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Anatomy of a Gag: Being There By David Cairns
NORMAN MAILER, FILMMAKER
In Advertisements for Myself (1959), Norman Mailer’s first collection of essays and short fiction, the author threw down the gauntlet when he wrote that his next novel would “hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters.” A bold claim, even by the standards of Mailer’s boundless ambition. His best-selling World War II novel The Naked and the Dead (1948) had made him, at twenty-five, an important new voice in American culture, but by the late 1950s, he was a writer under pressure to reinvent himself, after the critical drubbing of his two subsequent works of fiction, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955). The “big book” Mailer set out to write after Advertisements for Myself never materialized—at least not as expected. He fulfilled his promise in the coming years with the brilliance of his literary nonfiction, which earned him two Pulitzer Prizes, first in 1969, for The Armies of the Night, and again in 1980, for The Executioner’s Song. In 1959, however, he was faced with malicious fortune: the Great American Novel was in peril, rapidly being eclipsed by the movies in their capacity to reach the mass consciousness. That year’s Cannes Film Festival marked the definitive arrival of Alain Resnais and François Truffaut, joined the following year by Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and Jean-Luc Godard as avatars of a new kind of international celebrity: the film director as superstar.
Mailer greeted the 1960s with what his biographer J. Michael Lennon characterizes as an “Emersonian belief in the infinitude of the self, a self energized by new ventures,” and he turned to the ascendant medium of film at the moment that marked his most radical transformation as a writer (he would produce five groundbreaking nonfiction narratives from 1968 to 1972), directing, editing, and starring in three genre-defying features—Wild 90 (1967), Beyond the Law (1968), and Maidstone (1970)—under the aegis of his new film production and distribution company, Supreme Mix. Moving immediately from one feature to the next, he maintained a breakneck stretch of creativity that he later described as a cross between “a circus, a military campaign, a nightmare, an orgy, and a high.”
The groundwork for Mailer’s future as a quick-change, polymath artist was laid in the interval between his graduation from Harvard and when he was drafted into the army, from May 1943 to March 1944. He was living in Brooklyn with his parents and frequently attended screenings with his sister Barbara at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in Manhattan, which offered an innovative repertory of foreign films, poetic documentaries, and experimental shorts—Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930), especially, made a lasting impression on Mailer. Following his return from the Pacific theater, and after completing the manuscript of his debut novel, he borrowed his uncle’s 16 mm Bolex camera in the fall of 1947 and completed a silent, experimental short about a young girl’s torment over an unexpected pregnancy. It was an assured amateur effort, abounding in surrealist motifs, and Norman Mailer, film director, was born, in the same fertile period that made him a literary lion. Had the immediate success of The Naked and the Dead not launched him so suddenly to international superstardom, it’s possible he would have continued making films without interruption. It wouldn’t be for another two decades, however, that he would try again.
Mailer’s underground filmmaking career was jump-started in the early 1960s by the screenings he attended at Jonas Mekas’s Film-Makers’ Cinematheque in New York, a showcase for go-for-broke talents like Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Shirley Clarke, and Andy Warhol. Around this time, Mailer was also a frequent visitor to the Actors Studio, where he was introduced to Elia Kazan’s dictum that directing actors consists of turning psychology into behavior. The experiments in narrative and character championed by Mekas, Kazan, and the New American Cinema group—Warhol, Clarke, John Cassavetes, William Greaves—soon inspired him to put his own theories about film into practice.
Mailer wasn’t the first distinguished person of letters to direct films—he was preceded by Cocteau, Marcel Pagnol, Alexandre Astruc, and Jean Genet, to name a few—but he was no less committed than those pioneers, or such contemporaries of his as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Yukio Mishima, and Susan Sontag, in his exploration of the possibilities the medium offered, particularly, for him, the aesthetic continent opened up by the Direct Cinema movement, as practiced by Robert Drew, D. A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, and the Maysles brothers. The new iconoclasm in documentary fascinated Mailer, but his skepticism toward the relationship between documenter and documented put his sixties films even more in league with the work of the New American Cinema directors, whose quasi-fictional psychodramas were charged with documentary veracity. The majority of critics dismissed Mailer out of hand, believing his foray into moviemaking was at best a dilettantish, hubris-driven prank; few understood how completely invested he was (financially and otherwise) in this new endeavor.
