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The Mistress & the Muse: The Films of Norman Mailer: “Maidstone” and “Tough Guys Don’t Dance”

The Mistress & the Muse: The Films of Norman Mailer: "Maidstone" and "Tough Guys Don't Dance"

Clash of the Titans

If there’s one film in the Mistress & the Muse series that should convince you that Norman Mailer’s foray into filmmaking was not in vain, it is Maidstone. Nay, more than that, I’ll go so far as to say that Maidstone is an extraordinary film, maybe even a masterpiece, the sort of passion- and ambition-fueled endeavor that through the madness of unguided improvisation arrives at truths movies infinitely more seamless and desperate for importance fail to even touch.

The background: in 1968, the same year as two previous film failures and a a week removed from the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Mailer started shooting Maidstone on several Hamptons estates with a circus of friends, drinking buddies, fellow pugilists, and even one or two professional actors. The scenario: Mailer himself plays Kingsley, an art director/pornographer running for the President of the United States. His motley crew of models and various hangers-on is called the Cashbox, which the nefarious Prevention of Assassination Experiments, Control is trying to infiltrate to off the subversive candidate. Maidstone departs from Wild 90 and Beyond the Law in not only containing actual coherence, but in sliding between multiple realities, from representing the chaotic politics of the time, where liberals and revolutionaries war over strategy, to satirizing the controversial public figure that was Mailer, who here plays a blustery, egotistical sexist who prides himself on being “not spiritual, but diabolical.” Indeed, there’s Mephisto magic in Mailer’s political fantasyland — in one section of the twelve-part film Maidstone transforms into a dream montage that rearranges the madness all over again into new concoctions and epiphanies. But the best is saved for last where, in succession, Mailer assembles his soldiers (he compares the film to a military operation, “an attack on the nature of reality”) to talk about the making of the “spooky experience” of making a film. And then comes one of the most infamous scenes in underground film history, where the one and only (and I mean only) Rip Torn, playing Mailer/Kingsley’s half-brother, “assassinates” him using a blunt hammer. For real. Check out the clip above — it’s a brilliant, harrowing moment, made all the more so because of Mailer’s wife’s overreaction. We are watching the inevitable conclusion to a film that’s so flagrantly disobeyed the line between being and acting, and Mailer and Torn’s post-fight taunts (Torn: “Fraud!” Mailer: “Cocksucker!”) end the film at a fever pitch of late 60s disillusionment.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987) is an entirely different beast, a glossy studio picture half-intentionally bad soapy neo-noir that does little justice to Mailer’s 1984 novel of the same name. Made after Mailer’s falling out with Jean-Luc Godard over King Lear and coming seventeen years after Mailer abandoned his late 60s cinematic ventures, Tough Guys fails to fully translate the macabre black humor and metaphysical musings of Mailer’s writing, but there’s a special quality to this misunderstood oddity that is best captured in the wild performances by Wings Hauser as a psychotic detective and Debra Sandlund as Ryan O’Neal’s white trash wife (and if you don’t appreciate the extremities of ridiculousness this film reaches, you’re probably a humorless writer for the Village Voice). It’s about a thousand miles away from Maidstone, but not from the wide-ranging universe of Mailer, who even when he fails is more interesting than when most people succeed.

Films play tonight and July 31.

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