If the end of the Hollywood system in the 1960s had one great change, it was that anyone could make a movie if they had the inspiration. Sure, there was a good chance it would only play in makeshift movie theaters in the dark corners of New York City, but thanks to today’s cinephile culture, some of these gems have been resurrected over the years, revealing wondrous time capsules. Perhaps the best case for this is the almost completely forgotten films of Norman Mailer, finally out this week in an Eclipse set from The Criterion Collection -- "Maidstone And Other Films By Norman Mailer" -- featuring his three films made in the late 1960s.
Mailer himself is an interesting case; he is better known for his novels, essays, journalism, ranting, political endeavors, and a number of other things before one thinks of him as a filmmaker. In some ways, the reason to see these films — "Wild 90," "Beyond the Law," and the highlight of the group, "Maidstone" — is often less because they are somehow cinematic revelations (though they embody of certain trends of the period) than Mailer’s presence and personality. With the DVDs now out on Criterion, we thought we’d give you five things you may not have known about Mailer’s filmmaking career, which may spark you to check these bizarrely alluring films:
Mailer’s bug into filmmaking wasn’t just his ego running wild -- he was serious about the art form and exploring it himself (so much that "Maidstone," his final film from the period, bankrupted him). During the early 1960s, he would attend screenings at the Film Maker's Cinematheque, which was run by Jonas Mekas, and highlighted the work of filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and Shirley Clarke. He was also extremely interested in the Direct Cinema movement, notably director D.A. Pennebaker, known for his free-wheelin’ Bob Dylan documentary "Don’t Look Back." When Mailer and his crew decided to take their improvisations at a local bar and create a film out of it, his collaborator Bernard Farber recruited Pennebaker to film it. The result, "Wild 90," plays like a more sadistic version of Sartre’s "No Exit." Three men, “the Maf boys,” hide in an abandoned loft, cursing at each other as the days and nights go on and on as they prepare for their next heist. The film has the stamp of Pennebaker -- who also appears in the film in a brief role -- all over it, as the camera simply captures the action almost like a documentary crew.
A note at the end of "Wild 90" tells us the film was based “from a script which did not ever necessarily exist,” a telling truth about Mailer’s approach to filmmaking. All three films have bold and brash premises, but none are interested in narrative storytelling. The comic brashness of "Wild 90" seems destined to go nowhere, and the film’s strange language (example: “His ass is so big because he’s got radar in his ass” followed by a series of indistinguishable howls and grunts) makes it both infuriating and mesmerizing. There’s a certain amateurism to it all, but there also seems to be a bold, harsh truth exposed raw in the center of it. "Beyond The Law" and "Maidstone" feature similarly bizarre narrative arcs -- less interested in where the film is going than how it circles around itself.