Tuesday, June 6, 2023

More Media Funhouse full episodes on the Net, free!

The Funhouse TV show will celebrate its 30th anniversary on Sept. 30 of this year. Besides making me feel incredibly old, the fact that I’m still doing the Funhouse after all this time does make me proud. I’m proud that I’ve kept the show going despite obstacles too numerous to mention, proud that I’ve gotten to cover a broad spectrum of both high art and low trash (something you can’t do in mainstream media — it’s one or the other, and neither makes $), and proud that I’ve been able to share it all with the Manhattan cable viewers of the show, those who read the associated writing I’ve done (both on this blog and in my DVD/BD reviews), and those who watch the show virtually on the MNN stream each late Saturday night. 

So, I felt it was time to put a few more shows up online in their entirety. This can’t be done on YouTube, which arbitrarily enforces copyright, bashes to death the notion of “fair use” and critical context, and deals harshly with those who ain’t payin’ them. As for popular categories of “fair use” YT vids, I never wanted to talk through or “shrink” into a tiny box the clips I show on the program; I don’t think me “reacting” to things is interesting — I introduce the material and then let ’er rip! 

This time it’s a quartet of recently produced shows, two of which fit snugly into the “high art” category, one of which is surely “low trash,” and a fourth that is simply a great Golden Age film that deserves a bigger audience. 

The last-mentioned is the first show I posted. On this episode, I discuss and show clips from the 1937 British thriller Love from a Stranger. I will readily admit that the reason I encountered this particular thriller (which I hadn’t heard of until recently) was because I had finally obtained the long out-of-print (and often wildly overpriced) book The Wild Wild World of the Cramps by Ian Johnston. 

In the book, which supposedly the Cramps were not fond of (a shame, because it’s the best of the two books written about them and is quite reverent and informative), there is a section from an interview in which the late lamented Lux Interior provides a list of films he really loves. The Cramps’ deep love for both Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis was mentioned in many of their interviews (and they sang theme songs from films by both men), but this longer list was interesting, in that it mostly seemed to have items that were put out by two public domain video labels of the time. 

Thus, it seemed to me to be a list of Lux’s recent purchases — many of the movies were just standard-issue horror and juvenile delinquent flicks. The list, started out, though, with the masterwork of frenzy that is The World’s Greatest Sinner by Timothy Carey. 

Lux also included Love from a Stranger in his list. Here is the entry: 

“Lux: It’s a great old movie and stars Basil Rathbone as a serial killer. 

Ivy: He plays a psychotic! 

Lux: Basil Rathbone in his most demanding performance (laughs) and I ain’t kidding. He starts off as being really suave, sweeps this girl off her feet and tells her he’s rich. As the movie goes on he becomes more and more nutty and in the last half hour of the film she realizes the man she’s married to is a full-blown psychotic. She’s alone with him in this house in the middle of nowhere and he plans to kill her. He becomes more disheveled throughout. They’ll be sitting eating dinner and he’ll suddenly turn round to her and say, ‘WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT!’ He shovels tons of food into his mouth and it all starts dribbling down his chin and then he burps, loudly… this is Basil Rathbone! He turns into a monster. 

Ivy: He just turns into a monster without make-up. The performances are excellent.” 

The only things I can add to this lively description is that the film was scripted by the leading woman screenwriter of the time, Frances Marion (who wrote Dinner at Eight), and was based on a short story by Agatha Christie. It does have some really good twists and turns, and does feature a truly manic turn by the future Sherlock Holmes (aka Wolf von Frankenstein). 


Another title mentioned in a different list of movies recommended by Senor Interior (in the 1986 tour booklet that contained list of faves from all four members of the band) is Confessions of a Psycho Cat (1968). This film was part of a major rediscovery (thanks to the great producer Dave Friedman letting one mail-order firm know about a trove of 16mm copies of pretty much forgotten titles) of sexploitation titles, and it is well worth a look. Lux liked it SO much that he wrote a song with the same title

The 9,000th version of the “Most Dangerous Game” scenario (in which humans are the prey that is hunted, not animals), this one features an insane female hunter pursuing three down-and-out figures on the streets of NYC: a washed-up actor, a junkie beatnik, and a former wrestling “champeen,” played by none other than Da Bull himself, Jake LaMotta (who really trades on that nickname here, being killed in a mock bullfight by the hunter, dressed to the nines in a torera outfit). It’s a quite amazingly nuts film and worthy of a full Funhouse episode. 