With their boredom, apathy, and endlessly repetitive action, the films of Warhol horrified Mailer, but he conceded that they held an undeniable fascination and ontological truth: if one wanted to know in a hundred years’ time what the “bottom side” of twentieth-century culture looked like, Mailer opined, one would have to go no further than Kitchen (1965), starring Edie Sedgwick and Roger Trudeau. Warhol’s influence is particularly evident in Mailer’s first two features, Wild 90 and Beyond the Law, which, despite his low opinion of Warhol’s films, share one of the pop artist’s major conceits: a belief in the movie camera’s ability to cure the narcissist of too much inner dialogue. In Mailer’s films, as in Jean Rouch’s and Warhol’s collaborations with Paul Morrissey, “plot” is a device by which nominal actors externalize psychic processes and conditions—a catalyst for making the inner self audible and visible. In a subversion of Direct Cinema’s guiding principles, Mailer uses the scrim of fiction to reveal truths about the human condition that “reality” obscures, setting up fictional scenarios for actors to improvise around and filming their reactions using cinema verité techniques. His belief that all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, are actors in our daily lives goes to the heart of these films.
The existentialist quality of Mailer’s cinematic experiments reached its apotheosis in Maidstone. Shot over five days in July 1968, on the East Hampton estates of Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset and painter Alfonso A. Ossorio, the film took root in the immediate aftermath of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, two days after Valerie Solanas’s attempt on Warhol’s life, and is imbued with the assassination mania and politics of its day, in the lead-up to the epochal 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Of the three films, it’s the one most coded with autobiographical detail, as Norman Kingsley Mailer, surrounded by his wives, mistresses, and children, assumes the role of Norman T. Kingsley, a sadistic underground filmmaker casting a hard-core remake of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967). In an echo of Mailer’s own political ambitions (he would halt the editing of Maidstone in the summer of 1969 to run for mayor of New York City), Kingsley also happens to be making a bid for the U.S. presidency. Monitored by a secret government agency contemplating bumping him off, “NTK” surrounds himself with a Rat Pack consortium of trusted intimates.
If Wild 90 and Beyond the Law are relatively modest affairs—minimal, claustrophobic, pressure-cooked—Maidstone is something far more ambitious and ambiguous. Five camera crews, Warhol superstar Ultra Violet, philanthropist John de Menil, boxer José Torres, and future Fantasy Island star Hervé Villechaize are thrown into the heady mix of existential politics and sexual intrigue. Once filming commenced, Mailer broke the jaw of actor Lane Smith; black militants arrived, armed and ready to shoot; and costar Rip Torn and Mailer competed behind the scenes for the real-life affections of actress Lee Roscoe. The film turns positively cubist in its fractured layering of images and sound as Mailer, looking like a cross between the Mad Hatter and the lone survivor of the medieval Battle of Arsuf, courts chaos at twenty-four frames per second—all building to an act of berserk, cathartic violence that explodes the division between fiction and actuality.
The film’s September 1970 premiere at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York broke all previous house attendance records. Encouraged by the response, Mailer took his last twenty-five thousand dollars and booked the film into a Midtown theater, where it did the worst business in that venue’s history, spiraling him into debt and stalling his filmmaking for the better part of two decades (he would direct only one more feature, the 1987 studio film Tough Guys Don’t Dance, based on his 1984 pulp novel).
If, in a hundred years, one wanted to know what the underside of LBJ’s Great Society looked like, one would have to go no further than Maidstone. It remains one of the most curious, misunderstood, lunatic snapshots of bombed-out late-sixties aphasia ever committed to celluloid, the culmination of the internal wrestling match of Mailer’s larger-than-life selves (writer, amateur politician, patriarch, intellectual gadfly, filmmaker, lothario, television personality, pugilist). Through it, by the curious alchemy of filmmaking, he manages to exorcise his own “crazies” (“That’s my talent . . . that’s my talent,” asserts NTK) and propel himself from the manicured lawns of East Hampton to the pratfalls of his war with the women’s liberation movement to the masterstroke of The Executioner’s Song, where Mailer’s Dostoyevskian cannons are silenced by a new authorial voice, an interlocutor humbly exploring the strangest mystery of them all: the nature of American virtue.
