He Doesn’t Deserve Better, But His Work Does: ‘Norman Mailer: The American’

I once had an American lit professor who suddenly stopped talking about Hawthorne or Fitzgerald or Kerouac or whoever and blurted out, apropos of nothing, “Do you have any idea how good Mailer is when he’s not trying to be Mailer?”

A college freshman from a not-very-good rural high school, I read promiscuously, and with no sense what was good bad or utterly wretched. My knowledge of Mailer was vague, to say the least. I knew he had written a book I’d never read called Armies of the Night. I knew he was one of those writers, like Hemingway or James Dickey, who might beat you up.

I’m not sure, over the subsequent 20 years, if I’ve ever really decided how good Mailer can be when he’s not trying to be Mailer. Even his stoutest fans seem to waffle between declaring his greatness and laughing at him. As to his ability to stop being Mailer? Everyone seems to think that constituted a full time job. After a certain point, he probably couldn’t have stopped if he tried.

The documentary Norman Mailer: The American, directed by Joseph Mategna, deals with the question of Mailer’s public identity, reputation and, at least ostensibly, with his meaning in American culture. “I love this country, I hate it… I’m charmed by it and repelled by it.” Norman Mailer’s description of his relationship to America supposedly sets the stage, as the title suggests, for a discussion of his writing about everything from the American love of violence to his ironic (given his own tendencies) critiques of the Vietnam War as a bad case of national performance anxiety.

Title aside, that’s not what this new documentary chooses to examine. Although packed with interesting footage and providing an excellent introduction to Mailer’s endlessly fascinating life, the film ends up being about what a mostly reprehensible human it has as a subject. The rather shocking, and never before seen, interview footage of his wife Adele Morales Mailer confirms the worst that you’ve ever thought about the author of more than thirty books, many of them undisputed classics.

Of course, Norman Mailer: The American does pay some attention to the author’s influences and cultural context. We learn, not surprisingly really, that Ernest Hemingway became one of his literary idols early on. This seems to fit with Mailer’s long love affair with his own masculinity, his insistence on being the big swinging dick of American letters.

So, for example, he took great pride in being on the Harvard football team. A lifetime of the pursuit of manliness followed. Bizarrely, he describes his “search for machismo” as what prevented him from getting cancer (anxiety about getting cancer, we learn, remained a lifelong obsession). And, like Hemingway, he wrote about the bullfight as existential struggle and sparred with friend and collaborator Muhammad Ali, who obviously could have pummeled him into paste, but didn’t.

There’s more to the film’s biographical discussion than Mailer’s testosterone-fueled absurdities. Wonderful bits of biographical flotsam and jetsam wash ashore. Mailer reads from his Bar Mitzvah speech that includes a great moment where he expresses his joy at becoming part of a community that included such luminaries as “Karl Marx and Albert Einstein.” He also reads from letters written from combat in World War II, some of which essentially functioned as drafts of Naked and the Dead.

And, in perhaps the best take-away from the film, we learn that Mailer once shared a brownstone with Arthur Miller… the latter writing Death of a Salesman on the top floor and Mailer writing Naked and the Dead on the bottom. Ironically, Mailer wrote a book about Marilyn Monroe after a life-long obsession with her. She was, apparently, too afraid of him to meet him while she was married to Miller.

The most informative part of the disc comes in the extras, specifically in interview footage with Mailer. Divided by subject we hear Mailer sayng some fascinating things about the nature of fiction and non-fiction (“its all fiction” he insists, and makes a pretty good case) to not very smart things about computers. There’s a all-too-brief clip from the Dick Cavett Show where he’s being a jerk and a clod and generally taking on the whole studio audience plus Gore Vidal.

Strangely, given the amount of footage on Mailer available, these are really the only extras. The clips are very short and tell you essentially nothing about context. Otherwise, we get only the film’s trailer. Surely there’s more out there that could have been included given the colorful and garrulous public thug that Mailer had been for over half a century at the time of his death?

Mailer’s rage, an anger at society and at just about everyone who crossed his path, forms a powerful subtext of the film. There’s a full exploration of his stabbing of Adele Morales Mailer that refuses to gloss his reprehensible and bizarre behavior. He apparently told her that he hoped to save her from cancer. She did not testify against him and he wrote a poem, soon after, that contained the line,” So long as you use a knife/there’s some love left.”

Perhaps a third of the film focuses on Mailer’s catastrophic marriages. Although obviously not an unimportant part of understanding Mailer, it turns the film into a bit of a scandal sheet. I’m not sure it helps us to make sense of Mailer to know that his daughter uses torsos in her painting to makes sense of the violence at the heart of her family.

Oddly, give the documentary’s willingness to explore the shadows of Mailer’s life with women, his sickening misogyny never gets the full analysis it so richly deserves. Mailer’s comments about feminism, comments that amount to a suggestion that second wave feminism wanted female domination instead of equality, are explained away in interviews. We hear one of his many children defend him with something along the lines of “no, he really supported feminism.” This even though Mailer got himself into the papers throughout the ’70s and ’80s with churlish comments about the movement.

But, again, what about his writing? Two of Mailer’s works, his essay The White Negro and the extraordinarily strange, moving, anger-inducing, unfailingly compelling The Executioner’s Song would be on my short-list for important American writing in the second half of the twentieth century. Both are given less than ten minutes total in this tabloid of a documentary. Armies of the Night gets no analysis beyond the drama that surrounded its writing.

So, I’m not sure many readers will revisit the author’s oeuvre after seeing this film. If you watch it thinking of Mailer as something of a pathetic figure, a wanna-be Hemingway and, essentially, a mean old bastard, there’s not much here that will convince you otherwise.

Moreover, its seems wrongly titled. For the most part, we don’t get much of a sense of the Americanness of Mailer unless we go with the idea that he embodies all of the country’s misogyny, violence and inability to accept its own limitations. And maybe all that’s true.

I just wish Mantegna had let Mailer, in death, stop being Mailer. We need some retrospectives on his work that remind us that he’s worth remembering as an author. As a human being, he’s simply lamentable, a victim of his own celebrity and rage. But as someone who reimagined the boundaries of journalism and the novel, he’s one of our most important voices. Unfortunately, this film provides us even more reason for rolling our eyes whenever we hear his name. He doesn’t deserve better, but his work does.

RATING 5 / 10