If the end of the Hollywood system in the 1960s had one great change, it was that anyone could make a movie if they had the inspiration. Sure, there was a good chance it would only play in makeshift movie theaters in the dark corners of New York City, but thanks to today’s cinephile culture, some of these gems have been resurrected over the years, revealing wondrous time capsules. Perhaps the best case for this is the almost completely forgotten films of Norman Mailer, finally out this week in an Eclipse set from The Criterion Collection — “Maidstone And Other Films By Norman Mailer” — featuring his three films made in the late 1960s.
Mailer himself is an interesting case; he is better known for his novels, essays, journalism, ranting, political endeavors, and a number of other things before one thinks of him as a filmmaker. In some ways, the reason to see these films — “Wild 90,” “Beyond the Law,” and the highlight of the group, “Maidstone” — is often less because they are somehow cinematic revelations (though they embody of certain trends of the period) than Mailer’s presence and personality. With the DVDs now out on Criterion, we thought we’d give you five things you may not have known about Mailer’s filmmaking career, which may spark you to check these bizarrely alluring films:
1. Mailer Collaborated With D.A. Pennebaker
Mailer’s bug into filmmaking wasn’t just his ego running wild — he was serious about the art form and exploring it himself (so much that “Maidstone,” his final film from the period, bankrupted him). During the early 1960s, he would attend screenings at the Film Maker’s Cinematheque, which was run by Jonas Mekas, and highlighted the work of filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and Shirley Clarke. He was also extremely interested in the Direct Cinema movement, notably director D.A. Pennebaker, known for his free-wheelin’ Bob Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back.” When Mailer and his crew decided to take their improvisations at a local bar and create a film out of it, his collaborator Bernard Farber recruited Pennebaker to film it. The result, “Wild 90,” plays like a more sadistic version of Sartre’s “No Exit.” Three men, “the Maf boys,” hide in an abandoned loft, cursing at each other as the days and nights go on and on as they prepare for their next heist. The film has the stamp of Pennebaker — who also appears in the film in a brief role — all over it, as the camera simply captures the action almost like a documentary crew.
2. The Films Were Never Scripted
A note at the end of “Wild 90” tells us the film was based “from a script which did not ever necessarily exist,” a telling truth about Mailer’s approach to filmmaking. All three films have bold and brash premises, but none are interested in narrative storytelling. The comic brashness of “Wild 90” seems destined to go nowhere, and the film’s strange language (example: “His ass is so big because he’s got radar in his ass” followed by a series of indistinguishable howls and grunts) makes it both infuriating and mesmerizing. There’s a certain amateurism to it all, but there also seems to be a bold, harsh truth exposed raw in the center of it. “Beyond The Law” and “Maidstone” feature similarly bizarre narrative arcs — less interested in where the film is going than how it circles around itself.
3. Mailer Was A Titan Of An Actor
Perhaps one of the best revelations of the Mailer’s films are his own towering performances, notably in his second film, “Beyond the Law.” Shot with the same visual intensity as “Wild 90,” “Beyond the Law” cuts back and forth from a double date at a bar and the bad neighborhood police station, where the cice squad interrogates the night’s murderers, prostitutes, and hippies. Here, Mailer plays the precinct’s lieutenant, Xavier Pope, sporting an intense over-the-top Irish accent and soulless eyes. Given Mailer’s encounters with the police during the 1960s (most notably covered in his non-fiction novel “The Armies of the Night“), it’s fascinating to see Mailer cast himself as an embodiment of evil, allowing the brutality throughout the night (though apologizing for it when the mayor comes to visit in a very amusing scene). Mailer’s accent may waver throughout the film, but his conviction to his performance is revelatory, especially between late scenes with his wife (Beverly Bently) in which the tables turn and he becomes the victim of accusation.
4. All His Films Feature Breaks With The Fourth Wall
Perhaps inspired by Shirley Clarke’s “The Connection” (which is out now in a stunning new restoration), all three Mailer films feature some breakdown of the fourth wall. In “Wild 90” and “Beyond the Law,” the last scene of both features Mailer directly addressing the camera (in “Wild 90,” his character talks about his favorite author, “Norm the Mall, Norman Mailer,” in a highly egotistical but unnervingly amusing scene). But “Maidstone” takes this self-examination to a completely different level. The film’s premise is more than tantalizing: Mailer plays Norman T. Kingsley, a film director and candidate for President of the United States (Mailer was preparing his own run for New York mayor at the time). Described by another character as “The American Buñuel,” early scenes of “Maidstone” feature Kingsley interviewing actresses for roles in his remake of “Belle De Jour,” asking them questions that more than toe line toward sexual harassment. Is this Kingsley or Mailer? “Maidstone” never makes it quite clear, and is perhaps all the more fascinating because it refuses easy answers. Shot in the Hamptons, the film is a hodgepodge of insanity of sex, drugs, and blunt politics, and occasionally makes Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie” seem tame. It’s truly experimental at points — one sequence felt like it could have been ripped from Malick’s “The Tree of Life” in its abstraction shots of people and landscapes, though the soundtrack is instead set to the sounds of a woman during intercourse.
5. The Real Life Fight In “Madistone” Has To Be Seen To Be Believed
It feels like such a shame to minimize Mailer’s film career into one infamous scene, but the climax of “Maidstone” is a cinematic shot to the gut. Rip Torn (“The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Forty Shades of Blue“) plays Kingsley’s brother and also leader of a rebel group that invades the set of his film. “Maidstone” features a running subplot about a possible assassination attempt on Kingsley and Torn, having fought arduously with Mailer during the film’s troubled production, decided he was going to give the film its deserved ending. Torn viciously attacks Mailer, neither actually playing their “characters,” and have an intense debate over the authenticity of the entire picture while beating each other almost to death. “Isn’t this what you want, Norman?” Torn repeatedly asks. The film ends after this scene, leaving any idea of what “Maidstone” was even attempting to do as a picture a bit of an enigma, but the sheer audacity of the camera crew to keep filming is the type of shock Mailer loved to create with his cinema. His films weren’t made to be clean, well-articulated expressions, but instead visceral documentts of a time and a place, one truly mad-capped through his own quixotic mind.
“Maidstone And Other Films By Norman Mailer” is out now.