Norman Mailer Keeps Trying this Moviemaking Thing
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September 23, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 38
films in focus
By Andrew Sarris
Norman Mailer's "MAIDSTONE" is being exhibited these days at the Whitney Museum, and "exhibited" is perhaps an apter term for the enterprise than "shown" or "released." In an academic variation of a Ross Hunter ploy, Mailer has let college audiences around the country get a look at "Maidstone" before letting the New York critics tear into it. I don't blame him. "Maidstone" is a phenomenon to which standard film criticism is almost superfluous. It is the kind of movie I did not mind seeing once, but can never imagine seeing twice.
Unlike Jonas Mekas, I found "Maidstone" more interesting than "Beyond the Law" and "Wild 90," proving perhaps that I prefer color and East Hampton exteriors to black-and-white and Manhattan interiors. Also, the Mailer entourage and Mailer mystique are more explicitly presented in "Maidstone" than in the previous productions, and that is all to the good. The journalistic documentation of the production is already massive: Sally Beauman in New York, J. Anthony Lukas in the New York Times, James Toback in Esquire, and Mailer himself in two pocket books. Not that Mailer himself can reasonably be charged here with ripping off from the movie, but rather with a desperate attempt at recouping some of his enormous losses. Cinema is still the most expensive toy known to homo ratios, and Mailer has paid the price many times over with a kind of punch-drunk dilettantism.
"Maidstone" was undertaken in the summer of 1968, in the numb aftermath of the Bobby Kennedy assassination. Mailer plays (if that is the word) a Bunuelian movie director named Norman T. Kingsley (the initials NTK serving to add Mailer to the Kennedy family). While Kingsley is scouting locations for what Mailer describes as "a sexual spoof of 'Belle de Jour,'" a section of the Mailer stock company is sliced off into a group called PAX, C ("Protection Against Assassination Experiments, Control -- a combination of the FBI, CIA, Secret Service, M-1.5, M-1.6, and anything else you can shake a stick at."). Hence, "Maidstone" cross-cuts between Mailer-Kingsley themselves going through the motions of setting up a tasteful sex movie and assemblages of VIP types talking about Kingsley-Mailer as an appropriately absurdist Presidential candidate.
The main problem with the movie and with Mailer's movies generally is that there is never any dominant key to the irony employed. We never know exactly how seriously or unseriously Mailer takes himself and his fabricated contexts. His lack of intellectual candor is reflected in his stylistic evasions, in his stubborn refusal to be one thing or another, in his curious obeisance to some imaginary in-group too sophisticated to allow Mailer to answer a straight question with a straight answer. At one point, a question is raised about Mailer's position on Vietnam, and then dropped smirkingly without being examined. Five or 10 minutes of Norman Mailer on Vietnam might have given "Maidstone" some qualities it now lacks entirely -- historical weight, rhetorical sincerity, autobiographical commitment, and an acknowledgment of one's proper audience. After all, there is nothing new about the cinema of literary celebrities, and Mailer himself might be said to fall halfway between the devout narcissism of Cocteau and the detailed idealism of Malraux, except that "Maidstone" lacks both the poetry of Cocteau and the partisanship of Malraux, and, for that matter, even the engagingly laissez-faire compassion of Warhol. Mailer is at once too obtrusive a presence and too elusive a personality for the artistic purposes of the film. His final blow-up with Rip Torn is turned mostly inward not so much as if we weren't there, but rather as if we were and shouldn't have been.
Mailer has chosen not to take the risks of the fictional filmmaker, that is not to set up a blueprint (script) in advance for critics to aim at in terms of hits and misses. Hence, there is no question of artistic marksmanship to consider in "Maidstone." Mailer has simply shot up the entire landscape, and if this rock or that tree happened to be in the line of fire, it may have been intentional or accidental or even subconscious. But "Maidstone" is not documentary or cinema-verite either, being neither pedagogical (Mailer doesn't even bother identifying his ex-wives in the cast) nor factual (people are encouraged not so much to strip their psyches as to invent new ones). Ultimately, "Maidstone" fails to bring Kingsley to life an Mailer to account, and we are left merely with snatches of gossip and piles of put-on.
It is possible that Mailer has thought of film too much as some magical end in itself rather than as one of many instruments of communication and self-expression. Indeed, the weakest elements of "Maidstone" are those that seek to be the most meaningfully visual and cinematic. And yet I like the movie despite Mailer's kindergarten film aesthetics and home-movie gullibility about what really goes and what doesn't. For openers, no movie with Joy Bang and Lenny Green can be all bad. They bring to Mailer's world a generous innocence and a salon-seeking curiosity, qualities otherwise in short supply in "Maidstone." Finally, there is something ineffably touching in the spectacle of Mailer's cerebral anticipation of a danger he can never feel in his gut. It is as if he were trying to reproduce the fear he so brilliantly diagnosed in Hemingway's staccato sentences. But at the crucial moment, Mailer responds not so much with fear as with exasperation. A comparison of the police station sequences in Mailer's "Beyond the Law" and Alfred Hitchcock's "The Wrong Man" demonstrates the difference between an artist afflicted with bravado even when being busted, and one plagued by guilt and fear even in the sanitary of his own soul.
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