Time to flip the equation and move to the “high art” side of the film world. This is represented by a pair of episodes paying tribute to one of the biggest heroes in the Funhouse, namely Uncle Jean, aka Jean-Luc Godard. After his death, I knew I would have to look long and hard through his work and assemble a series of episodes paying tribute to his work, era by era. So far, I’ve assembled and aired two of these shows, and one episode discussing and excerpting scenes from A Vendredi Robinson, the 2022 Mitra Farahani film that offers us a last sustained look at JLG in his natural habitat (filmed in 2014-15 before he was gravely affected by a neurological condition). 

The first show covers the first six years of his most famous period, the Sixties, from 1960 to ’65. I discuss a few of the tenets of his work, display a few of the many magazines and books devoted to him, and then show scenes from nine of his first 10 features. (Including some that are truly iconic — and ripped off to no end — and some that show off specific aspects of his work.)


The second episode completes the overview of Godard Sixties features. (I’ll approach the anthology contributions, shorts, and the missing ’60s feature in a future episode.) Here I open with some more books/magazines and an anecdote illustrating what it was like seeing Godard’s most obscure work in a certain Manhattan museum.

From that point I move on to the period in his work that opened the way for an incredible amount of radically unusual films in the late Sixties/early Seventies. We move from his last classically “New Wave” film (MASCULIN FEMININ) to his post-“end of cinema” features in 1968. 


I plan to only put up a select few episodes online. (There have been over a thousand new shows in the 30 years we’ve been on the air.) The only way to see the show regularly for those outside of Manhattan is to catch it late Sat/early Sunday at 1:00 a.m. EST on the MNN stream on Ch. 3, the “Spirit Channel.”

Monday, April 17, 2023

The Funhouse interview: Balthazar Clementi on Pierre Clementi

Here are two excerpts from the Funhouse interview with Balthazar Clementi that explores the life and career of his father, French actor-filmmaker Pierre Clementi, best known in America for his scene-stealing roles in Bunuel’s Belle de Jour and Bertolucci’s The Conformist, as well as his starring turns in cult films like Bertolucci’s Partner, Marc’o’s Les Idoles, and Liliana Cavani’s The Year of the Cannibals

We covered a lot of ground in the hour in which we spoke; the result was three visually stunning Funhouse episodes that emphasized Pierre’s work as a filmmaker but also spotlighted a few of his best-loved film performances.

In this excerpt I start out mentioning the comparisons by film historians of Pierre's work to Kenneth Anger, most likely because they both used dense overlaid imagery in their films. We then discuss the in-camera process Pierre used to create those overlaid images. Balthazar maintained in a question after this that Pierre was directly influenced only by one filmmaker — his friend (whose films he appeared in), Etienne O’Leary, a Canadian who made a trio of influential short avant-garde films in France, and then stopped making films due to medical problems. (O’Leary also appeared in Clementi’s films, sealing the bond of mutual admiration.)


In this clip we talk about how Clementi’s life changed after his famous 1972 arrest in Italy in the early Seventies (on a trumped-up drug charge) that led to him losing a year and a half of his career while being in prison. Upon his release, he had even less interest in doing acting work for money’s sake and was known to literally give away the money he made.

The interview with Balthazar was done in conjunction with a festival of Pierre Clementi’s films at MoMA. The other tie-ins concerned the release of a limited edition “Integrale” box of Clementi’s films (containing the nine films on both Blu-ray discs and DVDs, with optional English subs; still available as of this writing) and the long-awaited English translation of Clementi’s 1970s memoir (and essay on the prison state in Italy) <i>A Few Personal Messages</i>, from the small press actually called Small Press.

The interview, which was audio-only on this occasion, was conducted in Central Park, a first for the Funhouse! Here is a pic of Balthazar and me after our talk. He was quite forthcoming in our talk (providing very personal remarks about his birth and his father's later life), for which I thank him. (Thanks also go to Ivan Galietti, for his great translation, heard on these clips.)

