I’m glad that Eclipse releases movies like this. I just wish that they weren’t, like, this.
I won’t embarrass either of us by pretending to know much about Norman Mailer, and I will settle for parroting back liner-note writer Michael Chaiken’s statement that in the late 1960’s Mailer was an artist in transition. Already renowned for his exceptional essays of the prior decade, 1968 saw Mailer dive headlong into non-fiction narrative with the Puliter Prize-winning “The Armies of the Night.”
Becoming a leading figure of the “New Journalism” movement wasn’t enough to keep the volcanic talent occupied, so Mailer simultaneously decided to conquer the world of cinema. Inspired by underground cinema that was, if only briefly, bubbling above ground, Mailer embarked on an ambitious three year run as writer-director-star-producer on a series of three films that seemed designed to be the hyper-macho answer to Andy Warhol and his superstars.
Mailer’s ego was talked about almost as much as Mailer, and he didn’t shy away from his reputation by casting himself as characters named Prince, Pope, and Kingsley (OK, so that was his middle name), the latter being a director described as “the American Bunuel.” Of course that description was at least partially tongue-in-cheek and watching these films today, it’s difficult to tell where self-aggrandizement stops and self-parody begins, if there is, indeed, any difference at all.
“Wild 90” (1968) was Mailer’s first, ultra low-budget film shot over a few days with buddies Buzz Farbar and Mickey Knox who, along with Mailer, lounge about a run-down but spacious New York apartment and scream obscenities at each other for 81 minutes. It appears they are pretending to be Z-grade mafiosos, but the (intentionally?) dreadful Italian accents come and go along with the occasional visitors (including documentarian D.A. Pennebaker and Mailer’s then-wife Beverly Bentley) to the “No Exit”-style stage.
Another day passes and then another and still another as they exchange improvised pleasantries such as “You’re getting fat in your asshole” and “If your asshole looked into your mouth, it would be looking at your fyootch.” Your appreciation for the film will probably be proportionate to your idolatry of Mailer’s machismo and your tolerance for preening blow-hards, but poorly-recorded dialogue turns a grueling experience into a positively excruciating one even for die-hard fans. I imagine it was great fun for Mailer and his friends though.
Also shot in just a few days, “Beyond the Law” (1969) provides a slight variation on the formula of loud-mouthed men screaming at each other by turning the shriekers into policemen and their harangued victims into criminals. Mailer (as Francis Xavier Pope), Farbar and Knox return as cops who try to impress women at a nightclub by regaling them with stories of the nightly lineup at the police station. Mailer swaps his fake Italian accent for a bad,but somewhat more bearable Irish brogue as he and his partners heap verbal abuse on the array of criminals, both petty and violent, who are paraded helplessly before them as mostly unscripted actors desperately trying to improv their way through threatening situations.
It’s another rough slog for viewers (consider once again your preening blowhard tolerance) but in contrast to his debut film, “Beyond the Law” is mostly watchable and even intermittently engaging, particularly when man-about-town George Plimpton drops by as the least convincing mayor since McCheese. For all the bluster (and there is enough to power a thousand National Conventions) the film achieves some surprising moments of tenderness and introspection near the end, and the final shot of Mailer in full-leprechaun mode, leaning drunkenly on both of his partners, renders him almost sympathetic.
Mailer would continue to shift between bluster and vulnerability in “Maidstone” (1970), easily the most accomplished and ambitious (shooting took five days this time) film in his trilogy. Mailer holds court as Norman T. Kingsley, a celebrated director who has launched a presidential campaign simultaneously with his new and increasingly hectic shoot. Kingsley’s ambitions have drawn the attention of a mysterious cabal that holds regular meetings to discuss plans for his possible assassination (though released in 1970, the film was shot in July 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations dominated the national consciousness).
