There is quixotic, and then there is Norman Mailer: the author of numerous best-selling loose, baggy monsters that tackle every important issue and icon of the 20th century, but also a guy who stabbed his second wife (out of six) with a penknife at a party, head-butted Gore Vidal in response to a suggestion that he was violent and ran for mayor of New York City in 1969 on a platform advocating that the city sever itself from the United States. The 84-year-old literary lion has burnished his legend by pursuing every whim to its pathological extreme.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking to learn about Mailer’s little-known parallel career as an experimental filmmaker. For Mailer, if writing a book is like entering a prizefight, then, as he told Joseph Gelmis in Gelmis’s book “The Film Director as Superstar,” “making a film is a cross between a circus, a military campaign, a nightmare, an orgy, and a high.” Coherence not required.
With this month’s “The Mistress and the Muse: The Films of Norman Mailer” — a collaboration among Anthology Film Archives, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Maysles Institute and The Paley Center for Media — New York audiences will get a chance to engage with one of the most uniquely deranged oeuvres in film history. The four films Mailer directed between 1968 and 1987 have little in common beyond their shared capacity for the author’s pet obsessions: masculinity, egoism and deception. The obscene, sometimes thrilling absurdity of Mailer’s films spans multiple genres and styles in its attempt to redefine the acceptable boundaries of self-indulgence.
Twenty years after “The Naked and the Dead” turned Mailer into a celebrity, biographer Mary Dearborn claims that the 1960s found the author “avoiding writing his big novel by turning to narratives about crime, violence, the outlaw, and masculinity… when Norman sought some quick, improvisatory drama, [film] was the territory he headed for.” But Mailer’s 16 mm motion picture debut, “Wild 90” (1968), also grew out of a desire to explore his favorite themes without “literary” editorializing. He sought an avenue for depicting the texture of moment-to-moment experience, and Andy Warhol’s radical experiments with real-time cinema provided an influential spark. Unfortunately, “Wild 90,” shot over two days and nights with no retakes, was beset by technical snafus and universally derided as interminable. (The film’s amusing original poster, on display at Anthology Film Archives, is composed entirely of negative reviews.)
“Beyond the Law,” another improvised project filmed just six months later, provides a slightly more professional introduction to the work of a fumbling neophyte. The film takes place in a Manhattan police station, where Lt. Francis Xavier Pope, a sweaty, bellicose Irishman (played by a commanding but undisciplined Mailer), spends “the longest night o’ me life” barking at murderers, rapists and sadomasochists — often unintelligibly. Shot mainly in extreme close-up, “Beyond the Law” adeptly evokes a claustrophobic cauldron of testosterone, but its presentation of the existential bridge between cop and crook remains banal. In the end, Mailer-as-performer emerges as the film’s true subject, creating an absurdist ego-driven feedback loop.
In the summer of 1968 — before “Beyond the Law” was even released — Mailer decamped to East Hampton, N.Y., with a cast of former wives, friends and a professional actor or two for an ambitious production that “received only slightly less press attention than did Cleopatra in Rome,” according to The New York Times.
Conceived in the days following Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, “Maidstone” is an elaborate pseudo-home-movie (shot in part by documentary pioneers Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker) detailing the attempts of filmmaker Norman T. Kingsley (Mailer, of course) to remake “Belle de Jour” as a misogynistic sex romp and simultaneously wage a presidential campaign. As Kingsley keeps would-be assassins at bay, Mailer uses him as a vehicle for unadulterated self-expression: “I’m a narcissist by definition… I’m fascinated with exposing myself to multitudes… I adore shocking people.”
Despite its obscurity, “Maidstone” looks today like a key happening in American avant-garde film, or at least a valuable time capsule. The film is a spectacular ego crack-up that gets trippier as it goes along: Sound dissociates itself from image, an Assassination Ball is staged and a “new elite secret peace organization” (straight out of Pynchon) makes its presence felt. When “Maidstone” begins, the narrative fourth wall is already tattered and torn, and Kingsley/Mailer eventually discards it altogether by gathering cast and crew to outline his original intention: “an attack on the nature of reality.” If it sounds insufferable, that’s because it often is, but no portrait of the artist as tyrant should aim to please. The film ends with a revolt, as character actor Rip Torn attacks his director with a toy hammer, leading to a bloody fistfight in which Mailer is nearly choked to death in front of his wife and kids. “You’re supposed to die, Mr. Kingsley,” he yells. “You must die, not Mailer.”
And with that death knell, Mailer put his film career to rest for nearly two decades. But at the height of the Reagan era, he returned with “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” a commercial adaptation of his own novel that must count as one of the strangest films ever released by a major studio. Set in the sleepy confines of Provincetown, Mass., “Tough Guys” is a “Twin Peaks” style murder mystery composed of wild tonal/temporal shifts, overwrought acting — courtesy of Ryan O’Neal and Isabella Rossellini — and surreal dialogue (“Your knife is in my dog” is a personal favorite). Critics were understandably baffled, but seen on its 20th anniversary, the film is a bizarre, unpredictable delight.
“The Mistress and the Muse” runs from July 22 through August 5, beginning at Lincoln Center and then moving on to Anthology Film Archives and also showcases a number of films that feature Mailer as actor, documentary subject or inspiration. Mailer will appear on opening night to screen “Maidstone” and “Tough Guys Don’t Dance.” You will have questions.
Akiva Gottlieb is a writer living in New York City.