Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer: Eclipse Series 35 DVD Review

Matt Hough

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Norman Mailer: author, political pundit, raging egotist, and, to the surprise of some, filmmaker. In the late 1960s, Mailer began dabbling in filmmaking experimenting with friends in combining improvisational techniques in storytelling while incorporating political commentary and sexual frankness. As the three films in this latest Eclipse set attest, they’re really not much with primitive technique (it’s not unusual to see a boom mic in the frame) and substandard sound and picture, but as an extension of the man so well known through his written words and public appearances, these movies show Mailer in his prime: opinionated, chauvinistic to a fault, and buoyed by his own overwhelming sense of machismo. 





Maidstone and Other Films by Normal Mailer: Eclipse Series 35
Maidstone/Wild 90/Beyond the Law

Directed by Norman Mailer

Studio: Criterion/Eclipse
Year: 1968--1970
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1  
Running Time: 105/81/98 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
Subtitles:  SDH

MSRP: $ 39.95


Release Date: August 28, 2012

Review Date: August 24, 2012




The Films


Maidstone – 2/5


Celebrated film director Norman T. Kingsley (Norman Mailer) has decided to run for President. Though he’s in the process of casting and shooting his next film about a brothel with male and female employees, he welcomes to his home (where he’s shooting his magnum opus) various political groups such as the Black Panthers so he can do the usual meet and greet. But a group against Kingsley’s lascivious ways and political views is planning an assassination. The only question is where and when it will occur.


The excessively thin plot strands of the story really only serve as launching pads for the improvisatory sequences with mostly untalented performers attempting to come up with something interesting to do on camera. Mailer takes every opportunity to bring a bevy of beautiful women into the frame only to expose them to a litany of his acerbic comments and criticisms about their looks and speech patterns. He also finds every opportunity to display his own macho bravado for the camera: sparring with his friend Lazarus (Lee Cook) and insisting on a series of gut shots filmed in close-up to prove his toughness, kissing any number of the ladies he’s cast in the movie, and playing most of the movie shirtless or in a leather vest and cap. He doesn’t shy away from the sex scenes even though they’re clumsily filmed, and there is plenty of female nudity, some of it daringly full frontal. But the movie doesn’t go anywhere. The political diatribes and pseudo-intellectual babble is tiresome and unconvincing, and the movie basically devolves into a Mailer masturbatory trip with plenty of close-ups of his face, eyes, and back. In the film’s last quarter hour, the fictional storytelling stops, and Mailer gathers cast and crew to discuss what they’ve been doing for five days. His arguments for truth in cinema are hollow and silly, but it does lead to one memorable encounter: Rip Torn, playing Norman’s brother Rey in the movie, decides to improvise the assassination attempt on Norman without Mailer’s knowledge (the attempt never happens in the movie proper). Attacking him with a hammer in a pastoral setting, the two men have a real wrestling match as tempers flare and Mailer’s wife Beverly Bentley and children scream in horror from the sidelines. Now that’s truth in filmmaking!



Wild 90 – 1.5/5


Three hoodlums, former prizefighter The Prince (Norman Mailer), Buzz (Buzz Farber), and 20 Years (Mickey Knox), are laying low in a warehouse room while planning their next job. The FBI knows where they are, and so do their wives, but the three men seem to enjoy sharing the same tight space and driving one another crazy.


This first film of his is also the nadir of Mailer’s film career as an actor, a writer, and a director. The improvised bullying and trash backtalk couldn’t be less interesting to watch, and Mailer affects a thick-tongued accent that is all but indecipherable (you’ll find the subtitles a big help). The camera goes anywhere it pleases but often misses emotions on actors’ faces during dialogue exchanges. Buzz Farber as a bodybuilder alone among the three principals tries to find some cinematic life in this nowhere scenario, but eventually, he seems to just give up and spends two lengthy sequences feigning being asleep on the bed while the others play. Mailer, of course, putting himself front and center, has a snarl-off with a dog and does the boxing bit again, this time taking on former light heavyweight champion José Torres who drops by as new fighting sensation Kid Cha Cha. Despite five straight knockouts, Kid doesn’t impress The Prince after doing some faux-sparring with him, and he’s pronounced a bum. The bum, though, is Mailer who once again breaks the fourth wall of the film in the last five minutes to comment on what he and his pals have been doing.



Beyond the Law – 2.5/5


Police detectives Mickey Berk (Mickey Knox) and Rocco Gibraltar (Buzz Farber) take two attractive ladies (Marsha Mason, Mary Wilson Price) to dinner and regale them with the events of their day in which they had to deal with a rapist (John Maloon), a wife killer (Edward Bonnetti), a sex solicitor (Peter Rosoff), members of a whipping club, and two bikers (Rip Torn, Michael McClure) high on something. The mayor (George Plimpton) also drops by to tour the precinct and doesn’t always approve of the police's grilling methods. The lieutenant in charge of the interrogations is Francis Pope (Norman Mailer) who gives his all to the job much to the displeasure of his wife (Beverly Bentley).


Glory be but there’s an actual story here (and that’s in honor of the Irish brogue of Mailer’s which comes and goes during the film), and the characters, had they actually been scripted and developed, might have turned this movie into a late 1960s version of Detective Story. Sadly, promising material is once again frustratingly sublimated in the ineptitude of Mailer’s haphazard direction, and he unwisely leaves the police station to wind up the film with a lengthy sequence between the married Popes as they squabble about his preoccupation with the job and her demands for a divorce whereupon he picks up his own lady of the evening (a truly embarrassing sequence where the actress faced with Mailer’s dreadful accent and ridiculous philosophical and psychological pontifications just laughs in his face) and ruins the after-dinner plans of his two married detectives (who were cheating on their own wives). Again, there is lots of promising story material on hand but with the complete lack of development, the film’s effectiveness just evaporates into inconsequentiality.



Video Quality

2/5


The films are presented in their theatrical 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Maidstone is a color film, but the color is rather pale and dated looking. Flesh tones are fairly pasty and unappealing. The age of it and the other two films are clearly seen in the array of scratches, dirt, and print damage on display. Sharpness is a sometimes thing (with the experimental filmmaking, it’s hard to know what was meant to be out of focus and what is just inept camerawork), and even the best scenes are never really crisp. The grayscale on the two black and white films is rather weak, and cloudy contrast reduces the vividness of the whites and the depths of the blacks tremendously. Maidstone has been divided into 12 chapters, while Wild 90 has 9 chapters and Beyond the Law 10.



Audio Quality

2/5


All films carry a Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix, and all suffer from substandard recording techniques. You’ll find subtitles to be a necessity much of the time with these films due not only to poor miking with volume levels rising and falling all the time but also to the inexperienced actors who mutter, mumble, and mush their dialogue continuously. There is some hiss (though not as much as one might think with these low budget films), and there is distortion (Maidstone) and flutter (Beyond the Law) with the films, too.



Special Features

1/5


The Eclipse releases don’t feature bonus material, but the two slimline cases which hold the three films each contain an enclosed pamphlet with liner notes of interest by Michael Chaiken.



In Conclusion

2/5 (not an average)


Let it suffice to say that filmmaking was not Norman Mailer’s calling. Unlike an experimental filmmaker such as John Cassavetes who cast talented performers and then worked their ideas into suitable story material, Mailer’s three films in Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer seem ramshackle affairs even with occasional decent performances or promising but unfulfilled ideas. Obviously, Criterion feels there’s a market for these avant garde improvisational pieces with their latest Eclipse Series 35 release. Perhaps there is.



Matt Hough

Charlotte, NC

 

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