambitious American boy who cared about what his name appeared on, it must have hurt a little.
Mailer’s own movies haven’t gotten out much. There has never been a domestic video release before now, and they have seldom been revived. But Mailer obsessives and movie nuts and students of the ‘60s pop culture explosion have heard about them, even if one of the more notable later mentions of Wild 90 was its inclusion in Michael and Harry Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards. The scarcity of these collectors’ items helps to explain why, in the unexciting late summer of 2007, four months before Mailer died, a Mailer retrospective at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater and the Anthology Film Archives was treated as a modest event. Writing in the New York Times, Gerald Howard wrote about finally catching Maidstone and described it as “a video transmission from the faraway Planet ‘60s—a civilization in the throes of a crackup.” Now, thanks to the great friend to movie geeks everywhere that is the Criterion Collection, everyone with a DVD player can see what the New York Times was going on about five years ago, more than three decades after they, and the rest of the world, were doing their best to ignore it.
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The Norman Mailer DVD set is part of the Criterion’s Eclipse line, which is specifically devoted to filmmakers and film series—ranging from Louis Malle’s sublime documentaries and the films of Sacha Guitry to the cult ‘60s prankster Robert Downey, Sr.—that are presumably thought to have a potential audience too limited to justify the expense of the extensive remastering and supplemental materials for which Criterion is famous. Remastering probably would have been wasted on Mailer’s films; because of the conditions in which they were made, there’s a very definite, low ceiling on just how good these things are ever going to look, or sound. But it would be useful to have more of a context for them than the excellent notes by Michael Chaiken can provide. The 2007 Mailer retrospective included the notorious 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show in which Mailer, enraged over an essay by Gore Vidal that seemed to be tapping into the common knowledge that Mailer had once stabbed his wife, came on to pick a fight with Vidal, proceeded to also mix it up with Cavett and fellow guest Janet Flanner, and then, like a villain in a wrestling ring, started mixing it up with the audience. That would help people unfamiliar with these films to better understand what Mailer thought he was doing, by familiarizing them with the kind of electric charge he sought to inject into something as placid as a literary chat on a late night talk show, even at risk of turning himself into the official national media ass of the week.
And if this was a real, A-list Criterion release, some thought might have been given to including a thick booklet containing Mailer’s writings on movies, or at least generous excerpts from them. The key texts here are the long essays he wrote promoting the films: “Some Dirt in the Talk,” which appeared in the December 1967 issue of Esquire, and “A Course in Film-Making,” the title of which was emblazoned across the cover of the twelfth issue of Theodore Solataroff’s wonderful paperback literary magazine, New American Review. (Chances are, a copy is waiting for you in the outdoor nickel bin of your nearest used bookshop.)
Wild 90 stars Mailer, a journeyman actor named Mickey Knox, and Buzz Farber, who, like Knox, had a role in The Deer Park, though Mailer, in “Some Dirt in the Talk,” is reluctant to go so far as to call him an actor. (He writes that the part Farber played is “one of the theater’s most difficult small parts to play, and even young Richard Burton, bless him, could have bombed in it… Anyway, Buzz had done his best.”) Mailer writes that every night, after the show, the three of them (and Mailer’s wife, who also acted in the play) would go out and get plastered, and while his wife and her friend “would talk at the next table on whichever subjects bright blonde sorceresses find of the moment at three in the morning,” the guys would “play at being Mafiosos. We would try to talk like Dons… We even picked up names. Twenty Years. Buzz Cameo. The Prince… We even got good at it.” Eventually, the guys got so good at it that they decided it would be a good idea to hire a cameraman—not just any cameraman, in fact, but D. A. Pennebaker, already well known for his music documentaries Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop — to film their act.
Except for some random footage of New York buildings to go with the credits, the entire film is set in a room where “The Maf Boys” are holed up. Mailer is, of course, the Prince—the acknowledged ringleader and star. They sit around a card table, drinking, playing with guns, and chewing on each other. Knox makes half an effort to assert himself, but Farber mostly looks as if he’d like to disappear into the wallpaper. Every so often, a guest drops by—the boxer Jose Torres, who has brought a dog with him for Mailer to fuck with (he barks at it); Mailer’s wife and some women for the other guys; Pennebaker himself, who with his baby-faced look fits into this milieu, to steal a line from Robert Christgau, like a cheerleader at a crap game. Considering that Rip Torn was also appearing in The Deer Park—he even won an Obie Award for it—and went on to appear in both of Mailer’s later movies, Beyond the Law and Maidstone, his absence is mildly surprising, but Mailer explains in his essay that the principal actors were tired at the end of a performance and had to get home to rest up for the next night, whereas Farber and Knox, with their smaller, less demanding parts, were better equipped for the assignments. (The movie was shot “on four consecutive nights” during the run of the play, starting around midnight.) He does not allow for the possibility that he might have been a little more intimidated by the charismatic, experienced actor Rip Torn than he was after he already had one movie under his belt, and he certainly doesn’t betray any suspicion that he found Farber and Knox more congenial company because they would never challenge him, as Torn might. And, as we will see, as he did.)
