Thursday, December 21, 2006

Cine Bomb #1: Maidstone

By the end of Norman Mailer's third film he was bruised and bloodied. And Rip Torn had lost a chunk of ear. The movie's called Maidstone and you've never seen anything like it.

Norman Mailer is best known for his contributions to New Journalism (Wolfe, Capote). His counterculture bent brought him into the streets – he covered Republican and Democratic national conventions and was arrested in anti-Nam protests – but he’s best know for leftist works like Armies of the Night (1968, covering the 1967 March on the Pentagon) and novels like The Naked and the Dead (1948, WWII) and Executioner’s Song (1979 novel swirling around the execution of Gary Gilmore, the first person executed in the U.S. after the re-instatement of the death penalty.)

Mailer’s written plays, biographies (Marilyn Monroe, 1973, in which he concluded the CIA & FBI hushed her because of the Kennedy affair. Later regretted the assertion) and screenplays (The Naked and the Dead). Much to filmgoers dismay he directed several films as well.

The first film travesty that Mailer helmed was the abominable Wild 90 (1968). Playing out like a goofy vanity project with his pals Buzz Farber and Mickey Knox, the movie captures the final days of some mafia goons trapped in a warehouse. It’s a long improvisational 80+ minutes of drinking and cursing and rambling and it’s painfully inept. Rock show documentarian D.A. Pennebaker photographed. (Yeah, he did both Monterey Pop and Depeche Mode 101.)

Around the same time, Beyond the Law (1968) was greeted with boos and hollers. I can just imagine the poor bastards who wandered into this dreck. Same folks involved, this one takes place in a Manhattan police station. Mailer wanted to capture the whole cops and robbers thing from a different perspective – an honest one. Mailer plays an Irish cop named Pope. His Brogue is gut twisting. Lots of tough talking. Beer drinking. Broad scoping. Lots of improvisational gaffes. It’s all about Mailer playing a tough guy – I’m sure there’s lots of psychological dirt to mine there.


Mailer’s “best” foray into filmmaking was the mad Maidstone (1970). The film itself continues the improvisational antics displayed in Wild 90 and Beyond the Law but this time the scope is a bit wider. Filmed on the rambling Hampton estates of Mailer’s benefactors. Mailer “plays” Norman T. Kingsley, a respected filmmaker launching his campaign for the White House. A British reporter (played by Mailer’s third wife Jean Campbell) is following him and capturing his rhetoric. He’s a sleazy but energetic lout. Kingsley spouts political venom and moral apathy and at the same time hits on anything with breasts and a pulse, cue Ultra Violet. Like any good freak-out host, Mailer gropes starlets and screws them on camera. (This is before Mailer became Enemy Number One for the burgeoning feminism.) He claims to know the needs of black and latino radicals. (Mailer wrote “The White Negro” in 1957, arguing that hipsters should learn from ghetto culture - live for the moment and choose sex and drugs.) It doesn’t take long before Kingsley’s assassination is plotted. That’s when the fourth wall really breaks – we’re not really watching Kingsley plan his presidency, we’re watching Mailer make a movie about Mailer. The assassination is of the character – it’s like a cleansing. The staged bits of the film fall away. Madness spirals. Roles lose meaning. The cameras roll as reality heaves in.

Rip Torn, born Elmore Rual Torn, Jr, made a name for himself as an actor’s actor in New York and became part of Mailer’s circle – winning critical praise in Mailer’s off-Broadway “Deer Park” in 1966 – 1967. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s he took character acting into unbridled arenas. Maidstone’s crowning, most infamous, moment is when Torn loses all sight of the line defining fiction from reality. It is a sequence that remains truly unforgettable. (Thanks to Subterranean cinema for the upload above.)

At the end of the film Mailer debriefs the cast and crew on camera but Torn can’t seem to break character (he plays Kingsley’s brother). He just can’t let go of the assassination plot. As Mailer, Torn and Mailer’s wife (second, Beverly Bentley) and children walk along a path, Torn leaps on Mailer with the hammer. Torn says, "I don't want to kill Mailer, but I must kill Kingsley in this picture." A struggle ensues. They roll about the grass. Bentley and the children scream. Mailer is bloodied. Torn is bloodied. After the fight, Mailer says he’s going to cut the scene. Torn says frankly, “The picture doesn’t make sense without this.” Indeed.

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