The Mailer Review/Volume 2, 2008/Author, Auteur: A Conversation with Norman Mailer

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« The Mailer ReviewVolume 2 Number 1 • 2008 • In Memorium: Norman Mailer: 1923–2007 »
Written by
Michael Chaiken
Abstract: A film specialist interviews Norman Mailer about his long-term interest in cinema, including his work as a filmmaker.

In may 2005, at the time this interview was conducted, I was working as the Program Director for Film at International House Philadelphia, a non-profit arts center immediately adjacent to the University of Pennsylvania. Earlier that year I had organized a series of films directed by noted authors which included works by Yukio Mishima, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Susan Sontag, William Burroughs, and Samuel Beckett among others. Norman’s films were central to the series and, with his consent, we were loaned his personal 35mm prints of Maidstone and Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Around that time I discussed with Norman the possibility of organizing a broader series, one that might include all four of the films he directed in addition to the numerous documentaries made about him: films based on his writing, films in which he appeared as an actor and films that he helped to inspire. I proposed the idea to my colleagues at Film at Lincoln Center in New York and they were intrigued, particularly if Mailer might come to present his films.

This expanded series, which was titled “The Mistress & The Muse: The Films of Norman Mailer” (the cinema being the mistress tempting Norman away from his literary muse), ran for two weeks in July/August 2007 and was divided between two supporting venues in New York, The Anthology Film Archives and Film at Lincoln Center, which opened the series with a double bill of Maidstone and Tough Guys and concluded the event with Larry Schiller’s The Executioner’s Song, followed by a post-screening discussion with director Larry Schiller, Norris Church Mailer, and Roseanna Arquette. Joined by J. Michael Lennon, film critic and Lincoln Center programmer Kent Jones, and me, Mailer took the stage of Lincoln Center on July 22, 2007, in between sold-out screenings of Tough Guys and Maidstone, in order to take questions from the audience.

In the space of forty-five minutes, Norman managed to eviscerate Jean-Luc Godard as the “second most evil person I’d ever met in my life” (Reagan being the first), greatly offend at least a half dozen members of the audience (“Well, you can find friends... ,” was his reply to one woman’s generally negative comments on the merits of Tough Guys), and unman yours truly after mumbling out my first question (“Chaiken, you have a voice better suited to talking to women at 2 a.m. than asking anybody anything from the stage of Lincoln Center”). Norman also spoke powerfully and eloquently about his years directing films, the pleasure it had brought him, and the seriousness in which he endeavored to make them.

The interview contains many of the themes Norman elaborated on that afternoon in July 2007. It was conducted in Norman’s Brooklyn Heights apartment on May 11, 2005. Parts of this interview were included in an article I wrote surveying Norman’s directing career for Film Comment magazine published in their July/August 2007 issue under the title “The Master’s Mercurial Mistress: How Norman Mailer Courted Chaos 24 Frames per Second.”

Chaiken: You were a voracious reader as kid. How central was the moviegoing experience for you growing up?

Mailer: Movies were dessert. I used to read and read and read as a child. I remember seeing Captain Blood [1935] with Errol Flynn in a movie theater that was 10 blocks away from my home in Brooklyn on one of the coldest winter nights New York ever had.Walking home that night, I got frostbite on my thighs that lasted for a month. My thighs got discolored it was so cold, but it was worth it because that movie was so wonderful. That movie probably gave me more pleasure than any I have ever seen. Put it this way, if a meal at a given time could alter your life—it’s not as easy for a dessert to do that. But this dessert did. I think Captain Blood affected me permanently. It’s a fabulous film.

Chaiken: After The Naked and the Dead, you went out to Hollywood. Were there any thoughts back then of possibly giving up writing for a career as a director?

Mailer: I went out there with Jean Malaquais who was already my best friend—or second best friend. We went out there to look around and try to write scripts. My lawyer Cy Rembar, who at the time didn’t know a lot about Hollywood, had heard of one agent, a very nice man named George Landy, but he was a minor agent. He didn’t have clout. So we hung around and hung around and finally Landy got us a job with Sam Goldwyn to write a script that was supposed to have been based on Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. We got fired about a month after we started working. Deservedly. Then I decided I was going to make a film myself in Hollywood. I was 26 and thought I would first become a famous screenwriter, then a director. We worked and worked and worked to try to get a script going, but simply couldn’t. This was the script that was going to make Goldwyn sad that he had fired us. In the end, he was right and we were wrong. The script was dreadful and ultimately never got finished. Malaquais and I, although we remained great friends, simply couldn’t work together. So I came back to New York with my metaphorical tail between my legs. Hollywood for me was a failure. A total failure, though I guess what stayed with me was this idea of making movies.

Chaiken: You were one of the editors of Irving Howe’s Dissent magazine along with Cinema 16 film society founders Amos and Marcia Vogel in the Fifties. Did you attend any of the Cinema 16 screenings?

Mailer: Yeah, I used to go there. That was an interesting place, and I was fascinated with the poetic documentaries Amos used to show. That probably had a lot of influence on me in one way or another. It wasn’t that I was totally innocent of documentaries when I started making my own films. It was that I thought that most documentaries were locked into one essential difficulty—that very few people can act when they are playing themselves. I truly believe that half the people alive are natural actors, but when you have to play yourself it really turns you inside out psychologically. It’s very unpleasant. If you are playing yourself then you stiffen up. What I found is that practically everyone who is in a documentary who is playing themselves is very stiff. So I got the idea, why not use these techniques? I loved the camera techniques in documentary, particularly that of Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers, so I thought, “Why not use them for fictional situations?” The cameramen I worked with loved it because they got to try anything. So yes, I did go to Cinema 16, but don’t ask me what films I saw. I do remember seeing Cassavetes and Maya Deren.