The Mailer Review/Volume 3, 2009/Some Dirt in the Talk

From Project Mailer
« The Mailer ReviewVolume 3 Number 1 • 2009 • Beyond Fiction »
Written by
Norman Mailer
Note: This essay appeared in Existential Errands (Boston, Little Brown, 1972). It was first published in New American Review, No. 12 (August 1971) and reprinted with small changes a few months later in Maidstone: A Mystery (New York: New American Library, 1971). Reprinted with the permission of The Norman Mailer Estate.

Wild 90 is the name of a full-length underground movie which a few of us, soon to be cited, filmed on four consecutive nights in March this year. It was done in 16-millimeter and recorded on magnetic sound tape, and since the raw stock costs of processing 16-millimeter sound and film run about thirty cents a foot or ten dollars a minute of shooting, we shot only two and a half hours in all, or $1,500 worth of film. Obviously we couldn’t afford to shoot more.

Still, for reasons one may yet be able to elucidate, the two and a half hours were not so very bad, and from them was extracted a feature film which runs for ninety minutes. It is a very odd film, indeed I know no moving picture quite like it since there are times when Wild 90 seems close to nothing so much as the Marx Brothers doing improvisations on Little Caesar with the addition of a free run of obscenity equal to Naked Lunch or Why Are We in Vietnam? It has the most repetitive pervasive obscenity of any film ever made for public or even underground consumption, and so half of the ladies are fascinated because it is the first time in their life they have had an opportunity to appreciate how soldiers might talk to each other in a barracks or what big-city cowboys might find to chat about at street corners. But then the ladies are not the only sex to be polarized by Wild 90. While the reactions of men in the audience are more unpredictable, a rough rule of thumb presents itself—bona fide tough guys, invited for nothing, usually laugh their heads off at the film; white-collar workers and intellectual technicians of the communications industries also invited for nothing tend to regard the picture in a vault of silence. All the while we were cutting Wild 90, we would try to have a preview once a week. Since the projection room was small, audiences were kept to ten, twelve, or fifteen people. That is an odd number to see a film. It is a few too many to watch with the freedom to move about and talk aloud that you get from watching television; it is on the other hand a painful number too small to feel the anonymity of a movie audience. Therefore, reactions from preview night to preview night were extreme. We had banquet filmings when an audience would start to laugh in the first minute and never stop—other nights not a sound of happiness could be heard for the first forty minutes—embarrassing to a producer who thought just yesterday that he had a comedy on his hands. Finally we had a formula: get the hard guys in, get the experts out.

That makes sense. There is hardly a guy alive who is not an actor to the hilt—for the simplest of reasons. He cannot be tough all the time. There are days when he is hung over, months when he is out of condition, weeks when he is in love and soft all over. Still, his rep is to be tough. So he acts to fill the gaps. A comedy of adopted manners surrounds the probing each tough guy is forever giving his brother. Wild 90, which is filled with nothing so much as these vanities, bluffs, ego-supports, and downright collapses of front is therefore hilarious to such people. They thought the picture was manna. You could cool riots with it, everybody was laughing so hard.

Whereas intellectual technicians had to hate it. Because the tip of the tablecloth was being tilted, the soup was encouraged to spill. There was a self-indulgence in the smashing of Hollywood icons which spoke not only of an aesthetic rebellion (which some of the media technicians would doubtless approve) but Wild 90 hinted also of some barbarity back of it—the Goths had come to Hollywood. Based on the gangster movies of the thirties, the movie nonetheless had a quasi-Martian flavor, a primitive pleasure in itself, as if it had discovered the wheel which made all film go round.

Testing this brand-new little American product, cutting it, shaping it, serving it to samples of audiences, made for an interesting summer. Wild 90 was not the greatest movie ever made, no sir, and the actors would receive no Academy Awards (because they swore too much) but the picture, taken even at its worst, was a phenomenon. There was something going on in it which did not quite go on in other movies, even movies vastly superior. It had an insane intimacy, agreeable to some, odious to others. The dialogue was sensational. Where was a scriptwriter who wrote dialogue like this?

BUZZ CAMEO: I ain’t gonna get killed here.