Friday, April 7, 2023

Notes on the screening of 'The Movie Orgy' (aka 'Son of Movie Orgy') at Anthology Film Archives — plus, the best 'Orgy' clips found online

There is nothing like the moviegoing experience. And there are movies that depend on that experience to be successfully enjoyed. One of these is Joe Dante and Jon Davison’s much-talked-about but too-little-seen movie-clip marathon The Movie Orgy (started in 1966; reshown and rebuilt for a decade after that).

The film fits in very comfortably with the Sixties ethos of nostalgia-loving and inserting b&w movie clips into weird places. Certain moments in it — where more famous old-time movie stars are seen “reacting” to other, unrelated footage (usually a B-feature with few recognizable faces) — is so Sixties that I’m not sure what today’s audience as a whole make of it. In fact, a lot of Movie Orgy moves along at a very fast clip, but it also incorporates the equivalent of abridged versions of various B-pictures, so it does end up telling complete stories, in fact several of them.

So what actually is the Orgy? It began as an idea for a movie “happening,” according to Joe Dante, based on the fact that colleges in the mid-Sixties were presenting showings of the serials of the ’30s and ’40s, with all the chapters shown in one marathon screening. Dante and Davidson thus created their own movie marathon, made up of various segments from B-features, plus numerous other items they had found on 16mm — scenes from more high-profile major-studio films from the past, TV episodes from the Fifties (with the spotlight on children’s TV), TV commercials, educational films, and even stag reels. 

The B features that we see a lot of include The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Tarantula, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and The Giant Claw. The non-monster pics include the high-key crime/car race drama Speed Crazy and the Albert Zugsmith epic College Confidential. (Not one of Steve Allen’s better moments.) A Western movie serial and some Western B-features are thrown into the mix — something an audience brought up in the Fifties would immediately relate to (but today’s younger viewers encounter the Old West primarily through video games, not an endless flow of low-budget oaters).

The younger Joe Dante.
I saw the Orgy the other evening at the invaluable Anthology Film Archives here in Manhattan (which is showing the compilation once more, on Monday, April 10). The film was shown at its present length, around four hours and 45 minutes. (Originally the “happening” version at the Philadelphia College of Art where Dante and Davidson went to school ran up to seven hours.) No admission charge was in place to see the film, as the clips in it were never licensed and it can only be shown in not-for-profit contexts.

My own reaction to Orgy is that it’s a load of fun but is overly long for something viewed with an audience that is passive. The filmgoers at Anthology seemed to enjoy it on the whole and did laugh at many of the gags created by the intercutting of footage (with some other items playing out to stone silence), but aside from laughter, the viewers were taking in the project as if it were a narrative film of its own. No friendly outbursts from this crowd — for a film that seemed to have been made for audience interaction of some sort. (Dante mentioned singalongs to the theme songs for the kids shows included in the compilation; my audience was mostly too young to know “M-I-C… See ya real soon!… K-E-Y ... M-O-U-S-E”)

It was very apparent that Orgy was a product of the Sixties and early Seventies, when movie viewers smoked pot in the theaters for even the straightest films (I remember this distinctly as a kid during that era), never mind a movie-clip extravaganza. Alas, no one is going to light up in a 2023 NYC movie theater. Nor did the Anthology viewers seem drunk in any way, or, in many cases, aware of who the old-time stars were who would pop in for “cameos” that no doubt got very big reactions back when the Orgy was playing for an audience steeped in old movies (thanks to repeated TV showings) and, most likely, drunk or stoned to the gills. (Dante has noted in interviews that he and Davidson did strike a deal with Schlitz beer, who had the compilation shown at various colleges with free beer given to anyone in attendance.)

So, given this more “reverent” than knowing crowd reaction, the film was indeed really wonderful for the first two hours, then seemed to move at a slower pace in the third and fourth hours (as the B-movie scenes lasted longer onscreen and more of their plots was offered), only to become wonderfully insane again in the last 45 minutes, as all the B-movie monsters seen earlier on finally met their terrible fates at the hands of the innocuous, nearly anonymous, heroes and heroines who defeated them with scientific know-how (or just a lotta dynamite).

The Orgy was clearly the creation of movie-crazed minds, so it initially seemed to not have a “point” other than sheer pleasure. As it moves on, though, one becomes aware that it is a wily deconstruction of 1950s American mores through the lens of a Nixon-era sensibility. (If that wasn’t apparent, not one but two of Nixon’s most famous pre-Presidency moments were included to be mocked by audience members, although none of that happened in this screening.)

