Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Legacy

Norman Mailer, Unbound and on Film: Revisiting His Bigger-Than-Life Selves

Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Norman Mailer, left, with Jimmy Breslin, in the garment district of New York during his 1969 race for mayor.

Published: July 20, 2007

Who was Norman T. Kingsley? No Wikipedia entry exists to provide a full biography, but in his day Kingsley — or N. T. K., as he was sometimes called — was a figure of considerable world historical significance. A filmmaker who invited comparison to Buñuel, Dreyer, Fellini and Antonioni, he was also a formidable potential candidate for president of the United States, an object of relentless media fascination and the target of far-reaching conspiracies of the rich and powerful. Backed up by an entourage of hoodlums and street fighters known as the Cash Box, he was, in equal parts, artist, outlaw, pornographer and saint.

Michael Evans/The New York Times

Norman Mailer in his office in 1969.

Kingsley lived in perpetual danger of assassination. He reveled in the company of boxers and beautiful women and was said by some to have “a proclivity toward Greek love.” His background was somewhat mysterious — Russian, Irish and Welsh with rumors of Gypsy and what in those days was called Negro blood — and his accent seemed to travel, in the space of a single utterance, from Brooklyn to Harvard to Texas. If one man could be said to crystallize the violent contradictions of his time and place, surely it was Norman Kingsley.

Not that such a person ever really existed. But somebody — one person in particular — had to invent him. Norman Kingsley is the main character in a movie called“Maidstone,” and the alter ego, avatar and namesake of the film’s director, Norman Mailer (whose middle name, by the way, is Kingsley). “Maidstone,” shot in the Hamptons in the summer of 1968 and released in 1971, is the third of four feature-length films Mr. Mailer directed, following “Wild 90” (1967) and “Beyond the Law” (1968). The fourth, an adaptation of his 1984 novel “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” is the only one in which Mr. Mailer does not appear and the only one that can be said to obey the conventions of commercial narrative cinema. It stars Ryan O’Neal as an ex-convict and aspiring writer mixed up in a series of murders in Provincetown, Mass.

All four of these will be shown as part of “The Mistress and the Muse: The Films of Norman Mailer,” a fascinating and wide-ranging retrospective taking place during the next two weeks at three Manhattan cultural institutions: the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Paley Center for Media and Anthology Film Archives.

The cinematic oeuvre of Mr. Mailer, now 84, cannot quite stand by itself; the movies he directed run the gamut from curiosity to catastrophe. Happily, this retrospective turns out to include a lot more: adaptations from his books (notably the excellent mini-series made out of “The Executioner’s Song,” his nonfiction masterpiece); movies suggested by his life and personality (like Karel Reisz’s “Gambler,” written by Mr. Mailer’s disciple James Toback and starring James Caan as a singularly reckless literature professor); and a generous smattering of documentaries and television shows (from “Firing Line” to “Gilmore Girls”) in which he appears.

The objection can be made that all of this stuff is trivial and secondary, an amusing distraction from the substantial and vexing edifice of Mr. Mailer’s real work, which is his books. Many of them, it seems to me, are too infrequently and poorly read, and some of their boldest gambits and thorniest truths are overshadowed by their author’s reputation for excess on and off the page.

To see him as he was in his various nonliterary incarnations — as cinéaste and talk-show guest, as politician and polemicist — is to understand some of what he was up to in books like “Advertisements for Myself” (1959), “Armies of the Night” (1968), “Of a Fire on the Moon” (1970) and “The Prisoner of Sex” (1971). And Mr. Mailer’s first three films — “Maidstone” in particular — are worth seeing for the insight they provide into the ideas and ambitions that fueled Mr. Mailer’s writing in the 1960s and ’70s, the wildest, most productive and most contentious period in a career that has never been especially calm or easy to comprehend.

In those years Mr. Mailer’s extracurricular pursuits, including the forays into filmmaking, sometimes attracted more attention than his prose. He seemed perversely intent on transmuting his early fame, acquired with the commercial success of his first novel, “The Naked and the Dead” (1948), into cheap media celebrity or even tabloid notoriety. His ego seemed boundless, his appetite for the spotlight so ravenous that it could look like a hunger for public ridicule. In 1967 he treated antiwar protesters in Washington to a drunken, rambling, scatological impression of Lyndon B. Johnson; two years later he undertook a quixotic run for mayor of New York City on a platform of municipal secession; he spewed obscenities at Germaine Greer on the stage of Town Hall in Manhattan in 1971. That same year he exchanged insults with Gore Vidal on an especially memorable episode of “The Dick Cavett Show.”

All of these events and many more can be witnessed anew in “The Mistress and the Muse.” Their entertainment value — see Mailer the candidate pressing the flesh on the streets of Harlem and Queens! Watch as Mailer the male chauvinist pig does battle with the assembled Amazons of the women’s liberation movement! Thrill to Mailer the literary pugilist as he accuses Mr. Vidal of “intellectual pollution”! — is undeniable. And so is Mr. Mailer’s charisma, his remarkable ability to mix the roles of crusader and clown, prophet and fool, rabbi and ham.

Some of this magnetism derives from his sheer physical presence — the jug ears, the piercing blue eyes under the woolly, graying thatch of hair, the stubby frame capable of surprising turns of quickness and grace. And then there is the voice, the rapid, forceful stream of half-baked nostrums and brilliant aperçus delivered in that inimitable accent, an audible palimpsest of Mr. Mailer’s Brooklyn childhood, his Ivy League education and his World War II combat service in an Army unit composed mainly of Texans and Southerners. He flexes his upper lip like a boxer testing his mouthpiece, and his impressive eyebrows jump up in mirth or bear down with exaggerated menace.

In short Mr. Mailer is, as he might put it, no mean performer. He has appeared in a handful of movies by other directors, including Milos Forman’s “Ragtime” (1981) andJean-Luc Godard’s “King Lear” (1987). And his improvisational gusto as an actor is the most striking aspect of “Wild 90” and “Beyond the Law.” In the first he plays a gangster of some kind, his voice, often unintelligible because of poor sound quality, taking on Irish, Italian and African-American inflections when he is not on his knees barking in the face of a perplexed German shepherd. In “Beyond the Law” he is a detective with the soul of a poet, whose blend of sensitivity and profane machismo seems to be both a knowing parody of Mr. Mailer’s self-image and its sincere apotheosis.

On screen, whether he is playing Norman Mailer or Norman Kingsley (or, much later, King Lear), Mr. Mailer is almost always testing a hypothesis that the most hyperbolic presentation of the self will also be the most authentic. Fame was not only his burden, but also his subject and his method. “I was a node in a new electronic landscape of celebrity, personality and status,” he wrote in “Advertisements for Myself,” looking back with some ambivalence at his transformation, at the age of 25, from college man and ex-G.I. to the most acclaimed writer of his generation. And that book chronicles, among other things, his awakening determination to figure out how to use this curious existential condition as the basis for his work.

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