Norman Mailer’s “guerrilla raid on the nature of reality”…
In this era of instant cultural gratification, it is rare to have to wait 36 years to watch a film. But that’s how long it took for me to see “Maidstone,” Norman Mailer’s legendary exercise in improvisatory semifictional cinéma vérité. It finally arrived at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center this past July like a video transmission from the faraway Planet ’60s — a civilization in the throes of a crackup. I had been itching to see it ever since reading Mailer’s extraordinary essay on its creation, “A Course in Film-Making,” in New American Review in 1971, by which point the film had come and gone. For reasons its creator could hardly have anticipated, this lurid, ludicrous, lunatic spectacle was worth the wait.
At one level, “Maidstone” is a Norman Mailer version of a Rat Pack movie, albeit in the manner of Artaud. Filmed over five booze-, drug- and sex-soaked days in July 1968 in several Hamptons locations, it was a “guerrilla raid on the nature of reality,” as Mailer described it. Such forays were his speciality in those years, when he dominated a hopped-up, stressed-out American culture like a hipster-intellectual king of all media. No mere scribbler, he was a mega-celebrity and an oracle in an age that adored fame. Not since Hemingway had a novelist so stood astride the culture. Richard Poirier, in his 1971 study, “The Performing Self,” captures Mailer’s style precisely: “furiously self-consultive, so even narcissistic, and later so eager for publicity, love and historical dimension.”
Mailer had already made two smaller films in a similarly ad hoc style: “Wild 90,” a profanity-laced sub-“Sopranos” exercise that Pauline Kael called “the worst movie that I’ve ever stayed to see all the way through,” and “Beyond the Law,” an exploration of the psychodynamics of cops and criminals. Both films were unscripted experiments in le style Warhol that cost little and were screened at the tiny venues where underground movies were shown.
“Maidstone” represented a quantum leap in ambition, size, logistical complexity and expense. The huge cast and crew included scene makers, hipsters, hangers-on, socialites, amphetamine-thin actress/models, black militants, the publisher Barney Rosset, the boxing champ Jose Torres, the Warhol superstar Ultra Violet, Mailer’s wife at the time — Beverly Bentley — two of his ex-wives, and a sprinkling of professional actors, including Hervé Villechaize and, most crucially, a smolderingly intense Rip Torn. This ménage made its way to the bucolic East End of Long Island, where five separate camera crews (one led by the documentarian D.A. Pennebaker of “Don’t Look Back” fame) began shooting on several estates.
“Maidstone” had no scripted dialogue, but it did have a framing scenario that put Mailer and his outsize ego front and center. The conceit was that Mailer was to incarnate a high-art film director of the Buñuel/Fellini sort named Norman T. Kingsley (Mailer’s middle name), who was planning an improbable run for the presidency. Surrounding him was a circle of advisers termed the Cash Box, headed by Torn as Kingsley’s half-brother and confidante. Meanwhile, men in expensive suits and horn-rimmed glasses assess Kingsley’s threat level to the military-industrial complex and consider having him assassinated. This overreaching exercise in self-valorization can be understood only in the context of Mailer’s career, in which his running for existential president has been a recurring motif, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy on June 5. The distinction between psychological breakdowns and breakthroughs having been erased, “Maidstone” was in perfect sync with such contemporary phenomena as art world “happenings,” the Living Theater and the Doors’ sex-and-murder freakout, “The End.”
In the panel discussion that preceded the screening in July, Mailer characterized the role of film director as “equivalent to being a general in a war in which no blood was shed.” But back in 1968, Mailer’s troops were in a constant state of mutiny, and a fair amount of blood was shed. The scenario slipped away as things devolved into a saturnalia, “a psychic pigout” in the words of one participant, and a dangerous one. Mailer strides about shirtless and self-important, declaiming in his weirdly variable accent. His bullyragging, mock-seductive treatment of the nakedly needy actresses “auditioning” made my skin crawl. “You’re not a dyke, are you?” he sneers at one, making Kate Millett’s and Germaine Greer’s future case. The equally squirm-inducing interchanges between the black activists and the white women reek of radical chic and Eldridge Cleaver-ism. One blonde proclaims, “If I meet a Negro I’ll have a Negro habit,” and the camera pruriently lingers on Ultra Violet making love with a black man and briefly on an outdoor session of interracial oral sex.
A bright thread of violence wound through the shooting, giving “Maidstone” its ominous air and notorious climax. At one point, Rosset emerged from his house to find a drunken Villechaize drowning in the pool. An exasperated actor grabbed Mailer around the head and got a shot to the mouth and a broken jaw for his trouble. Everyone was convinced that persons unknown were packing real guns.
Much of this and more unfolded on the screen like some long-delayed acid flashback to a bad trip I had never taken. Then came the last three minutes, which guarantee “Maidstone” a kind of immortality. The filming proper was supposed to have ended one very late night in a so-called “Assassination Ball,” where Mailer/Kingsley, in top hat and tails, delivered a vainglorious speech to the assembled cast, though disappointingly to many, no attempt on his life was staged. The next day the cast went to rustic Gardiners Island to decompress and use up some leftover film. Pennebaker’s camera captures them strolling about the fields and then focuses on Rip Torn, who removes a hammer from a backpack, strides over to Mailer and hits him on the head twice, announcing: “You are supposed to die, Mr. Kingsley. You must die, not Mailer. I don’t want to kill Mailer, but I must kill Kingsley in the picture.” Shocked, Mailer wrestles him to the ground, and they roll down the hill in an ugly tussle, Mailer biting Torn’s ear as Mailer’s wife and children scream. Finally separated, the two bloodied men walk at a wary distance from each other, Mailer hurling curses, Torn explaining calmly: “When — when is an assassination ever planned? It’s done, it’s done.” The sequence ends with Torn calling Mailer “a fraud” and pointing a finger at the camera, taunting, “Hoo hoo!”
In the film “Performance” (1970), the reclusive rock star played by Mick Jagger declares: “The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.” Rip Torn took Mailer’s premises more seriously than Mailer himself did and acted them out, in the process both stealing Mailer’s film and making it for him. Over the next two years, as Mailer struggled to edit his 45 hours of footage into something workable, he was forced to accede to Torn’s logic and made his attack the centerpiece and culmination of the film.
“Maidstone” was screened for two weeks in September 1971 at the Whitney Museum, selling out its entire run. In his New York Times review, Vincent Canby cites the final scene as “complex and dense and very much in keeping with what a major author is required to give his public in this era of Total Revelation.” Mailer’s company then rented a commercial movie theater on Third Avenue, but the public stayed away in droves. “Maidstone” went on to become an essential part of the Mailer legend, in good part as a result of never being seen.
As I watched the film, the thought struck me that “Maidstone” functions for the intelligentsia of the ’60s in much the same way that “Gimme Shelter,” Albert and David Maysles’s documentary about the Altamont festival, does for the counterculture. Mailer’s essay ends with the oft-quoted sentence “We are a Faustian age determined to meet the Lord or the Devil before we are done, and the ineluctable ore of the authentic is the only key to the lock.” Both Mailer and Mick Jagger had loudly proclaimed their sympathy for the Devil, fancying themselves masters of the revels, but they were undone by the irrational forces they had unleashed.
In our diminished age, “Maidstone” provokes renewed amazement that artists ever really did such things, as well as nostalgia for the vivid presence of literary action heroes like Mailer. And if I ever see Rip Torn, I’m determined to shake his hand — checking first, however, that the other one does not hold a hammer.
Gerald Howard is an editor at Doubleday Broadway
“MAIDSTONE” 1970 directed by Norman Mailer