Friday, August 31, 2012

Norman Mailer's Drug-Addled Cinema

By Steve Evans

Norman Mailer
Mailer in a rare moment of repose.
I have read much of Normal Mailer's literary output through the years, as well as a comprehensive and unauthorized biography of this egocentric talent, but only recently have I come to know the two-time Pulitzer winner as an experimental filmmaker.

My lone experience with a Mailer film had been his 1987 directorial curiosity Tough Guys Don't Dance, which is a positively insane film noir. Ryan O'Neal staggers through most of this picture looking like he suffers from the worst morning-after in the history of hangovers. As his father, gravel-voiced Lawrence Tierney (the crime boss in Reservoir Dogs) talks endlessly about his desire to "deep-six the heads" when corpses begin to accumulate and the weirdness quotient expands exponentially.

It's a film worth experiencing just for the peculiar dialog.

There is an amazing exchange at a bar between Ryan O'Neal's besotted character and the femme fatale of the picture, Miss Patty Lareine. As she comes on to O'Neal, Miss Patty leans in close and purrs in a thick, Suthern drawl, "Ah used to have golden-blond pussy hair until ah scorched it with the football team."

This is not something you hear every day.

Character actor Wings Hauser, who specialized in convincing portrayals of psychotics, here plays the corrupt police chief in O'Neal's small town. Of his enthusiasm for smoking marijuana, Hauser's police chief declares, "I like your home-grown. It puts feathers on my ass. Godly stuff."

Such is the cinema of Norman Mailer, who adapted the Tough Guys script from his novel.

Lesser known is the fact that Mailer also produced, wrote, directed and starred in several drug-fueled cinéma vérité experimental films in the late '60s/early '70s that were mostly improvisational -- though just as Tough-Guys crazy. Most of them were shot in the Hamptons with Mailer’s friends and family. Drugs and booze allegedly flowed freely throughout this creative process -- with decidedly mixed results.

The Criterion Collection thinks highly enough of Mailer's early cinematic exertions to offer them in a boxed set.

The clip below is an unscripted scene from Maidstone (1970), in which Mailer and character actor Rip Torn, both probably high as monkeys, get into a vicious brawl with the cameras rolling. Rip whacks Mailer on the skull with a hammer and says he intends to kill Mailer's character in the film. In practical terms this amounts to attacking Mailer himself, though the writer-director seems unprepared for the assault. Mailer eventually takes a bite out of Rip's ear, prefiguring Mike Tyson by a couple of decades, while Mailer's wife and children scream in evidently genuine horror.

It certainly does not resemble a typical, staged movie fight. Mailer was not known to back down from conflict. His machismo is legendary, despite the fact -- or perhaps because -- he was a relatively small man.

As for his cinema -- is it avant-garde or drug-addled idiocy?

Decide for yourself:

Norman Mailer died in November 2007, age 84. His six marriages produced nine children.

Notable literary works include The Naked and the Dead, The Executioner's Song and Ancient Evenings, which are all particular favorites of mine. He was a co-founder of The Village Voice newspaper. He twice won the Pulitzer Prize and received the National Book Award.

His forays into film were considerably less successful.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.