As a writer, Norman Mailer could be insightful, sensational, insufferable, or pretentious—or all at once. So it went for Mailer as a filmmaker. After making his name as a tough-talking young novelist in the late ’50s, and then helping to pioneer what would come to be known as “New Journalism” in the early ’60s, Mailer picked up a camera and pulled out his checkbook at the end of the decade, going into debt in order to show all the underground auteurs and provocateurs how he believed art movies should be made. Mailer completed three films in a rush between 1968 and 1970: Wild 90 (about three gangsters bickering away an evening), Beyond The Law (about cops at a bar, recalling their day to their dates), and Maidstone (about a manipulative, controversial filmmaker who decides to run for president). All three are included in the Eclipse Series set Maidstone And Other Films By Norman Mailer, and all three show Mailer drawing freely on the major arthouse trends of the day, mashing up Buñuel, Cassavetes, Godard, Warhol, and the various major adherents of cinema verité and the avant-garde. These films are very much of their time, for better and worse. At times they feel hopelessly derivative and amateurish, and yet they’re expressive of who Mailer was at the end of the ’60s, and show what he felt mattered. As such, they’re as valuable in their way as Mailer’s groundbreaking nonfiction novels.
Well, two of them are, anyway. Wild 90 is an endurance test: 81 minutes of Mailer and his buddies Buzz Farbar and Mickey Knox drinking and improvising, pretending to be mafiosi. The lighting is terrible, the sound is so muffled that the dialogue is practically inaudible, and the actors can barely hold character for more than a minute or two without smirking. Wild 90 is interesting primarily as a more recklessly vulgar version of the street-level underground films that were common at that time, and for introducing what would become a recurring motif in Mailer’s films: prodding the audience to question what’s “real.” That theme manifests more profoundly in the two films that followed, and is handled in compellingly odd ways in Beyond The Law, which mixes accomplished actors—including a magnetic Rip Torn as a flippant biker—with amateurs who look like they could be the lowlifes they’re supposed to be playing. There’s some awkwardness in the early going, as no one on the screen can agree what the premise of any scene should be. (Like Wild 90, Beyond The Law was shot in two nights, so it wasn’t exactly carefully planned.) But Beyond The Law gets better once it becomes about a series of interrogations, with the cops grilling the crooks to try to get at a “truth” beyond the facts of the case. The one consistently incongruous element in Beyond The Law is Mailer himself, playing his police lieutenant character as though he wandered in from a B-movie—though even that fits with the movie’s open undermining of its own docu-realism.
But it’s Maidstone where Mailer shows some real artistic ambition, and comes up with something more indelible than a hammy home movie. Mailer’s approach to Maidstone is similar to the previous two films, in that he gathered a group of friends and actors together for a few days and had them improvise off of some basic character types and instructions. But the premise is much richer and more complicated. While Mailer’s “superstar director” character hectors some pretty young starlets to see if they’d be willing to get naked and freaky for his American remake of Belle De Jour, he’s also talking to minority groups about his political platform, and dealing with two threats: from his campaign staff, who may be plotting his assassination, and from Rip Torn (playing the director’s half-brother and also “himself”), who’s an agent of chaos, challenging everything that’s happening in the film. Maidstone is most famous for its final scene, where Torn bashes Mailer with a hammer and the two wrestle violently on the ground while Mailer’s family shrieks, unsure if this is part of the movie or not. But even before that big finish, Maidstone is a memorable hybrid of awkward sketch comedy and primitivism, with blatantly stagey scenes set against very real, very intense arguments, all connected by an editing style that gets more frenetic and kaleidoscopic in its second half, right up to the moment when Mailer stops the movie cold by gathering the cast and explaining to them—and the viewer—what Maidstone is meant to be. In other words: This is one crazy film, teeming with ideas, and with the infectious enthusiasm of the novice.
Key features: None, save for optional subtitles, which helps make Wild 90 comprehensible for the first time.
Wild 90: D+
Beyond The Law: C+