Perhaps one of the best revelations of the Mailer’s films are his own towering performances, notably in his second film, "Beyond the Law." Shot with the same visual intensity as "Wild 90," "Beyond the Law" cuts back and forth from a double date at a bar and the bad neighborhood police station, where the cice squad interrogates the night's murderers, prostitutes, and hippies. Here, Mailer plays the precinct’s lieutenant, Xavier Pope, sporting an intense over-the-top Irish accent and soulless eyes. Given Mailer’s encounters with the police during the 1960s (most notably covered in his non-fiction novel "The Armies of the Night"), it’s fascinating to see Mailer cast himself as an embodiment of evil, allowing the brutality throughout the night (though apologizing for it when the mayor comes to visit in a very amusing scene). Mailer’s accent may waver throughout the film, but his conviction to his performance is revelatory, especially between late scenes with his wife (Beverly Bently) in which the tables turn and he becomes the victim of accusation.
Perhaps inspired by Shirley Clarke’s "The Connection" (which is out now in a stunning new restoration), all three Mailer films feature some breakdown of the fourth wall. In "Wild 90" and "Beyond the Law," the last scene of both features Mailer directly addressing the camera (in "Wild 90," his character talks about his favorite author, “Norm the Mall, Norman Mailer,” in a highly egotistical but unnervingly amusing scene). But "Maidstone" takes this self-examination to a completely different level. The film’s premise is more than tantalizing: Mailer plays Norman T. Kingsley, a film director and candidate for President of the United States (Mailer was preparing his own run for New York mayor at the time). Described by another character as “The American Buñuel,” early scenes of "Maidstone" feature Kingsley interviewing actresses for roles in his remake of "Belle De Jour," asking them questions that more than toe line toward sexual harassment. Is this Kingsley or Mailer? "Maidstone" never makes it quite clear, and is perhaps all the more fascinating because it refuses easy answers. Shot in the Hamptons, the film is a hodgepodge of insanity of sex, drugs, and blunt politics, and occasionally makes Dennis Hopper’s "The Last Movie" seem tame. It’s truly experimental at points -- one sequence felt like it could have been ripped from Malick’s "The Tree of Life" in its abstraction shots of people and landscapes, though the soundtrack is instead set to the sounds of a woman during intercourse.
It feels like such a shame to minimize Mailer’s film career into one infamous scene, but the climax of "Maidstone" is a cinematic shot to the gut. Rip Torn ("The Man Who Fell to Earth," "Forty Shades of Blue") plays Kingsley’s brother and also leader of a rebel group that invades the set of his film. "Maidstone" features a running subplot about a possible assassination attempt on Kingsley and Torn, having fought arduously with Mailer during the film’s troubled production, decided he was going to give the film its deserved ending. Torn viciously attacks Mailer, neither actually playing their “characters,” and have an intense debate over the authenticity of the entire picture while beating each other almost to death. “Isn’t this what you want, Norman?” Torn repeatedly asks. The film ends after this scene, leaving any idea of what "Maidstone" was even attempting to do as a picture a bit of an enigma, but the sheer audacity of the camera crew to keep filming is the type of shock Mailer loved to create with his cinema. His films weren’t made to be clean, well-articulated expressions, but instead visceral documentts of a time and a place, one truly mad-capped through his own quixotic mind.
"Maidstone And Other Films By Norman Mailer" is out now.