In 1968, that year of seismic global unrest, Normal Mailer, at forty-five, was at his visionary best. He reclaimed the literary mantle with the New American Library publication, in May, of his saraband for the sixties The Armies of the Night, a nonfiction novel chronicling his arrest for transgressing a police line at the October 1967 march on the Pentagon, which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. He was also the subject of a vérité-style documentary by Dick Fontaine, Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up?, a filmed counterpart to The Armies of the Night. And early in the year, on January 7, he made his public debut in his latest guise—that of film director—with the premiere of his first feature, Wild 90, at Manhattan’s New Cinema Playhouse. It ran for two weeks and was greeted with little fanfare and dismissive reviews (“Underground garbage!” raved Women’s Wear Daily; “Smutty graffiti!” declared the Morning Telegraph), but this only galvanized Mailer’s resolve to silence the critics and be taken seriously as a filmmaker. “Moviemaking is like sex,” Mailer would tell Newsday critic Joseph Gelmis. “You start doing it, and then you get interested in getting better at it.”
Mailer’s second feature, Beyond the Law, would premiere in an early cut just three months later, on April 4, at Notre Dame University, to generally favorable notices. This encouraged him to go for broke—literally—that summer and shoot Maidstone, his most ambitious film to date, one he would wrestle with for over two years. Mailer’s do-or-die director’s moment, Maidstone was a sensation even before it was released (long articles about the shoot appeared in Esquire and New York magazines), and it was the direct result of the lessons he learned, of the failures and small victories, on his two previous features.
Filmed over two nights in March 1967, Wild 90 originated in the after-hours camaraderie between Norman Mailer, Mickey Knox, and Bernard “Buzz” Farbar. Knox, a blacklisted actor who spent much of the 1960s in Rome, working with Orson Welles and Sergio Leone, had been introduced to Mailer on the author’s second visit to Hollywood, in 1949 (his first had been the year before, to stump for Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace). Mailer immediately recognized Knox, much to the actor’s surprise, from his role in City Across the River (1949), Maxwell Shane’s adaptation of Irving Shulman’s groundbreaking JD novel The Amboy Dukes (1947), in which he costarred next to Tony Curtis in the role of Larry Tunafish, and the two became fast friends, with Knox acting as Mailer’s Virgil through the Hollywood demimonde. Farbar, a Dartmouth-educated magazine and book editor, met Mailer at a party in the early 1960s, becoming a member of his inner circle and serving him in various roles over the years, including as partner in Mailer’s film company, Supreme Mix. The three came together in New York City in January 1967 for the production of Mailer’s play The Deer Park, adapted from his 1955 Hollywood novel and starring Rip Torn, Beverly Bentley, Knox, and Farbar—the core of Mailer’s future film troupe. The rehearsals allowed Mailer to watch Leo Garen, the play’s director, as he put the actors through their paces (the gargantuan cruelties of Maidstone’s Norman T. Kingsley would be loosely based on his observations). Backstage, Mailer, Knox, and Farbar developed an improvised shtick that spilled over every night to Casey’s bar in Greenwich Village: the three played at being Italian mafiosi pontificating on the existential nature of crime, while mercilessly putting one another down. The results were so good, they believed, that Mailer suggested preserving their routine on film, in the Direct Cinema style of D. A. Pennebaker, whose services Farbar recruited for fifteen hundred dollars.
Wild 90 stars “the Maf Boys,” Mailer’s answer to Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, with Farbar in the role of Buzz Cameo, Knox as 20 Years, and Mailer as the Prince, holed up in an abandoned loft, evading the fuzz and contemplating their next big heist, while being visited by molls and assorted underworld grunts (including Bentley, Mailer’s fourth wife; light heavyweight boxing champion José Torres; and, in his acting debut, Pennebaker). Lacking the Pre-Raphaelite beauty and methedrine-fueled chatter of Warhol’s superstars, the Maf Boys come across as a cut-rate Dalton Gang—sweaty boozers burning the midnight oil. The film’s aggressively un-PC imaginings of how Italian gangsters talk in private when deep in their cups result in a hilarious weltschmerz of galoot poetics (“You’re nothing but a guinea with a hard-on in your arm. That’s your hard-on. Unhh.”). Nary a drop of Italian blood among them, Mailer, Farbar, and Knox invented a language that is part Brooklyn school yard, part Yiddish bubbameister, with a whole lot of Z-grade Victor McLaglen thrown in for good measure. Wild 90, Mailer proudly wrote, has the distinction of “containing some of the most repetitive pervasive obscenity of any film ever made.” But this unremittingly filthy, punkish assault belies a far more subversive attempt to reveal something of the naked, fragile egos of its three debauched protagonists—the leitmotif of Mailer’s cinematic reality-illusion game.
