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.”

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