Someone once said that "First is first, and second is nobody." Perhaps I can test the resiliency of that adage here on Amazon seeing as I am the first reviewer for MAIDSTONE AND OTHER FILMS BY NORMAN MAILER. And Lord Byron once said that he only went socializing to get a fresh appetite for being alone. Solitude sorts things out and hopefully witnesses a presumed winner in the ongoing tennis match between the two lobes of one's brain. Ideas were made to be batted back and forth until one lands or misses. The whole paradigm of sides and duality and Yin Yang finds its richest manifestation in the structure of one's own brain.
Mailer always fascinated me. I enjoyed reading many of his books and always enjoyed his talk-show truculence. Actually, I was more interested in Mailer as a performer. Sometimes I think that he himself was much more interested in his own ongoing, ontological attitude towards himself, his own solipsistic view of things. I remember on one talk show, after Mailer came from the wings and took a seat, the host said he liked Mailer's purposeful, tough guy walk - and Mailer said as regards his walk that it was "probably phony." Anyway, I was always wishing his three early films would become available, if not legally, then on bootleg. But no film dealers ever found them in their search. So it is a great cause for celebration that the Eclipse Series from the Criterion Collection has brought them forth. The packaging of the two discs with the three films is artfully minimalist and very lovely. The film transfers are mostly excellent. In Michael Chaiken's slipcase notes he says that the first film, due to its rough audibility, is subtitled on the disc. Unfortunately, this is not the case. One thing that would have been extremely worthwhile, however, would have been some commentaries and extras. Mailer, while not an acclaimed filmmaker, was a great author, a Pulitzer prize winner. So his films - awful as some may think they are - still deserve discussion.
WILD 90, the first one out of the gate, is not good. It is as bad as many people find the films of John Cassavetes. But Cassavetes films are not bad. WILD 90 is. It had me wishing for FACES or SHADOWS. I was disappointed. And yes, much of the dialog was incomprehensible - especially that of director/writer/star Norman Mailer himself. The true must-see moment in this movie, however, is when Mailer has a barking match with a dog.
Anyway, with caution, I watched the second film which was shot just months later. As bad as the first film was, BEYOND THE LAW was damn good. It is about the thin line that separates the criminal mentality from the cop mind. In the movie,it is hard to tell who are the actors and who are the amateurs. It is taut and muscular and Mailer proves himself a very fine actor in his role as a tough Irish cop. In several scenes the microphone and production assistants are visible and this threatens the tone of the otherwise extremely realistic film. Overall, this is a quantum leap to have been made in Mailer's movies in only a handful of months.
The only color one of the trilogy, MAIDSTONE is the most experimental. It anticipates Dennis Hopper's abstract THE LAST MOVIE in several respects. And, likewise, large segments of the movie seem like outtakes from Hopper's EASY RIDER depiction of the LSD trip in a New Orleans cemetery. There are some bucolic scenes that anticipate the style of Terry Malick. Many scenes of people aimlessly wandering about the countryside reminded me of both Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE and George Romero's two year's earlier than Mailer's movie, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It can also be argued that the infamous, storied hammer attack on Mailer by Rip Torn may be the earliest example of what was to become infectious, insidious reality TV. Except that this allegedly real battle between Mailer and Torn is in a movie. Torn hits Mailer in the head with a hammer and Mailer chomps down on Torn's ear - a tactic he may have adopted from King Kong's fight with the T. Rex, a tactic later famously used by Mike Tyson. There is even blood down Mailer's neck from the hammer blow. But was any of it real? I mean really real! I'd always heard and read that it was. Yet in watching it, it seems more like the cinematic equivalent of Welles' WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast in that both artistic endeavors strive and succeed in their outrageous verisimilitude. One must judge for oneself. Is MAIDSTONE a good movie? Art-lover Vincent Price once said if he wasn't bowled over by a particular work of art he'd been shown, he would simply say it was "Interesting." Well, MAIDSTONE and the other early films of Maestro Mailer are, at the very least, interesting. Of course, Mailer's masterpiece - TOUGH GUYS DON'T DANCE - is not included in this collection but is available singly.
In closing - thanks to Criterion for bringing these cinematic curios from the darkness into the light. Too bad Mailer could not have seen their resurrection on DVD before he passed away in 2007. But if he is up there, doing spiritual battle for God or down there doing God only knows what, I'm sure he is delighted.