THE PRINCE: Look. You’re gonna get killed, or you’re not gonna get killed. But you don’t know shit. You don’t know when you’re gonna get killed or how you’re gonna get killed, and you just shut. Shut.

BUZZ CAMEO: The Prince. The Prince tells me.

THE PRINCE: You’re nothin’ but a guinea with a hard-on in your arm. That’s your hard-on. (A sound of disgust.) Unhh.

BUZZ CAMEO: How about my short arm? How many guys I put away for you, daddy-o?

THE PRINCE (mimicking): How many guys I put away for you, daddy-o. Unhh. Unhh. Unhh. (Three derisive punches to his own biceps.) I’ll tell you how many guys you put away for me. One and a half! One and a half!

TWENTY YEARS: Right. The other half I had to take care of. That’s how good you are.

THE PRINCE (keeping up the tempo): Punk. Unhh. (The arm again.) Punk.

TWENTY YEARS (jeering): What a mistake. What a mistake. Cameo, he says he can handle Thirty-fourth Street. (Scream of derision.) Hah! Thirty-fourth Street he can handle. He can’t handle his own joint.

Yes, where was the scriptwriter? Who was he? And the answer—is that no hat could fit his head, for he did not exist. The dialogue had come out of the native wit of the actors: Wild 90 was a full-length film for which not a line of dialogue was written.

Well, explanations must now be promised—we may even intimate that closet history is about to be disclosed, and of an underground film! Gather near! Listen to the subtle events which preceded the shooting.

Last winter, while the play of The Deer Park was having its run at the Theatre DeLys, some of the cast of The Deer Park used to drink together at a restaurant named Charles IV in the Village. Actors like to fill the tank after a performance. It is not only their reward, and their sedative, but it is possibly a way of accommodating their soul back to the place from which it was vacated by the more meretricious lines of their script. Now, The Deer Park was not signally meretricious, it was after all well-written, but perfect it was not, entirely honorable, no, it was not, lacunae of intent had collected, and since devils and demons rush to inhabit every gap, there were lines in the script the playwright could not necessarily defend to the death. Those are the sort of lines which turn actors subtly, even unconsciously, to drink. Because they have to use the best of themselves to conceal the worst of an author.

Well, drink they did then, and on any given night it was better than even you could find much of the company in their more or less civilized cups, eating a little, drinking away. We were a nice company, relatively free of jealousy, intrigue, or liaison due mainly, it might be submitted, to the fact that The Deer Park was full of passion, jealousy, intrigue, conniving, etc., and so the actors could be relaxed of that by the time drinks had come. (Indeed it is exactly in those wholesome family comedies the critics love so very much that you will find the actors rife in the green room, and everybody banging everybody up the back door.)

After drinking sessions went on awhile, they took a particularly modest form. Hugh Marlowe, Rosemary Tory, and Rip Torn had the longest parts, very long parts they were, so they were naturally the ones most in need of regular hours. Usually, they would be the first to leave, and Buzz Farbar, Mickey Knox, and myself would go drinking into the closing, while my wife, Beverly Bentley, and her friend and colleague, Mara Lynn, would talk at the next table on whichever subjects blond sorceresses find of moment at three in the morning. Whereas Knox, Farbar, Mailer (later to be known as Supreme Mix) slipped each night into a game. We used to play at being Mafiosos. We would try to talk like Dons. We would go on so much as twenty or forty minutes at a time talking about any subject at hand in the allusive use of metaphor you can catch a hint of now and again when one or another Italian in the rackets will lay it on the line. We even picked up names. Twenty Years, Buzz Cameo, the Prince.

