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Maidstone, and The Films of Norman Mailer

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see Rip Torn and Norman Mailer battle it out in Mailer’s film Maidstonefor real.

Criterion continues to surprise and delight with their ongoing Eclipse series, which brings back to public view forgotten and often brilliant films from the classical era of cinema.

The latest Eclipse box set, Number 35, is entitled “Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer,” and features the title film, Maidstone, about Mailer’s fictional quest for the Presidency as the pompous Norman T. Kingsley, as well as his first improvised feature, Wild 90, which is of much less interest, and Beyond The Law, centering on one violent, boozy night in a fictional police precinct in Manhattan. All of these films were largely improvised; Wild 90 is completely made up on the spot, dialogue and all, and is fixed in one location, a dingy warehouse; Maidstone is set in a lush country estate, where Mailer gathered his friends and associates for five days of improv filming; and Beyond The Law follows the same format. The results, especially with Maidstone and Beyond the Law, are extraordinary.

As the Criterion notes for the set observe, “Norman Mailer is remembered for many things— his novels, his essays, his articles, his activism, his ego. One largely forgotten chapter of his life, however, is his late-sixties kamikaze-style plunge into making experimental films. These rough-hewn, self-financed, largely improvised metafictions are works of madness and bravado, all starring Mailer himself and with technical assistance from cinema verité trailblazers D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock. The most fully realized of his directorial efforts is the blustering, brawling Maidstone, a shocking sign of the political times, in which Mailer plays a filmmaker and presidential candidate who may be the target of an assassination attempt. Along with Mailer’s other films of the period—Wild 90 and Beyond the Law—it shows an uncompromising artist in thrall to both himself and a new medium.”

The actor Rip Torn was one of the principals in Maidstone, and in the film’s most notorious scene, convinced that the movie needed some more action, attacked Mailer with a hammer and bit off part of his ear in a very real, completely unstaged fight sequence. The film as a whole is a compelling exercise in self-psychoanalysis, but for me, Beyond The Law, shot in gritty black and white, with a cast that includes Rip Torn, George Plimpton, Mailer and a rogue’s gallery of hanger ons, is the gem of this group.

There will never be filmmaking like this again. Completely self-financed and shot in 16mm, these are films that Mailer made, at a great financial loss, simply because he felt had to express himself as a non-commercial, experimental filmmaker. Later in his career, Mailer directed a straight dramatic feature, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, based on one of his novels, but it’s a dull, commercial film, indifferently executed by a professional crew. Here, in these early, exhilarating, gloriously undisciplined and freewheeling films, he captures not only his own vision of the world he lived in, but also the essence of New York in the 1960s.

These are films not to be missed; it’s good to see them finally on DVD.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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