On the whole, despite the overwhelming nature of the film and the absence of an interactive audience (although one gent was laughing up a storm at various points), I’m glad I saw Orgy — actually titled “Son of The Movie Orgy” in this digitized version prepared by Dante himself — as it truly is a piece of “incredibly strange” movie history. It also, like every film mash-up, from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it edits in Chuck Workman’s montages of movie scenes to Godard’s masterpiece Histoire(s) du Cinema, makes the cinephile try to i.d. each sequence. (Orgy is very easy to figure out; Godard’s history of cinema requires additional research.)

And thus, some clips to convey what Orgy is about, and to spotlight some of the best “finds” in this stew of clips. First, an interview with Dante, who explains how the project came about, and how he brought it back to life in this century. 
Then a “trailer” for the film, which includes a glimpse at one of the oddest items in the whole thing, a film made by the British sketch comedy group The Establishment (to be shown in the nightclub of the same name). Peter Cook narrates (he owned the club), Eleanor Bron is the nurse, and Jonathan Miller (who was a doctor in real life) plays the surgeon. It's also been officially noted that the short film proper doesn't exist in the U.K. any longer, so this might be your only chance to get a glimpse of it. It begins at 2:10.


A quicker trailer shows the opening montage of movie stills, which definitely places the compilation in the late Sixties. (It’s like a film student’s crazed version of the Joe Franklin opening montage.)


One of the biggest boffo moments in the whole 4:45 came when an episode of “Andy’s Gang” appeared. A strange children’s show for any era, the series starred Andy Devine and Froggy the Gremlin, plus a little “band” comprised of taxidermied animals engineered to look like they were making music (decades before the Survival Research Laboratory!). This did completely crack up the Anthology audience.


Another sequence that did put the AFA audience into hysterics is this old classic. I loved Abbott and Costello as a kid but have had little impulse to rewatch their movies as an adult (not so with Fields and the Marxes — who are both in Orgy, and Laurel and Hardy). But the “Susquehanna Hat Company” routine has always made me laugh out loud. (And the end is the height of vaudeville anarchy as the shop owner takes an axe to his own goods.)


The most curious inclusions in Orgy — one could easily call them “spoilers” indicating the era that it was made — were the three instances of newer clips that were inserted. One already mentioned was the Establishment short film (seen in two fragments, one being a mock ad for the Labour party and the other being the operation sketch). Another was a closing “Thought for the Day” dispensed by a young priest whose Christ is falling off his crucifix and has to be reattached with a staple gun (reportedly a student film made by another student at the Philadelphia College of Art). 

The longest example of this is one of my fave clips, Funhouse favorite and interview subject Robert Staats giving the pitch for the “Fabulous Judeo-Christian Good Guy Kit” in Harry Hurwitz’s The Projectionist (1971). Staats is of course wonderfully funny (although the AFA audience laughed sporadically, as some of the quicker lines were darker ones that hint that the kit is only for those who *don’t* want to be actual good guys…). Dante and Davison not only show the mock-commercial in its entirety, but they keep Hurwitz’s follow-up: various images of Heaven culled from old movies. (Hurwitz was one of the all-time masters at incorporating vintage Golden Age footage into his nostalgia-drenched comedies.)


The piece de resistance in terms of the opposite of the above, real commercials that seemed ridiculously ill-conceived, was a Bufferin ad campaign with the tagline “strong medicine for sensitive people.” The sensitive people include a Black social worker having to relocate an old White couple; a mother whose husband is going a “Great Santini” number on their son, trying to make him macho with the gift of a rifle; a draft board member who has to deal with a small business owner (Dolph Sweet) begging him to not draft his only young worker; and a college administrator who is dealing with teenage protesters on his campus. 

The campaign is a stunner and, according to Dante, only ran once (or was shelved entirely after being shot and edited). It remains an amazing concept and a definite link to the late Sixties.


The other clip that was a humdinger but is sadly not online was one of those Art Linkletter moments where you realized that his humor was just as sadistic as Allen Funt’s (actually more so). Hosting a “stunt” game show, Linkletter tells us they found a woman with a phobia for mice. He’s going to ask her to reach into a box of rats to fetch a 10-dollar bill. The lady is brought out and is very disturbed by the prospect of rats brushing by her hand; she turns the offer down. 

