Why Norman Mailer Sucked as a Filmmaker


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
October 24, 1968, Vol. XIV, No. 2

by Andrew Sarris

Norman Mailer’s “BEYOND THE LAW” (at the Art) represents an infinite improvement over “Wild 90,” Mailer’s maiden effort in cinematographic expression. “Beyond the Law” is at least sittable through and occasionally amusing. The photography and sound recording seem to have advanced from welfare to poverty row, and the acting from amateur night to charity benefit. There is more point to the profanity, more of a correlative for the noise and violence. George Plimpton’s imitation of John Lindsay adds a new dimension to racial slander in this year of the waffled Wasp. And Mailer himself is more himself here than he was as the Gallo goon in “Wild 90.”

Even in its weakest moments, “Beyond the Law” benefits from the comic tension between corrupt authority and outraged criminality, a tension completely lacking in the Mafia masquerade of “Wild 90.”

Unforunately, Mailer’s brand of minimal movie-making remains more interesting to talk around than to talk about. It is not for me to tell him what to do with his time and money, but I can’t help wishing aloud that would stop making movies. It’s not that I have any mystical feelings about who he is or who is not worthy of working in the medium. It’s just that whenever Mailer comes out with a movie, I have to see it and review it not only or not entirely because Mr. Mailer is one of the stockholders of The Village Voice, but also because Mailer has matured into an authentic culture hero for a generation that can still appreciate intellectual honesty expressed in muscular prose, and I derive no particular pleasure from panning his film-flams when I would much rather contemplate his amazing and heartening performance in the literary ring. Still, I know in my bones that he will never make a movie that I can enjoy because in his totalitarian way he is determined to punish cultural derelicts like me for ever having been beguiled by Hollywood myths. That is to say if Norman Mailer ever got aholt of $100 million to make the movie of his dreams, he would only wind up 100 million miles away from the true cinephile’s heart of darkness. Norman Mailer is no more a moviemaker than Jean-Paul Sartre is Jean-Luc Godard in medium-message drag. But to explain why I would reject Mailer’s ultimate screen vision requires a fuller statement of my personal feelings toward the artist if only to balance out the bias elements. An existential entertainer like Mr. Mailer deserves no less.

Norman Mailer was born 31 January 1923, in Long Branch, New Jersey, and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I was born 31 October 1928 in Brooklyn, New York, and never grew up, but I can always console myself with the fact that I will always have somewhat more than five years to catch up with Mailer, much like the tortoise racing Achilles with full confidence in an eternity disdainful of differential calculus and hence free of petty metaphysical malice toward the wingfooted warrior. Besides, my long years of deserved obscurity have conditioned me to identify more with late starters than with prodigal prodigies who managed to squander their literary inheritance on dubious psychological investments. As it happens, 1968 marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of “The Naked and the Dead,” the novel that made Mailer not merely a literary celebrity but an accursed white hope of creation endlessly tarnished through the dark ages of political fragmentation and demonically destructive criticism. Having missed World War II, I was still in Columbia in 1948, always sneaking off to movies, drifting imperceptibly from the rock-ribbed Republicanism of the campus Metternich Society to the doctrinaire populism of Harry Truman. (Mine had been the only relief family in Brooklyn to vote for Alf Landon in 1936.) Mailer, I think, was for Henry Wallace, and hence remote from my relatively timid traumas. My own reaction to “The Naked and the Dead” at the time was fogged up by my complete ignorance of the political context in which literary reputations were established. The Trotskyist formalism of the Partisan Reviewers, for example, seemed needlessly polemical to a reader for whom Stalinist strictures had been not merely absurd but anathema in the most reactionary sense. Somewhat later I wrote off “The Naked and the Dead” as warmed-over Dos Passos, almost an updated remake of “Manhattan Transfer” and “U.S.A.,” though whereas Dos Passos stacked Marxist maxims atop the fugging corpses of Flanders Fields and psychopathic Wilsonian idealism and vampirish American capitalism, Mailer repudiated the American dream of Uncle Franklin and Aunt Eleanor in the name of a radicalism that was to be defined in the next 20 years out of the fevered impressions and expressions of a world gone mad.

