Friday, July 20, 2007

Norman Mailer, Unbound and on Film: Revisiting His Bigger-Than-Life Selves


By A. O. SCOTT
The New York Times
July 20, 2007

Who was Norman T. Kingsley? No Wikipedia entry exists to provide a full biography, but in his day Kingsley — or N. T. K., as he was sometimes called — was a figure of considerable world historical significance. A filmmaker who invited comparison to Buñuel, Dreyer, Fellini and Antonioni, he was also a formidable potential candidate for president of the United States, an object of relentless media fascination and the target of far-reaching conspiracies of the rich and powerful. Backed up by an entourage of hoodlums and street fighters known as the Cash Box, he was, in equal parts, artist, outlaw, pornographer and saint.

Kingsley lived in perpetual danger of assassination. He reveled in the company of boxers and beautiful women and was said by some to have “a proclivity toward Greek love.” His background was somewhat mysterious — Russian, Irish and Welsh with rumors of Gypsy and what in those days was called Negro blood — and his accent seemed to travel, in the space of a single utterance, from Brooklyn to Harvard to Texas. If one man could be said to crystallize the violent contradictions of his time and place, surely it was Norman Kingsley.

Not that such a person ever really existed. But somebody — one person in particular — had to invent him. Norman Kingsley is the main character in a movie called “Maidstone,” and the alter ego, avatar and namesake of the film’s director, Norman Mailer (whose middle name, by the way, is Kingsley). “Maidstone,” shot in the Hamptons in the summer of 1968 and released in 1971, is the third of four feature-length films Mr. Mailer directed, following “Wild 90” (1967) and “Beyond the Law” (1968). The fourth, an adaptation of his 1984 novel “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” is the only one in which Mr. Mailer does not appear and the only one that can be said to obey the conventions of commercial narrative cinema. It stars Ryan O’Neal as an ex-convict and aspiring writer mixed up in a series of murders in Provincetown, Mass.

All four of these will be shown as part of “The Mistress and the Muse: The Films of Norman Mailer,” a fascinating and wide-ranging retrospective taking place during the next two weeks at three Manhattan cultural institutions: the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Paley Center for Media and Anthology Film Archives.

The cinematic oeuvre of Mr. Mailer, now 84, cannot quite stand by itself; the movies he directed run the gamut from curiosity to catastrophe. Happily, this retrospective turns out to include a lot more: adaptations from his books (notably the excellent mini-series made out of “The Executioner’s Song,” his nonfiction masterpiece); movies suggested by his life and personality (like Karel Reisz’s “Gambler,” written by Mr. Mailer’s disciple James Toback and starring James Caan as a singularly reckless literature professor); and a generous smattering of documentaries and television shows (from “Firing Line” to “Gilmore Girls”) in which he appears.

The objection can be made that all of this stuff is trivial and secondary, an amusing distraction from the substantial and vexing edifice of Mr. Mailer’s real work, which is his books. Many of them, it seems to me, are too infrequently and poorly read, and some of their boldest gambits and thorniest truths are overshadowed by their author’s reputation for excess on and off the page.

To see him as he was in his various nonliterary incarnations — as cinéaste and talk-show guest, as politician and polemicist — is to understand some of what he was up to in books like “Advertisements for Myself” (1959), “Armies of the Night” (1968), “Of a Fire on the Moon” (1970) and “The Prisoner of Sex” (1971). And Mr. Mailer’s first three films — “Maidstone” in particular — are worth seeing for the insight they provide into the ideas and ambitions that fueled Mr. Mailer’s writing in the 1960s and ’70s, the wildest, most productive and most contentious period in a career that has never been especially calm or easy to comprehend.

In those years Mr. Mailer’s extracurricular pursuits, including the forays into filmmaking, sometimes attracted more attention than his prose. He seemed perversely intent on transmuting his early fame, acquired with the commercial success of his first novel, “The Naked and the Dead” (1948), into cheap media celebrity or even tabloid notoriety. His ego seemed boundless, his appetite for the spotlight so ravenous that it could look like a hunger for public ridicule. In 1967 he treated antiwar protesters in Washington to a drunken, rambling, scatological impression of Lyndon B. Johnson; two years later he undertook a quixotic run for mayor of New York City on a platform of municipal secession; he spewed obscenities at Germaine Greer on the stage of Town Hall in Manhattan in 1971. That same year he exchanged insults with Gore Vidal on an especially memorable episode of “The Dick Cavett Show.”

All of these events and many more can be witnessed anew in “The Mistress and the Muse.” Their entertainment value — see Mailer the candidate pressing the flesh on the streets of Harlem and Queens! Watch as Mailer the male chauvinist pig does battle with the assembled Amazons of the women’s liberation movement! Thrill to Mailer the literary pugilist as he accuses Mr. Vidal of “intellectual pollution”! — is undeniable. And so is Mr. Mailer’s charisma, his remarkable ability to mix the roles of crusader and clown, prophet and fool, rabbi and ham.

Some of this magnetism derives from his sheer physical presence — the jug ears, the piercing blue eyes under the woolly, graying thatch of hair, the stubby frame capable of surprising turns of quickness and grace. And then there is the voice, the rapid, forceful stream of half-baked nostrums and brilliant aperçus delivered in that inimitable accent, an audible palimpsest of Mr. Mailer’s Brooklyn childhood, his Ivy League education and his World War II combat service in an Army unit composed mainly of Texans and Southerners. He flexes his upper lip like a boxer testing his mouthpiece, and his impressive eyebrows jump up in mirth or bear down with exaggerated menace.

