The very fact of Norman Mailer's short-lived career as an underground filmmaker has a distasteful obligatoriness to it. Practically every mid-20th-century intellectual with aspirations of mass appeal got behind the camera at least once; Mailer, meanwhile, belonged to a particular class of belletrist for which cinema represented the opportunity to disavow narrative and expository idioms, to experiment-with-a-capital-E. (Susan Sontag and Yukio Mishima were similarly unhinged on screen, though the former's movies, to her credit, are not as prone to onanistic close-ups of their director.) Machete-ing through the thicket of handicaps with which Mailer's films are afflicted, then, isn't as simple as ignoring their (unfairly) less-than-favorable critical reputations. One must also consider the expectations of a milieu that was self-destructing with rainbowed fury. That milieu, of course, is the late 1960s, where vertiginous excess became de rigueur not only under the guise of countercultural frankness, but also due to the assumption that "reality" could be gotten at didactically. (The Maysles' sad-sack Salesman and Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason are but two blistering examples.) So Mailer's 16mm work (Wild 90 and Maidstone especially) are nothing if not appropriately, proudly indulgent.
Close readers of Mailer's prose, however, may view his wild ride through motion pictures as a process of aesthetic clarification. The two-year period that produced Wild 90, Beyond the Law, and Maidstone was also one of nimble literary transition for Mailer—a crazy, prolific cocoon out of which the author would emerge as a preening "journalistic novelist" winged with a Pulitzer Prize on one end and a National Book Award on the other. The films are in one sense an opportunity to watch Mailer "think through" his negotiation between facts and biases; perhaps unsurprisingly, a gnarly little picnic scene toward the end of Maidstone that was intended as a meta reflection on the filmmaking process winds up succinctly explicating his mid-career writerly approach as well.
In that sequence, which more assumes the stance of a Coleridge annotation than a Godardian distancing device, Mailer criticizes most cinema as a "uni-linear abstract"; he then describes his own work as a cluster of subjectivities that approximates "reality." His Pulitzer-winning Armies of the Night, too, shifts perspective almost recklessly within the controlling mechanism of a third-person voice, rendering the March on the Pentagon in October of 1967 through a tangle of eyes, ears, and mouths. (Ironically, Armies of the Night and Maidstone are also both infamous for the feuds that helped inspire them; the former was written to debunk Truman Capote's "objective" literary reportage, while the latter climaxes with an unsimulated brawl between Mailer and actor Rip Torn.)
With the exception of Maidstone, which even has titled chapters, Mailer's mostly improvised movies lack the structural eloquence of his novels; they remain, however, equally indebted to character psychology and its investment in everyday speech. Wild 90 imagines the late-night lives of low-rent mobsters, a premise which more or less becomes an excuse to film Mailer and his buddies (Mickey Knox is one) shooting the shit and punching light bulbs. But the shaky camerawork by D.A. Pennebaker avoids distancing wide shots, preferring frame-crowding close-ups and over-the-shoulder angles that suggest a limited, conversational point of view; as in Mailer's written accounts of protest and homicide, "meaning" is invented partly by drawing attention to perspectival error, and the information it omits.
This principle governs Beyond the Law even more dramatically; in the film, Mailer plays a ruthless Irish cop with a metronomic (and heavily affected) voice who leads a squadron of police through a series of brutal after-hours interrogations. The quality of the black-and-white photography and the spontaneous performances varies wildly (beat poet Michael McClure and a starchily effete George Plimpton provide the latter's high watermark), but the curious symmetries of prosody and slang between cop and criminal focus the lengthy arguments. Mailer's later novel, The Executioner's Song, about murderer Gary Gilmore, would pivot on a similar facsimiles of legalese and prison-speak, with each linguistic transition purporting to "haunt" a different character's mind-space. Both works employ free indirect discourse with an almost Virginia Woolfian intensity in order to stress how words create a context in which identities like "law enforcer" and "perpetrator" can take root and flourish.
Mailer's films further hint at the extent to which the author identifies with the subjects of his books, like Gilmore or Marilyn Monroe—both of whom are similarly described as a "victims of his/her own masculinity/femininity." Shockingly, Maidstone begins and ends with the same prison rhyme recited throughout The Executioner's Song; it pops up in the novel almost like a self-referential commercial, though few readers likely understood what it was trying to sell them. A comment from Mailer's police lieutenant character in Beyond the Law, however, feels even more telling: "I have no interest in being sadistic…" he says, "I am interested in having them confront themselves." For all the mugging Mailer does throughout his underground trilogy, the focal point at which he places himself ultimately inspires more drama than it participates in; his impotent Lord of the Manor stance on screen, around which volatile serfs dance, fulfills the same narrative duty that (the deceased) Gary Gilmore and Marilyn Monroe do in their respective tomes. In Mailer's films as well as his books, the world revolves best around a dead center.
IMAGE / SOUND:
Shot by verité directors like Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker (the latter's office building even provided Beyond the Law with its sets), Norman Mailer's early films are a spotty, grainy, catch-as-catch-can affair; and in a sense, Criterion's decision not to restore them is in line with their mostly impromptu style. That said, there are times when the grunginess inhibits comprehension, Wild 90's poor sound mix and Maidstone's affront to white balance being the best examples. The English captions for the hearing impaired play Virgil to your Dante through this cockeyed Inferno. (An inspirational subtitle: "[Orgasmic moaning continues].")
Goose eggs! There are, however, incredibly useful liner notes by film programmer Michael Chaiken, who proves equally adept at recounting production details and offering symbolic keys.
As much as you might suffer watching Norman Mailer's films, you can always take comfort in the fact that he suffered more while making them.