In “Some Dirt,” Mailer quotes great swaths of dialogue and asks, “Yes, where was the screenwriter? Who was he? And the answer—is that no hat could fit his head, for he did not exist. The dialogue had come out of the native wit of the actors.” In other words, he and his pals sat around that card table, doing just what they’d been doing in bars—getting drunk and saying whatever came into their heads, much of it goading, profane, juvenile insults. (The action has been underway for maybe a minute when Mailer smiles at Knox and says, “You know, your feet stink.” Knox replies, “Last night, the stunk came off your feet and got on mine.”) Mailer, who likens the results to the Marx Brothers doing a feature-length riff on Little Caesar, reports that he subjected many people to sneak previews before opening the film commercially—he rented a theater to exhibit it, having already sunk $1500 of his own money, in 1968 dollars, into the production—and that wimps in suits and “ladies” didn’t get it, but “tough guys” knew that it was the funniest movie ever made. The sight of some guys cussing each other out in grainy black and white must have struck many of them as quite the novelty at the time.
Although the movie’s sole selling point was the liberating spirit of its dialogue, the sight was what audiences had to settle for, because the sound was so muddy that most of the soundtrack is indecipherable. (Pennebaker says this is partly because the sound man was as drunk off his ass as everyone else in the room. Reviewing the film in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote that Mailer “looks and sounds surprisingly like Victor MacLagen in The Informer.” That might or might not be a tactful reference to the legend that MacLagen performed several key scenes in that movie while three sheets to the wind.) But even without understanding what anyone is saying, Mailer’s enthusiasm for what he’s doing is as clear as mountain water. A not untypical monologue goes something like, “You make me sick! Shut up! We UGGGHHHHH! And fugget, fugget. Got to come, come in this place! Fulla shit! Nggggh nggggggh ngggghh! We say, you cunns, you come here, we fug you!” This is, granted, a rough transcription. (Michael Chaiken writes that the Wild 90 on this disc carries optional subtitles. I’ll take his word for it, but I could never figure out how to access them on my copy.) The task of understanding Mailer is complicated by his ever-shifting accents—for a spell, he sounds like W. C. Fields doing his imitation of Lyndon Johnson playing Don Corleone—and repertoire of grunts and animal noises. Pennebaker begged Mailer to shelve the film, if he wasn’t willing to re-record the soundtrack. The fact that, having made so much of the dialogue, Mailer decided that it didn’t really matter if nobody could hear it is a fair indication of how much his belief in his achievement came down to wishful thinking.
But he did make some adjustments before making his follow-up. Beyond the Law, filmed over two nights with Pennebaker, Jan Welt, Nicholas Proferes, and Richard Letterman taking turns with the camera, doesn’t have a plot, but it does have a situation with a little more meat on it. Mailer plays a cop (who sometimes speaks with a Barry Fitzgerald Irish accent), and the supporting cast includes Knox, Farber (as “Rocco Gibraltar”), Rip Torn, Beverly Bentley as Mailer’s wife, Michael McClure, Jose Torres, and, in one hilarious cameo, George Plimpton as the patrician Mayor of New York, who is touring precinct houses to check into reports of police brutality. (“Gee whiz,” he says, looking at one prisoner, “he does look awful.” Finally convinced that Mailer has heard his concerns about police thuggery — “It bothers me, it bothers my wife, it bothers the newspapers” — he takes his leave, having declared this to be “a humdinger of a precinct.”)
If you watch Beyond the Law right after Wild 90, you may feel your spirits pick up as soon as a beefy cop addresses a line of arrestees, introducing himself as “your host for the evening,” and assuring them he will do his best to make their stay comfortable if they cooperate with him, but “if you do not want to behave, it will be my pleasure to knock you down and step on your face.” He sounds as if he’d given some thought to what he was going to say before he opened his mouth. The movie has an idea, a most Mailerian idea, having to do with the thin line between the characters of the cops and the crooks, and it largely boils down to a series of exchanges between the cops and the men being held at their pleasure. The scenes aren’t as shaped as they would be if Mailer had sat down and written them, but the idea comes across well enough that you know why you’re supposed to be watching them. The camera work is only moderately better than in Wild 90, and though the sound is much improved, that accomplishment has to be weighed against the moments when the sound recording equipment itself suddenly lurches into the frame, like the Loch Ness Monster coming up for air. Beyond the Law is a quantum leap from its predecessor, but it remains a concept in search of someone to develop it into a movie.
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That’s as far as a number of moviemakers have come before they mature into functioning artists. Mailer was never one for baby steps, though, and he went all in with his third film: Maidstone, a color production that was funded through the sale of part of his founding interest in The Village Voice, and that was filmed over the course of five days, using five different Hamptons estates as locations. The cast included Torn, McClure, and Ultra Violet, as well as Mailer’s wife, his mistress Carol Stevens, his ex-wife Adele (A.K.A., the one he stabbed), and his other ex-wife, Jeanne Campbell, who appears in a series of embarrassing fake TV broadcasts, lolling in bed while supplying what would count as exposition if there were a story for it to connect to. Conceived in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s assassination and produced like an ongoing party, with James Toback on hand to cover the events for Esquire, the whole mess was meant to be Mailer’s cinematic obituary for the end of the ‘60s. (In his New American Review piece, he calls it “a commando raid on reality.”)