Linkletter increases the money amount over and over until it reaches $100 and the lady agrees to reach in the box. At this point Linkletter, who has been holding a magician’s box with no back, moves it as if the rats are trying to leap out of the box toward her — but the “rats” in question are just pads over which a woman’s hair is arranged (called “rats” back in the ‘50s). We the audience knew this all along, and in classic sadistic game show fashion, the studio audience is laughing up a storm over the woman being in terror of rats. (Maury Povich’s “Phobia!” episodes thus had a precursor — and, again, Art L. is shown to be a devious guy [who of course hated hippies, blaming them for the death of his daughter, a story that the original Orgy viewers surely knew].) 

The most interesting thing about researching this piece was that I discovered one viewer who saw a longer cut of the Orgy stating two themes that were cut from the version I saw: the annoyance of child actors (conveyed through a montage featuring a plethora of kiddie material that Dante and Davison had access to) and the repetition of a slur for Japanese people that reflected the fact that movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood did have a harsh underside — conveyed in the version I saw by a clip where an upper-middle-class woman mocks her Black maid to her husband. 

Perhaps the way to get audiences in the 2020s to react like those in the ‘60s and ‘70s would be the most obvious one — provide them with free pizza (Dante notes over and over again in interviews that people would bring munchies to the showings of the film), CBD gummies (for a contemporary audience), or free liquid stimulants. (Schlitz not necessary.) 

Some info contained in this piece (esp. the identification of the newer pieces that weren’t made by Harry Hurwitz) came from a 2015 thesis on the film by David Ruane Neary that is posted online.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Saluting the centennial of Norman Mailer

Mailer in "mad
scientist" (filmmaker)
Norman Mailer's centennial was this past Tuesday. While he's now thought of by many as a “dinosaur” because of the many incidents of him acting up in public (and private), Mailer was, above all, a great writer. His Executioner’s Song is perhaps the finest bit of “new journalism” ever (although it wasn’t as fun as Thompson or Wolfe, and did indeed work from a formula set down by Capote in In Cold Blood). It’s an incredible book that offers a very pointed and precise view of the American 1970s, as well as a compelling study of sudden violence and its aftermath.

His pure fiction varied from work to work — highs and lows, masterpieces and duds. But his journalism and essays are invaluable studies of American political and popular culture. Yes, he was a well-educated white Jewish urban intellectual who set out to write “the great American novel” and instead became a bad boy in the media and wound up saying some things he later renounced or rethought. 

Still, the passion he had for the written word still comes through in his work and his finest books (including Executioner’s, Armies of the Night, his writings on Kennedy and Ali, Harlot’s Ghost, and his last, The Castle in the Forest) will remain brilliant, whether or not people can bring themselves to read them because who he was is no longer fashionable. As has been noted often: if you search for pure virtue in the artists you enjoy, you’re going to have to get rid of the work of all the extremely talented and extremely fucked-up writers, musicians, filmmakers, fine artists, and performers.

Since Mailer’s books are all copyrighted and available wherever one consumes the written word (if one does consume the written word for more than 50 pages these days), I will run through his media image below, based on videos I posted to YouTube in the weeks after his death. This is not a thorough, or even a fair, representation of all that Mailer truly represented, but he did have some wild (and I do mean wild) moments in the media, and so one has to include the “wired” (by adrenaline, booze, or uppers) side of Norman as well as the philosophical one.

Casual Norman,
by Diane Arbus.
Mailer directed four movies, three of which were his attempt to make “underground” films and the final one — well, that’s the amazing Tough Guys Don’t Dance. I will start out with the one time I wanted to impart some of Norman’s thoughts so badly that I sat and typed out — yes, with mine own fingers! — a fragment from his article on television called “Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots.” 

It’s a late 1970s piece in which Mailer remembers watching Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs in the 1950s while high on pot and realizing that he understood what was really going on, on the boob tube. It’s an odd article, combining profundities about the “never well-done” medium and Norman revealing the polymorphous perversity in American society. 

The segment I wanted to share with the world is a vision of watching Steverino high on pot and meditating on what the women in the studio audience thought of having a big old microphone stuck in their face. It’s something that only Norman could’ve come up with. You can find the blog post here. 