Of the three of us, Knox was the only real actor. He had been acting for twenty years and more, and had been in two dozen movies, half of them gangster films, he had experience on the stage and television, was a member of Actors’ Studio, had worked on the production of half a hundred Italian films in Rome in the last ten years, he spoke Italian fluently. Buzz Farbar, however, had never acted but for a stretch as Don Beda, the orgiast, in The Deer Park, a part which began as a stunt after work for him (and remained a stunt in the sense that the part of Don Beda is one of the theatre’s most difficult small parts to play). Anyway, Buzz had done his best. He was a good team man, a former Golden Gloves boxer, a football star at Dartmouth, then publisher of Legacy Books at CBS—he had not been a great Don Beda, but there was probably not an actor in New York who could have been—the part requested Porfirio Rubirosa or some Castilian with Persian silk. At any rate, Buzz Farbar may have made no immortal Don Beda, but he certainly did wing a good shtarker as Buzz Cameo in each late-nightly round of the Maf Boys, and yr author who had never acted at all in any way (except every day of his life—a quip to be examined further, close readers) did his best to hold up his end as the Prince. We played the Maf Boys. It was our answer to the Chelsea Girls.

We even got good at it. How close we came to portraying any mobsters of certified class, I do not know, but we had experiences. Drinking our booze and acting for ourselves in the restaurant, we would get good enough upon occasion that the room would seem weightless, and the air ready to spark. There was a tension afterward to judge the value of the moment. We were either getting up a mood which was more accurate and quintessentially witty than anything worked on by actors or game players before about the subject of the Mafia, or we were merely whacked up on booze and the mystery resided in the supernatural properties of grain spirits, their ability to fog all perception of creative value, and inflame the positive judgments of misperception. Say! I conceived the idea it would be fun to get a good cameraman and film a half hour with sound of the three of us sitting around a restaurant table. So we talked about that for a time. And as the winter went by, as Supreme Mix, which is to say, Farbar, Knox, and Mailer, did the Maf Boys on the unphotographed wing a couple of times a week at Charles IV, the picture got discussed with the savor of get-rich-quick schemes worked on in a Brooklyn kitchen, and so showed promise of becoming a project you talk about with too much enjoyment ever to undertake. But we had fun. Night after night. There is a dialogue in the movie which captures a little of the style we had when metaphor was in flower.

BUZZ CAMEO: I’m goin’ down to the Beach.

TWENTY YEARS (to Cameo): Ya know there’s one thing about singin’—it leaves ya hoarse.

THE PRINCE (to Cameo): If you leave, ya know what you are? You’re the prunes.

BUZZ CAMEO: Prunes? You’re the dunes.

THE PRINCE: Yeh. You’re the real prunes.

BUZZ CAMEO (a reference to burial grounds): Ponds ‘n dunes?

THE PRINCE: You’re prunes. The Cream’s comin’ out your ass.

TWENTY YEARS: You got no feels.

Farbar did not let the movie go. Calling me very early one morning, he pointed out that Mickey Knox was leaving for Rome in ten days. In the following week we had to make the movie if we were ever to make it at all. When he was reminded that we had no photographer, no lights, no set, no properties, nothing but my steadfast promise to immolate a thousand bucks (with five hundred more to burn in reserve), Farbar promised to bring together the rest of the ingredients. (That, gentlemen, presumably, was how the old two-reelers were made.) He arranged a meet with D. A. Pennebaker (of Leacock Pennebaker, inventors of portable sound-film cameras, makers of Don’t Look Back). Pennebaker had four nights free, and he would film us for four nights. Since Knox was still playing Collie Munshin in The Deer Park, we could start only after his performance each evening, which meant acting must begin at midnight. No problem. Those were our drinking hours. Acting and drinking could get together like kissing cousins. There persisted, however, the problem of locating a set. For we had taken on one more ambition. We had decided to try for more than a short film about three hoods disporting in a restaurant, we would rather take off from a contemporary piece of local history in Brooklyn. A year or more ago, the Gallo gang had undertaken a war with Joseph Profaci, by repute a don capo of Cosa Nostra. For self-protection the Gallos finally holed up in a little building on President Street, while the police put the block under crash surveillance to keep them from getting killed. Well, Supreme Mix knew nothing about the Gallo gang, in fact had no desire to take a page from their material, no, Supreme Mix was looking to be another gang, the three characters created before anyone was reminded of the Gallos. Yes, we would be our own three characters holed up in a loft, down by the beginning of the film from a company of twenty-one men to three men, living alone. That would give us the situation on which we could improvise. But where could we find an empty loft, and over the weekend? No, we had to settle for a big and empty room in an office building.

. . .