Nate Saucier

The Norman Mailer Film School

Maidstone, perhaps the most recognized if not the most notorious of Norman Mailer's films, is an exercise in experimental filmmaking if there ever was one. Using untrained actors, autonomous cameramen, and a narrative format only loosely under his control, Mailer created a film, which, in his words, was analogous to the journey down a river while most films sit on the banks watching the current drift idly by. 

Norman T. Kingsley (played by Mailer) is a sort of greasy purveyor of art house soft-core entertainment who decides to attempt a run for the presidency. His profession as a film director blends a heady dose of the avant-garde with explorations of free love. This, naturally, brings on the ire of the right wing, and a shadowy cabal of secret police plot his (potential) assassination, while Kingsley's brother, Raoul Rey O'Houlihan (played by Rip Torn) concerns himself with the candidate's safety.

The film ends innocuously enough, when Torn/O'Houlihan attacks Mailer/Kingsley with a hammer blow to the skull in an apparent betrayal, initiating a violent bout replete with profanity and hysteria. Mailer's mortified wife and children stand by until the lady in question feels compelled to intervene. A furious debate between the two ensues over the "necessity" of the attack for the completion of the film (perhaps the fact that Mailer ultimately included the scene is indication enough). It is, in a way, the perfect end to Mailer's cinematic experience: an act of violence that further blurs the line between the filmed and the real; between characters and actors. Mailer expresses his desire to put viewers in the film with his river analogy - what better expression of the outcome than a fight scene which he neither planned nor predicted?

The film can be trying to watch - shaky handheld camerawork (he gave his cameramen total control of their frames and subjects), and experimental editing give the film a decidedly incoherent and collage-like aspect. And, much as Mailer often writes about himself in the third person, Maidstone feels a bit like the same practice were it translated to filmmaking. His narcissism goes nearly unabated in his presumed character of the film director. Norman T. Kingsley is brash, arrogant, and more than a little chauvinistic with his slew of potential "actresses" for his brothel-film. But Mailer too was known for his sometimes scandalous conduct with women. 

So again the line blurs, as documentary-style footage is sufficiently ambiguous; where does fiction intersect fact? How much is planned, how much is improvised, and finally, how much simply occurred on the set in the process of making the film? Or, as Mailer might put it: is it even possible to make a distinction between the three, since the camera's mere presence will illicit certain behaviors? Is it Kingsley or Mailer who comments that the film is "becoming too pornographic?" This, I believe, was precisely Mailer's intent, and he makes no attempt to clarify. 

Lack of technical mastery and planning is a fact Mailer appears to celebrate; while he acknowledges the drawbacks of his spontaneous approach and haphazardly improvised cinematography, the gains, so he stipulates, far outweigh the losses. Freedom of expression is key for him - the film had to be made without a blueprint, a literary adaptation, a producer, financiers, etc. in order to truly escape from traditional constraints. This is the case Mailer makes in an essay he wrote shortly after Maidstone about the experience, which he titled A Course in Film-Making. 

The article is not only an interesting piece of film theory; it is also a companion to the film and a macro reflection on the experimental processes that begat Maidstone. Mailer's conceptual preoccupations are perhaps more interesting than the film itself. A preface to the essay as it appeared in New American Review describes the work as follows: 

Mailer develops the ground of his intention, to make a "pure" film, one that makes the fullest possible use of the evocativeness, fluidity, and uncertainty  of the medium and that refuses to foreclose any of these possibilities by adulterating his film with the foreign agents of theater - a prepared plot, characterizations, dialogue, rehearsed performances, etc. So Mailer's "argument" for Maidstone leads him into an investigation of the radical differences between film and theater (and its Hollywood counterpart, "filmed theater"), and then on to a definition of film that places it with its psychic counterparts, memory and dream, sex and death...

Here is the complete essay:

A Course In Film-Making (PDF) - Norman Mailer
In New American Review No. 12, 1971