Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Norman Mailer at the Movies : The New Yorker

Norman Mailer at the Movies : The New Yorker:

 I doubt that you have known a more dedicated Mailerophile than me. Even so, with all the wit, wisdom, nuancing and artful equivocation I've done over fifty years discussing this man's body of work, I do not like his movies. This article is the sort of "smart guy" talk that avoids the usually criteria of film criticism, evaluating whether a work succeeds on whatever terms the film choose to work within, and instead chat amiably (and gutlessly) about what ideas had or might have had while making his trio of films. The author here is smart enough to tie the films--Wild 90, Beyond the Law and Maidstone--to Mailer's own essays on film-as-art, and latched onto nice spring board with which to avoid passing a summary judgement on Mailer's skills as a film director. 

The discussion then becomes metaphysical, in the stratosphere of aesthetic reasoning where theorizing about a movie's intentions is more important whether something tangible, emotional cathartic , or arguably perception-changing was transmitted to a viewer as a result of seeing one of his movies. Interesting and strong arguments can be made in defense of muddled , imperfect works--I am one of those who argue in favor of Mailer's fiction, especially his late works like Ancient Evenings, Harlot's Ghost, The Gospel According to the Son and The Castle in the Forest--but there has to be elements in the flawed work that demand attention just be virtue of being outstanding , in itself, that element that deserves inspection, interpretation, praise, and contextualization. 

Mailer's movies, though, have no splendid moments; in the case of Mailer's essays about film and writing of his own experience, what he was thinking of was more interesting , far more real genius than the films he actually realized. It does look swell, of course, to have the term "film maker" in a biographical sketch when the curious desire to know what someone did in his or her lifetime. "Norman Mailer, novelist, poet, essayist, playwright, journalist, newspaper publisher, film-director". Yes, all that sounds cool, very nice indeed. Mailer's achievements are in his writing, and it those, I think, that will continue to be argued for a few more generations to come. What he accomplished with his movies, though, is something less grand , which was to give a handful of film scholars and theory-driven academics some fresh material for their pipeline.


I would suggest that Mailer's goal from the get-go was to be a volatile blend of genius and jerk,  as he writes in the first paragraph of his introduction to his 1959 collection Advertisements for Myself:

 .“…Whether rightly or wrongly, it is then obvious that would go so far as to think it’s my present and future work which have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years, I could be wrong , and if I am, then I’m the fool who will pay the bill, but I think we can all   agree it would cheat this collection of its true Interest to present myself  as more modest than I am.”

 This is not to suggest that he didn't regret that some of off-strength projects, whether films, plays, poetry or screenwriting, weren't as superb or revolutionary as he desired them to be, but he certainly didn't wallow in his failures. He got up  and went back to work on his next project, toward an unknown artistic success or career destroying embarrassment. Except his career didn't end. Even stabbing his wife in a drunk, speed-chased rage couldn't stop his career. Mailer believed in dualities in human personality, and he achieved his , admirable and loathsome at once. We are lucky he elected to remain a brilliant literary figure ,where his problematic nature could be contained, rather than get himself elected to office. God help us if he got his hands on any kind of real political power.

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