He Did These Because He Could

'Eclipse Series 35: Maidstone and other Films by Norman Mailer'

by Jose Solis

27 September 2012

These movies are by no means "good movies", but they offer a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.
Maidstone (1970) 
cover art

Eclipse Series 35: “Maidstone” and other Films by Norman Mailer

Director: Norman Mailer
Cast: Norman Mailer, Rip Torn

US DVD: 28 Aug 2012

“There is no greater importance in all the world like knowing you are right and that the wave of the world is wrong, yet the wave crashes upon you.”
Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer

Throughout his career Norman Mailer became known for many things: his writing, his loud conspiracy theories (he was among the most famous believers that Marilyn Monroe was in fact murdered by the FBI and/or CIA), his ego (remember where Woody Allen suggests it was going to after his death?) and his political activism. Few people remember his movies though. No, not the adaptations of his works, but the movies he actually wrote and directed. Yet after watching the three strange films contained in this boxset only one thing becomes obvious: Norman Mailer did movies because he could.

There is no big contribution to the artform, or even much entertainment in any of the films in Eclipse Series 35: “Maidstone” and other Films by Norman Mailer, yet they work precisely because of how odd they are. They might be nothing but time capsules or curios of an era where in order to be an artist you also had to be a full Renaissance man. Each of these movies feel exactly as if Mailer woke up one day and decided “I’m making a movie”.

Wild 90 (1968)

Wild 90 (1968)

In his seminal book The Naked and the Dead, Mailer famously wrote “I hate everything which is not in myself”, and this seems to be the way in which he approached filmmaking. He wrote, edited and directed four films (three of which are included here) and they all seem to have been made for the sole purpose of having Mailer deliver a message which remained unclear even to him.

In Wild 90 Mailer began to experiment with the camera as he shows us how three gangsters spend the night in a shabby New York apartment. The gangsters are played by Buzz Farbar, Mickey Knox and Mailer himself, and we pretty much just see them drink, fight and make awkward moves on a prostitute. At first we think the movie might lead somewhere, but just how it starts, it leads us to an ambiguous finalé (if we can even call it that).

In order to appreciate Wild 90, we must understand that Mailer saw it not as a movie in the traditional sense, but as an experiment in free psychoanalysis. During the late ‘50s, the writer had become exposed to the movies and plays of Elia Kazan, who suggested that acting was all about turning psychology into emotions. What we see in the film then is an improv of sorts, through which Mailer intended to turn his friends’ personal experiences into arcs. Of course, the movie itself feels more like a drunken home video than a Kazan method film.

Mailer’s intentions remained persistent when he made Beyond the Law. In this 1968 movie, he takes the psychological studies one step further as he tries to prove how humans all have a good and bad side. He reflects this in more specific terms by suggesting that we’re all cops and robbers. Mailer cast himself as tough cop Francis Xavier Pope, who seems to have a ball as we see a rugged assortment of characters during a police lineup. If Mailer’s more complex intentions never really click, the film is at least admirable because of the way in which he captured everything like a documentarist. Its grittiness saves it from being as elusive in nature as Wild 90, but ut still doesn’t prepare one for the mindfuckery that was to come with Maidstone.

Beyond the Law (1968)

Beyond the Law (1968)

During the summer of 1968, Mailer packed his bags and camera and took his friends to East Hampton, where they spend their days shooting a would be political satire about filmmaker/political candidate Norman T. Kingsley. Mailer’s work was undeniably autobiographical, and he was never as obvious as he was in this movie. Not only does he share a first name with the man he played, Kingsley also happened to be Mailer’s middle name. And for those wondering about the political connection (although no one who buys these movies will be a stranger to the author’s biography), Mailer ran for Mayor of New York City in 1969.

Maidstone feels like 8 1/2, as if done by Hugh Hefner after watching Grey Gardens, and as such the results are funny, bizarre and extremely disturbing all at once. The film is mostly notorious for featuring a scene in which Rip Torn’s character attacks Norman. The catch is that the moment wasn’t scripted and Torn was in fact trying to kill Mailer. The scene might be the most vibrant piece of work in Mailer’s short film career and upon realizing its nature, makes for one of the existential conundrums the author so favored. He tapped into what makes cinema so rich when he allowed reality to take over, making us wonder about the nature of nonfiction narrative, the perils of method performance, and the purpose of art itself.

Eclipse Series 35: “Maidstone” and other Films by Norman Mailer


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