Now, let’s go to the movies! First off, there was Mailer’s gangster drama Wild 90 (1968), which is, to be simple about it, a mess. As fine a writer as Norman was, he was ill-suited to the art of filmmaking. Firstly, in his Sixties trio of films he strived to emulate the off-kilter visuals of the experimental directors on the American “underground” scene, but he also wanted to have plots and characterization. Mekas and Brakhage could do the former, and Cassavetes and Clarke the latter, but no one could successfully do both. But Norman tried, three times, and in each case he allowed the actors to improvise — in the case of Wild 90, the whole film is nothing but Mailer and two of his buddies playing pretend-gangsters, quite awfully. 

Making this stew of insanity even better is the fact that Norman wore a boxer’s mouth guard while in-character to presumably make himself sound tougher. This made him hard to understand — and then the sound didn’t get recorded properly. The great D.A. Pennebaker was behind the camera, so the film looks striking in 16mm b&w, but Bob Neuwirth recorded the sound and fucked some of it up very badly. The official ratio quoted online is that “25%” of the sound is murky, but the whole damned thing sounds dreadful, and so it was subtitled for its release in the Eclipse box set of Mailer’s experimental films. 

So, why should you watch this little compilation I made of my favorite moments from the film? Because it’s amusing, but not in the way Norm and his two friends intended. Instead, we have tough guy Mailer using odd abbreviations like “the fyooch” (future) and “cock suck” (you know). The film is an absolute mess, but the scene where Norman tries to scare a growling dog is, again, just wonderfully crazy.


Mailer’s second film Beyond the Law (1968) was more ambitious and had some scenes that actually work (thanks to a cast of pro actors, including Rip Torn and Marsha Mason). His third (and last for a long while) film is the monumentally misconceived Maidstone (1970). 

Much has been said about the fight between Norman and Rip Torn, but the whole film is a stunning miscalculation — down to the very fact that Mailer expected his actors to come up with their own dialogue and for one team of performers to devise an assassination plot to kill his character. If you’re going to ask actors to improvise, you had better be Cassavetes or Mike Leigh behind the camera, because otherwise the results are going to be dreadful — but, luckily, Maidstone is saved by its (unintentional) humor. 

Case in point: a scene where Norman tries to seduce one of his exes by humming along with the radio and then attempting some scat singing (or whatever you want to call what he’s doing with his mouth). 

I saw Mailer’s experimental films in theaters more than once (yes, I’m devoted to high art *and* low trash), and one of my treasured memories is seeing Maidstone at the Thalia with my father. He stared laughing out loud when Norman started doing his humming noises in the film, and I had to caution him that Norman was in the theater and would probably come over and deck us one. (Years later, Norman chastised an Anthology Film Archives audience I was in for laughing at Rip Torn shaking his little hammer at the camera in the film.) Of course, I then began laughing and we both had to try to stifle our laughter while Norman continued his very special method of charming a lady.


In the years since I scored bootleg DVD-rs of Mailer’s three experimental films, the Eclipse box set did come out and provide us with unblemished copies, looking and sounding as good as these films possibly could. However, I will link to one more of the scenes I uploaded because it comprises what came after the infamous fight that Torn and Mailer had. Their impromptu insults of each other are sublime; Rip’s charge that he’s giving Mailer an ending for his film is entirely correct — and his coronation of Mailer as “king of shit” is a nice ad-lib. (Norman resorts once again to the “cocksucker” label.)


Pennebaker served as a cameraman on all three of the Mailer “undergrounds,” and he later captured a more vibrant Mailer in his film (assembled years later by his collaborator-wife Chris Hegedus) Town Bloody Hall (1979). Mailer’s 1971 article on feminism (which became the book Prisoner of Sex) annoyed feminists and so a gimmicky event was staged: Mailer would debate “the feminists” onstage at Town Hall in Manhattan. The result was a thorough mess but (again) a fascinating one. Some of Mailer’s verbal points were brilliant, but his manner was overbearing. The feminists ranged from the articulate (Germaine Greer, Sontag and Ozick in the audience) to the unbearable (Jill Johnston). 

Here, Norman is backed into a corner when forced to discuss his male protagonists and their penises.


Mailer stayed away from film for more than a decade and a half, but returned to it when the notion of adapting his novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance came up. The book is a taut little thriller with a classically Mailer-esque overlay of meditations on violence, masculinity, and confusion over identity. The screenplay he spun off it was a weird creation — the plot is the same as the novel, but he ginned up the melodrama, at some points to be taken seriously, at others to be intentionally over the top. 