Kingsley and Mailer blend together, and the film’s “real” chaotic production constantly bleeds into the fictional narrative. Kingsley torments a series of actresses who line up (like the crooks in “Beyond the Law”) for the opportunity to star in this film that is totally not going to be a porno, no sir. He criticizes their looks and their intelligence while molding (bullying) them into pliable performers. Likewise, Mailer could be a demanding taskmaster to his real cast members who were asked to live and breathe their roles in a full immersion experience secreted away in an East Hampton estate with no real idea of what was going to happen next, only that Mailer was calling the shots, or at least trying to. This leads into the film’s infamous finale in which actor Rip Torn, playing Kingsley’s brother in the film, takes a hammer upside Mailer’s head and draws real blood, all while the documentary-style cameras (several crews were filming throughout production) record the mayhem. Mailer’s young children are crying off-screen during the attack, but it’s hard to tell exactly how real the assault is. Torn is either still in character or coked out of his mind or, perhaps, both. See the video clip above if you want the whole spoiler.
Mailer spends much of the film displaying his hairy chest and lording it over his on-screen cult, but the ego-stroking turns critical in a scene in which Kingsley/Mailer stages an attempted (and failed) reconciliation with a stand-in for Adele Morales, the wife he stabbed in 1954 while he was drunk. The director (Kingsley or Mailer or both) self-indulgently laments that she will never forgive him, but is aware enough to understand that there’s no reason in hell that she should.
There is much to admire about “Maidstone,” particularly when Mailer almost completely obliterates the narrative around the one-hour mark for a more impressionistic montage, but his ambition exceeds his audiovisual craft. All the tasty ingredients are present, but the final dish is surprisingly bland, a superficial imitation of more accomplished underground films of the time. For me, the net result of watching these three movies is to be reminded of just how great Andy Warhol and company were. Those “stunt” movies that looked so easy to imitate really weren’t, and Mailer’s superstars don’t hold a candle to the Factory denizens. Borrowing Warhol icon Ultra Violet for a few scenes seems like a tacit acknowledgment of that shortcoming.
If you cherish the pugnacious, manly man legend of Mailer and, yes I’ll say it again, can tolerate preening blowhards better than I can, then you will be more receptive to these distinctive works by one of the most accomplished American writers of the 20th century. At the very least, these free-form experiments appear to be precisely what Mailer wanted them to be, no dilution and no compromises. That’s a rare enough achievement in cinema that it deserves to be appreciated, even if you’re not in tune with the particular vision on display.
All three films are presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio with “Maidstone” in color and the other two films in black-and-white. Like most Eclipse releases, these are not restored digital transfers and the print sources for the three films have not been preserved in pristine condition, although it should be noted that these films were certainly not shot by amateurs with the great D.A. Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock contributing their talents. It seems that the lurching hand-held camera in “Wild 90” is intended to convey a sense of drunken stupor and it’s quite possible that the crew, like the cast, were all totally wasted. In general, the prints are damaged and worn in spots, but not terribly so, and whatever degradation there is only serves the grubby aesthetic. The color in “Maidstone” is not particularly rich, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be.
The DVDs are presented with Dolby Digital Mono soundtracks. The audio recording on “Wild 90” was botched on set and could barely be salvaged. Audiences had the time had to struggle to make out the dialogue, but on this release you get subtitles to guide you through the exhausting ordeal. Sound is better on the other two movies, though it was all recorded on the fly and with little effort to present a polished product. English subtitles are provided on all three films, and are often needed.
As with most Eclipse releases, there are no extras, though we get very helpful liner notes by Michael Chaiken.
The set consists of two DVDs each in its own case. The first DVD includes “Maidstone.” The second had both “Wild 90” and “Beyond the Law.”
Normally, Eclipse lists the films in their sets in chronological order of release, but this time “Maidstone” (1970) gets top billing. It’s not hard to guess why since the set producers were probably afraid that anyone who started with “Wild 90” would run screaming. “Maidstone” at least keeps you watching even if you’re not thrilled with it. What can I say? I didn’t enjoy the films in the set, but as a record of Norman Mailer’s film career, the set is a valuable offering. And if you’re intimately familiar with Mailer’s writing, perhaps you will enjoy sussing out the ways his film work complements his better-known career. Not my scene, but I’ll certainly never forget these movies.