Friday, November 16, 2007

"Deceased Artiste" Norman Mailer

He was one of a fuckin’ kind, Mailer was. In certain ways a throwback to the Hemingway macho writers of the earlier part of the twentieth century, in others a vitally connected artist who seemed to place himself at the forefront of opinion and behavior in the 1960s and ’70s, he is probably one of the last great aged enfant terribles. He seemed to really hit his prime as a writer-provocateur in his late 40s, and occupied a place in both American letters and American show biz that no one else ever has, with the exception of Truman Capote, who was most likely his polar opposite (and someone he always publicly envied, even decades after Capote’s death, for having truly “understood” how to manipulate and captivate the media). He was a bold guy, a genius who was modest about nothing and possessed the craziness that usually is part and parcel of creative genius. His mind was razor-sharp, but what will ultimately be remembered, for at least the next few decades, was his public behavior. After some time passes, though, his books will the final testament — which is exactly what a man capable of the lean beauty of The Executioner’s Song and the awful excess of Ancient Evenings would’ve wanted.

My own experiences with the gent extend back to hearing about his “acting up” on late-night talk shows, my dad telling me about Mailer verbally sparring with Gore Vidal on the Cavett show (their first and most famous duel being one of the most kinetic hours of television ever, with barely a move being made). When I became fascinated by the Sixties (in the late Seventies, I was a late starter, but also pretty young), I had to read Mailer’s works about the period, as he was a key chronicler. I later read the chapters from The Executioner’s Song that were excerpted in Playboy, the first Playboys I ever got (yes, I was readin’ the articles in between checking out the pics). I still look upon that as one of the best books I’ve ever read, a perfectly spare and controlled work about American crime and celebrity (and, yes, the book is Mailer’s expansion on all the stylistic “leg work” done by Capote in In Cold Blood). His later books were a mixed bag — as noted some were severely rough in their singular obsession and dullness (the Egyptian doorstop), and others had the makings of perfect American sagas that were started but not followed through (Harlot’s Ghost has moments of genius but needed severe paring down — and the never-written second half!).

My one fanboy moment with Mailer was when I spoke to him as he emerged from the subway at Third Avenue and 53rd St. a year or so after his amazing movie Tough Guys Don’t Dance had appeared. I mentioned I loved Tough Guys… and he immediately said “the book or the movie?” I quickly responded, “Both” and he told me how the movie had just won some kind of film festival award for Best Independent Film or something. I shook his hand and told him how I also loved The Executioner’s Song or somesuch, thought he was a great writer, and that was it. I saw him at a few readings and public appearances before and after that, but never again had that 30-second “boy, it felt like I actually met him just now” experience you get at a signing (move along, fella, there’s another guy behind you).

So what, you ask, did I decide to post to honor Mailer? I intend on adding further uploads, but for the moment decided to do a mini-“Deceased Ariste” tribute to the big Norm. First up is a scene from an appearance he made on The Merv Griffin Show right after the March on the Pentagon, as shown on a barroom television set in the documentary Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? (I nabbed it off a French television docu though). Then comes a slice of Norman in the insanely kinetic Town Bloody Hall(shot 1971, edited 1979), D.A. Pennebaker’s filming of Mailer’s public debate with feminists after the appearance of his article “The Prisoner of Sex” (as slim and oddly-conceived as his book on the moon landing, this bit of prose got him in hot water with women’s libbers, and he responded as he always did, with brash and bizarre statements, expressed with perfect grammar and syntax, in a public forum). Next we’re on to his mind-bogglingly over-the-top melodrama/thriller Tough Guys Don’t Dance, about which I’ve written before (the piece can be found here). I love that movie to pieces. I decided to close out with Mailer reflecting on 9/11 shortly at a public appearance that was broadcast on C-SPAN. More clips will come on this titanic figure of the late twentieth century. You won’t see his like comin’ along anytime soon….


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2 comments:

Anthony Sides said...

Thank you, it's great to see the 60s clip - the only other Mailer I've seen from that time is a scene from Maidstone, and the 1969 mayoral candidacy clips Sky showed when he died to make him look obnoxious.

I disagree completely about Ancient Evenings: I read the book 6 times between 1984 and 90 and thought it was his best novel. I hesitate to recommend it now because it may not be for everyone - it's consciously a "big" novel that takes its time building momentum - and because I have not read it for so long: I put it away to read when it would seem new again, so I don't know if I would like it now.

I remember it as Mailer at his best, though. His ancient Egypt has some of the excesses and horrors he criticized America for, but also exists more in harmony with the natural and spiritual world - so he uses it as dys- and utopia at the same time.

The book is more physically sensuous than many of his novels - usually Mailer's characters are reeling from psychic or psychological forces and we do not see what is in front of them too clearly - think of how clear and rare the scene of Rojack studying himslf and the lighting in the mirror in An American Dream seems. In Ancient Evenings Mailer creates (or recreates) a world, and it is clearer to its inhabitants than NY is to the modern citizens who try to blank out the harshness of overcrowded city life.

Ancient Evenings is probably the last book where he found new insights - Harlot's Ghost, for instance, only explores and dramatizes his earlier ideas that fans are familiar with.

Not seen the movie of Tough Guys Don't Dance, though the novel is OK. My favourite line in the book is the narrator referring to an unusually big and hard erection as "one of those rare monsters we remember afterward with excessive pride". The book was written in 2 months and the characters connect less interestingly than they might - Madden's marriage to Patty Laraine seems more interesting in flashback than much of the main action of the book - though I like the later scene where Madden feels prepared to accept any humiliation from the police chief, if only his father were not there.

Anthony Sides said...

Again, you can read, comment and contribute about Mailer at Espresso Shots - on the left in "Labels" click on "Mailer".

All the best.