Mailer has been a name for 20 years, a name not entirely free of notoriety, but a name nonetheless. At times the progression of a personality took precedence over the course of a career. “Barbary Shore” and “The Deer Park” were treated more like the scandals of a shameless exhibitionist than the spiritual testaments they seem like today. Mailer’s addled agit-prop exploded over every form he attempted, but the literary establishment only mourned his failure to conform to the contours of the Great American Novel. More successful was the Mailer of the magazine pieces, the ambassador without portfolio from the Old Left at the summit with the beats, the blacks, the hipsters, and, always, the beautiful people. This was the Mailer that Robert Lowell and his wife insulted as the “greatest journalist in America.” Even now that Mailer has virtually invented new fictional forms on the steps of the Pentagon and in the streets of Chicago, he still seems to feel cut off from his proper constituency, the very yearning youth of America. So much hard work, so many polished paragraphs, so many scintillating similes, so many incisive insights gouged out of his guts, and all for the applause of middle-aged intellectuals who have forgiven him all his follies and hang-ups, and all the while the Beatles and Dylan go mmmmm, and unleash all the magic and fantasy that mere intellect and intelligence can never inspire. And what better short-cut to the senses than movies, that lucrative profession of mediocre manipulators, perverts, and imbeciles. Mailer has never been prudent in the projection of his personality, and too often the attempted magnification of his image has only diminished it in the compulsive descent from strength to weakness.

Mailer credits himself with some witty ripostes to Eugene McCarthy’s Jesuitical jests, and I believe Mailer in the painfully honest context of his Harper’s piece on the Chicago Convention. Mailer doesn’t need to rewrite his personal history with staircase wit beause the one talent he does possess is the ability to rise to the moment of immediate intimacy. If you stand five feet from Mailer at a moment when he is not aware of being on display, you get the exhilarating sensation of a brilliant quarterback changing to an automatic to counter a charging linebacker. Mailer is a mind in motion to the very moment of its contact with reality, and is this not the mark of the journalist rather than the novelist, the conversationalist rather than the orator?

It is only when Mailer tries to ritualize his persona that he becomes ridiculous. Hence, I would rather read all of Mailer’s insightful perceptions of policemen in the pages of Harper’s than see these same perceptions enacted piecemeal on the screen. Similarly, I would rather look at Steve McQueen’s cop in “Bullitt” and Clint Eastwood’s in “Coogan’s Bluff” than read their rambling ruminations on law and order. McQueen and Eastwood are interesting screen personalities because their essence is more interesting than their existence. Mailer is uninteresting on the screen because his essence is less interesting than his existence. The screen functions to freeze life styles into myth rather than to adjust life forces to art. The beauty of actors is that they are basically vain enough and stupid enough to allow themselves to be embalmed for the edification of their audience. By contrast, intellectuals are always undercutting their personae with their anxieties and analyses. Besides, Mailer is a lousy lecturer, a lousy actor, and a lousy tv panelist. (To be chewed up by Buckley is no disgrace, but to be chewed up by Truman Capote!) Of course, a brilliant writer like Mailer can dismiss lecturing, acting, and tv paneling as the most minor of art-forms, but to persist in these activities is merely to indulge in prolonged Plimptonism.

Mailer is quoted in Variety as complaining that some of the critiques of “Wild 90” failed to take into consideration that he was a beginner in his craft, and that first novelists are seemingly given greater leeway than first film-makers. We will not go into the comparative generosity of book and movie reviewers except insofar as certain writers are pampered and others ignored and certain lines are upheld, not to mention Mailer’s singularly ungenerous critique of Mary McCarthy’s “The Group” in the New York Review of Books, and she no mere beginner. Also, movie reviewers are under greater pressure from their readers, because people see movies almost as fast as they are reviewed, and they ahve strong opinions about them whereas no one reads books anymore if a comprehensive review is available.

When Mailer talks about “craft” in movie-making, he seems to be confusing a medium with an art-form. No one expects Mailer to start taking film courses in his mid-40s so that he can mingle in the technical mumbo-jumbo. People hate “Wild 90” because the dialogue is almost inaudible, and this has nothing to do with “craft.” The production is simply too cheap to afford the proper facilities, and this is a problem of money. Would Mailer’s articles be admired as much if they were circulated clandestinely on smudged-up mimeograph sheets with innumerable typos? Mailer himself used to complain about the typos in his Village Voice articles, and finally stopped writing in this periodical because of his bruised sensibilities. Moviegoers prefer glossy screens the way readers prefer glossy pages, and there is nothing to be done about it. If anything the screen as a window to dreams and realities demands more technological care than the printed page. If Norman Mailer wants to win over audiences, he doesn’t have to learn his craft. He can buy it on the open market, but it will cost a great deal more than he has been willing to invest thus far, and I don’t think it will be worth it.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]