Mailer plays Norman T. Kingsley, a prospective presidential candidate described by a member of a shadowy cabal as one of “the so-called jet set” and a director who has made “movies of a more esoteric nature, that millions of people have seen.” It is pointed out that, as a potential politician, he has greater appeal than Nelson Rockefeller and, as a great film artist, more of a popular following than Luis Buñuel. (He is also said to have a rumored “proclivity for Greek love”) Kinglsey is surrounded by an ominous, presumably dangerous band of helpmates called “the Cash Box,” led by his half-brother, played by Rip Torn. It is suggested that both Torn and the powerful schemers discussing his electoral prospects would rather like to see him dead, and the film, which covers some of the time he spends working on a movie about a bordello staffed with men who service women, climaxes with a formal “Assassination Ball” at which Mailer makes a speech and then witnesses some ill-defined violent action on the floor. The next morning, still wearing his top hat, he exchanges some ugly words with his girlfriend, and then sits down on the grass for a rap session with the remaining crew members about their experience and the artistic meaning of it all.
Maidstone would probably have remained even more of an obscurity than it is if it hadn’t been for the presence of Rip Torn. The whole production had been a nightmare of bad vibes and random sex, with some people fleeing the premises and others, Mailer preeminent among them, messing with people’s heads and trampling on their feelings in the name of trying to reach some kind of “existential” artistic breakthrough. Some of the more clear-eyed participants disengaged entirely: in her biography of Mailer, Mary V. Dearborn writes that “By the second day, Michael McClure wanted no more filmmaking, but he hung around to get drunk.” By contrast, Torn saw an opportunity threatening to go to waste, five days of many people’s creative lives spent on an ambitious build-up with no payoff, and he refused to let that happen. Which is why, after Mailer thought the project had wrapped with his closing address to the cast, and the cameramen were being called on to use up their remaining film shooting home movies of the Mailer family, Torn snuck up on Mailer and whacked him upside the head with a hammer.
This break in the fourth wall, which concludes Maidstone, is absurdly touching for what follows it. After Mailer has grappled with Torn (biting off a piece of his ear in the process), the two of them argue about whether it was necessary for the movie. The simple, abstract answer is that, of course it was, and Mailer’s using it to end the film is his belated concession to that fact. In the heat of the moment, though, all he claims to be able to think about is that Torn has upset his wife (who stands over the two combatants hollering “Bullshit! What is this!?”) and his kids, who can’t stop crying. For a few minutes, Torn looks as if he might start crying, too. Rip Torn was once famous for his hostility, which for a time threatened his continued employability, but the hammer blow isn’t an act of hostility. It’s an expression of disappointment and frustration from someone who believed in Mailer and felt let down, but it’s also triumphant: Torn figured out a solution to a problem that Mailer didn’t even know he had, and he looks genuinely hurt that Mailer fails to appreciate what he’s done for his movie.
Because Mailer’s attempts to put his theories about moviemaking into practice turned out so badly, nobody is likely to turn to his writing about the moviemaking experience as inspirational literature. Which is a shame, because like many a crackpot politician, he had done groundbreaking work in identifying a real problem. Mailer wanted movies to feel more real, to partake more of actual human feeling and experience, to capture emotion in ways that would still feel fresh when the images hit the screen, and tap into the kind of humor people indulge in when they’re all alone but have never dreamed of seeing expressed by actors in a big film. In both “A Course in Film-Making” and his later essay on Last Tango in Paris, he identified Brando as that rare star-actor who was able to say a line in a way that made it seem that the words had just formed in his brain, rather than having been learned from a script, and he thought it would be a breakthrough worth making if someone could extend the feeling audiences got from hearing Brando say “Wow” in On the Waterfront the full length of a picture.
Maybe Mailer never could have gotten this on film, but the only way he had a chance of doing it would have been to put everything else on hold and concentrate on working at it. He was never going to get much achieved by sneaking in little two-to-five-day shoots between big reporting projects that really meant something to him. Mailer attached a mystique to acting, and he thought that Brando’s ability to seem eternally fresh onscreen and cut against the plaster clichés surrounding him must be the result not of hard work, but of his being an unusually magnetic and alive (and, as his babble about the tough guys in “Some Dirt in the Talk” indicates, an especially masculine) man. Having great faith in his own specialness, he thought that he could make an instant movie classic just by setting up a situation, stepping in front of the camera, and letting rip. Mailer’s writing on film has only become more exciting with the years. His aims, his definition of what would make for a great movie, are a challenge to the current intellectual film culture that prizes mumblecore deadness, static filmmaking, lack of invention and ambition, and even the celebration of “boringness” (hailed as a virtue in a New York Times Arts & Leisure piece) as the truest evidence of artistic seriousness. Someone who could make a movie as alive as the ones in Mailer’s head—and, in such cinematically charged works as An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? and The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago and The Executioner’s Song, on the page—would really set the world on its ear. He’d just have to combine Mailer’s aims to the understanding that great movies, like great writing, aren’t torn from the air by the force of the artist’s personality.