To Mailer’s horror, after shooting wrapped, he discovered that the film’s Gordian knot was not merely an ontological one: the film sounded, he wrote, “as if everyone were talking through a jockstrap.” As Pennebaker recalls, the soundman he hired, Bobby Neuwirth (singer-songwriter and boyfriend of Edie Sedgwick), was as hammered as the Maf Boys throughout the shoot and, on numerous takes, would be seen holding the directional microphone away from the action, thereby rendering entire scenes unusable. What was salvaged may have sounded okay in the confines of the editing room, but after the soundtrack was mixed and reduced to a single-channel 16 mm optical track, it was all but useless. Since the dialogue is half, if not more, of the film’s action, Mailer toyed with the idea of subtitling Wild 90 (which has been done for the first time on this disc, from Mailer’s unpublished transcript), though it was ultimately released as is, warts and all, allowing audiences to take away from it what they would (Mailer ran an ad in the New York Times offering anyone who didn’t like the film their money back). For some, like critic Pauline Kael, who was dumbstruck by its B-movie portentousness, the film worked as a comic exercise in bad taste. For others not so taken with Mailer’s piquant sense of humor, it may induce the bottomless feeling one experiences waiting in line at customs after a particularly long, turbulent flight. Still, one can take comfort in the fact that the snarling, barking loon at the film’s center is played close to the bone by a Pulitzer Prize–winning author—one whose native wit signals through Wild 90’s booze-fanned flames a sobering truth: genius is not necessarily divine.
Mailer wasted little time in devising a second feature after Wild 90 wrapped, one whose armature rested on a simpler, more malleable premise: that within each of us lies the potential to be either a cop or a crook. It was a theme Mailer would develop throughout his later writing, connected to a personal Manichaean cosmology in which God is at war with the devil and humans are fighting for both sides—with the final outcome uncertain. For Mailer, cop and crook were one manifestation of this ongoing struggle—the dramatization of which takes place in Beyond the Law’s mythical police station.
Shot over two nights in October 1967, on the tenth floor of 56 West Forty-fifth Street—the same building where Leacock-Pennebaker Films had its offices—by documentarians Jan Welt, Nicholas Proferes, Richard Leiterman, and Pennebaker, Beyond the Law features an ensemble cast divided between amateurs (including Paris Review founder George Plimpton and Beat poet and playwright Michael McClure) and professionals (Torn, Knox, and Bentley), led by Mailer in the role of Lieutenant Francis Xavier Pope, the precinct’s fedora-wearing, Irish-brogued Grand Inquisitor, with the tongue of an obscene philosopher. The film’s parallel construction feverishly cuts back and forth among the vicious, sadistic interrogations of the nightly “catch”—the petty thieves, prostitutes, and wife murderers populating the story, who are rendered something close to saintly in their victimization, in contrast to their menacing interrogators. When Pope’s wife (played by Bentley) finds him in a bar with a young woman, there follows a barrage of insults and recriminations that plays as a gross domestic parody of the grim ritual within the station.
In the days following Beyond the Law’s official premiere at the New York Film Festival in September 1968, New York Times critic Vincent Canby praised it for the strength of its performances, writing that “the encounters are so vivid and violent and—occasionally—moving that, unless you’re a member of the Mailer Mob, which I’m not, it’s impossible to tell the ‘real’ actors from the ‘false.’” Grove Press Films took over distribution from the shambolic Supreme Mix, allowing the film to enjoy a moderately successful nontheatrical run, playing to college audiences across the country alongside Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up?.
The promise of Beyond the Law, then, set the stage for the East Hampton apocalypse party and summer of ’68 happening Maidstone, which would cap the author’s quixotic underground filmmaking venture. “I must say,” Mailer reflected in 2005, “once I started making films, with the exception of the more exciting years of my personal life, it was the most exciting stuff I ever did. I loved making movies. It’s the nearest I ever came to being a general, which I always wanted to be. The best part of it is, there’s very little blood.”
Michael Chaiken is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, critic, and archivist. A regular contributor to Film Comment, he has also organized retrospectives of the work of Peter Whitehead, Norman Mailer, Luc Moullet, Pierre Clementi, Albert and David Maysles, and Dick Fontaine.