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The Mistress & the Muse: The Films of Norman Mailer: “Wild 90” and “Beyond the Law”

The Mistress & the Muse: The Films of Norman Mailer: "Wild 90" and "Beyond the Law"

& the Man

Let’s get this cruel fact out of the way to make room for more substantial inquiries: Wild 90 and Beyond the Law — the first two of legendary novelist/journalist/raconteur/would-be mayor Norman Mailer’s four directorial efforts — aren’t good films. In fact, due to their technical limitations (their recorded sound is atrocious), both 1968 films might be fairly labelled disasters. Andrew Sarris once said Wild 90 wasn’t the worst film he had ever seen but the worst he had ever sat all the way through. I wouldn’t go as far as that (a piece of self-satisfied comformity like Eagle vs. Shark is far worse an insult to the senses), but I also wouldn’t evaluate the Walter Reade, Anthology Film Archives, and the Paley Center for Media’s film retrospective of all things Mailer based exclusively on quality. That’s because Mailer’s films are fascinating documents of a brilliant writer’s uncontainable ambition to at one time become King of All Media not just through shock and irreverence, but through a serious, albeit underground and therefore marginalized, challenge to the conventions and norms of filmmaking itself.

Wild 90 and Beyond the Law combine the cinema verite of D.A. Pennebaker (who shot each of Mailer’s first three films) and the improvised performances of Cassavetes while going further than both of those better filmmakers — further because Mailer stirs up storms in front of the camera himself and further because he doesn’t allow a script to provide shelter lest things run completely amok.

Wild 90 features Mailer and two friends trading insults, grunts, punches, and jokes in a Brooklyn loft while planning a heist. Beyond the Law also features Mailer as a police chief presiding over a long night of charged and sadistic interrogations. In them Mailer gives up his precise, hallucinatory prose for the unknowable contingencies of the filmmaking process in pursuit of an existential (that is, lived in the moment) exploration of the limits of human behavior. There are scenes — and yes, they must be patiently awaited — amidst the chaos where these films create combustive situations from which the delirious truth of a person or a character emerges. Maidstone, showing tomorrow night, is much more of an accomplishment in this sense (and a brilliant film in its own right), but in Wild 90 and Beyond the Law the seeds are planted for Mailer’s goal to discover “the moment when a fantasy, which is to say a psychological reality in the mind, transcends itself and becomes a fact.”

At Anthology Film Archives tonight, July 28, and July 29.

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