He then was given the opportunity to direct the film from those purveyors of crap action-flicks who desperately wanted to be taken seriously as producers of arthouse material, Golan and Globus. The result is one of those films that was destined to have a cult from the moment it was released — a weird amalgam of intentional humor and really ridiculous melodrama, all overlaid over a noir plotline infused by the spirit of David Lynch, via music by the late, great Angelo Badalamenti and the Blue Velvet queen, Isabella Rossellini. 

There are dozens of imminently quotable lines of dialogue and some startlingly bizarre line readings: “How could you dig Big Stoop?” “Your knife… is in… my dog,” “Deep-six the heads,” and my personal fave (when O’Neal is asked how dealing drugs went), “I couldn’t get that heavy shit to flush.” It’s an incredible film that is entirely linear, unlike Norman’s Sixties experimental films, but the tone varies so often that one can’t help but be enthralled by its alien charm. 

My only encounter with Mailer was when I went up to him as he exited the subway at 53rd and Third Avenue. I noted I really enjoyed (no lie, that) Tough Guys Don’t Dance. He then asked quickly, “The book or the movie?” I said (again, no lie), “Both.” He then informed me that the movie had been nominated for several awards (these noms were for the Independent Spirit awards). I had no immediate questions at hand, and he did have a cagey, energy-filled bearing about him, so I just shook his hand and said goodbye. (Yes, Norman rode the subway from borough to borough.) 

Mailer was clearly aware the film was a hard sell and so he had this trailer made, where he read a series of audience reaction cards from preview screenings — which, I’d be willing to bet, were all written by Norman himself. The final one paves the way for his last novel, The Castle in Forest, in which an emissary of the Horned One narrates the tale of the young life of an Austrian named Adolf.


And because I really do have an abiding respect for Mailer the writer and thinker, here is a segment I posted from a French documentary that I believe hails from the late ‘90s. Mailer speaks about plastic and how it became the emblem of American society (part of the “triumph of the mediocre”). He then links that to a deadening of the senses and the American proclivity toward violence. When Mailer was feeling expansive in interviews and wasn’t playing a pro-wrestling heel (as he did on the infamous episode of “The Dick Cavett Show”), he was one of the great thinkers of the late 20th century.


And finally a montage I put together for the Funhouse TV show: Norman on Merv Griffin (as seen in that French documentary) physically in his “heel wrestler” persona, but eloquent as ever, noting how curse words used by authors couldn’t ever compete with the obscenity of the then-escalating Vietnam War. 

Then it’s back to Town Bloody Hall, where he is again argumentative and in full “heel” mode but does make some valid points (esp. how Germaine Greer was truly a unique figure in the feminist movement, as she acknowledged the fact that men were not leading happy lives as well — plus she was incredibly witty, which always helps selling one’s point of view). His last-minute joke about his dick is classic Norman in media mode: undercutting his own sincere and well-thought out words with a rather feeble verbal joust. 

From there it’s back to Tough Guys… for two sublimely high-key sequences (including the film’s most stunning moment, shown on the Funhouse TV series in the ‘90s every few months). In closing, it’s Norman on C-Span2’s “Book Talk” in 2001. He laments the dumbing-down of American culture. “We’re a country that hates questions that take longer than 10 seconds to answer.” (Yes, this was during G.W. Bush’s tenure in the White House.)


No matter what becomes fashionable in the world of academic endeavor as the years move on, I think that readers who encounter Mailer’s writing will be jolted by it, in the intellectual sense of that word. When Norman was speaking clearly and precisely he was an American sage, a gent who understood the internal workings of this nation like few others. 

Specific utterances by him or his donning of the “heel” persona in certain public spaces may continue to make for snap judgments among those who are triggered by anything controversial, anything that makes them uncomfortable (which is, let’s be honest, just about all complicated thought and the context that necessarily underpins complicated speech). Mailer challenged that, and I point you back to the clip above where he compares his least favorite synthetic material (plastic) and its similarity to p.c. speech. 

“America is a hurricane, and the only people who do not hear the sound are those fortunate if incredibly stupid and smug White Protestants who live in the center, in the serene eye of the big wind.”