In short Mr. Mailer is, as he might put it, no mean performer. He has appeared in a handful of movies by other directors, including Milos Forman’s “Ragtime” (1981) and Jean-Luc Godard’s “King Lear” (1987). And his improvisational gusto as an actor is the most striking aspect of “Wild 90” and “Beyond the Law.” In the first he plays a gangster of some kind, his voice, often unintelligible because of poor sound quality, taking on Irish, Italian and African-American inflections when he is not on his knees barking in the face of a perplexed German shepherd. In “Beyond the Law” he is a detective with the soul of a poet, whose blend of sensitivity and profane machismo seems to be both a knowing parody of Mr. Mailer’s self-image and its sincere apotheosis.

On screen, whether he is playing Norman Mailer or Norman Kingsley (or, much later, King Lear), Mr. Mailer is almost always testing a hypothesis that the most hyperbolic presentation of the self will also be the most authentic. Fame was not only his burden, but also his subject and his method. “I was a node in a new electronic landscape of celebrity, personality and status,” he wrote in “Advertisements for Myself,” looking back with some ambivalence at his transformation, at the age of 25, from college man and ex-G.I. to the most acclaimed writer of his generation. And that book chronicles, among other things, his awakening determination to figure out how to use this curious existential condition as the basis for his work.

While his films, with their long, ragged scenes of improvised dialogue, show a superficial affinity with Andy Warhol’s, Warhol and Mr. Mailer are, in the context of their times, antithetical figures. Warhol was primarily interested in the distancing, depersonalizing effects of celebrity, in the way that media reproduction could turn persons into ciphers, emptying them of affect and individuality. For Mr. Mailer, affect and individuality were everything, and his project was to conceive a personality large enough to withstand the shrinking, homogenizing, castrating forces of contemporary life.

It was a fundamentally romantic project, and it makes him a grandiose figure and a curiously vulnerable one. Introducing him on “Firing Line” in 1968, William F. Buckley Jr. observed that Mr. Mailer’s “technique is one of unalloyed narcissism mitigated by a recognition of — not to say a devotion to — his shortcomings.” While this summation is unkind, it is not inaccurate, and it goes some way toward capturing what an exasperating, fascinating character Mr. Mailer had become.

I use the word character advisedly. By the later 1960s his major strategy, already evident in “Advertisements,” would be precisely to collapse the boundary between author and character, to make himself the explicit protagonist of his writing. The result was a series of remarkable literary hybrids that cast the template for what would later be called New Journalism. “Armies of the Night,” in which the third-person “Norman Mailer” participates in the anti-Vietnam march on the Pentagon in October 1967, is perhaps the most sustained and successful performance in this vein. And while its reportage is justly praised — there is no better snapshot from that era of the intelligentsia at war — the formal radicalism of that book is in many ways underestimated.

Because Mr. Mailer’s milieu was the popular media rather than the academy, and because he was, from the start, a best-selling novelist rather than a critical darling, he is not generally grouped with the experimental novelists of the period. But even though he was schooled on the broad-backed realism of Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell, and even though the literary deity of his young manhood was Ernest Hemingway, he nonetheless undertook as thorough and audacious a re-imagining of the aesthetic parameters of the novel as did Thomas Pynchon, John Barth or William S. Burroughs.

That same experimental impulse — the drive to push at the frontiers of convention, to blast settled patterns of expression with the shock wave of his personality — drives his other activities, from filmmaking to politicking. Mr. Mailer’s acquaintance with the avant-garde theater and experimental film that flourished in New York in the 1950s and ’60s is evident in his films, which are always less concerned with polish or coherence than with plumbing the mysteries and serendipities of process. He does not want to represent an experience, but rather to induce one, to precipitate chaos in the hopes of glimpsing some new inkling of order.

His camera operators included D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, mainstays of the cinéma vérité movement. Mr. Pennebaker was on hand to capture the skirmish with the feminists at Town Hall and turn it into “Town Bloody Hall,” and he also filmed an infamous scene at the end of “Maidstone.” In that film Mr. Mailer describes what he is doing — whether he’s speaking as himself or as Kingsley is not clear, and perhaps moot — as pursuing “an attack on the nature of reality,” a slogan that could fit much of the art of the time.

In any case, reality took its revenge, or called Mr. Mailer’s bluff, in the person of Rip Torn, an actor in the film who assaulted Mr. Mailer with a hammer as Mr. Pennebaker’s camera rolled and the novelist’s children screamed in terror. Real blood was shed — Mr. Mailer nearly bit off his assailant’s ear — and schoolyard obscenities were exchanged as if they were ontological brickbats.

This scene, I admit, has a lurid fascination. But it also captures something essential in Mr. Mailer — his reckless bravado, his willingness to court ridiculousness and the loss of control. Very few artists today, in any medium, exhibit this kind of crazy passion, and that’s too bad. At the beginning of “Advertisements for Myself,” Mailer admits that “like many another vain, empty and bullying body of our time, I have been running for President these last 10 years in the privacy of my mind.” Near the end of “Maidstone” he notes that “in reality, someone like Kingsley could never run for president. But in fantasy — in fantasy — he could.”

True enough. And while some people seem to be fantasizing that the current mayor of New York, by virtue of his levelheadedness and managerial competence, might make a good candidate, my own imagination runs toward the man who placed fourth in a field of five Democrats in the 1969 mayoral primary. And if Norman Mailer won’t run, maybe Norman Kingsley will.

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