Saturday, November 10, 2007

Mailer's Ghost

Another American lit legend bites the irradiated dust. I was never a big fan of Norman Mailer's work, though I've enjoyed (and still own) many of his Esquire essays from the 1960s. For me, Mailer was more a media figure, performing in the days when writers, authors, and polemicists regularly appeared on talk shows, the conversations lasting more than a few minutes, dealing with topics other than selling product. Mailer was a TV natural, quick-witted, pugnacious, obnoxious, weirdly menacing when not simply strange. The perfect scribe for the ancient small screen.

I met Mailer once, a very brief encounter outside Madison Square Garden, during the 1992 Democratic Convention. I was with Christopher Hitchens, and as we made our way toward the Garden to roam the convention floor, Mailer and his wife Norris Church appeared out of the crowd and walked straight to Christopher.

"Hello, Norman. Norris," said Hitch, extending his nicotine-stained hand in greeting. "And of course you know Dennis Perrin."

Mailer grabbed my hand firmly. "Why, hello Dennis! How are ya buddy?" It was a very odd moment, but I went with it, acting as if Mailer and I were old pals.

"Hi Norman. Good to see you."

As I sized Mailer up, I could see how, as a younger man, he might've been a tough guy to fight -- short, stocky, big arms, a head made for butting. But here he was older, mellower, smiling and optimistic. After watching the Dems inside, Mailer was convinced that Bill Clinton was a winner, and that he would flatten Bush Sr. in the election. I wasn't so sure, but kept my thoughts to myself -- in retrospect, a smart move.

I can't find any decent footage of Mailer on the Dick Cavett show, where he thundered against the likes of Gore Vidal, when not insulting the studio audience. Hopefully, a DVD box set of Cavett's interviews with authors will someday be released. But I did discover a segment from Mailer's 1970 film "Maidstone," in which Rip Torn attacks Mailer with a hammer, resulting in an actual fight. (I've also met, but did not fight, Rip Torn, sharing cocktails at Terry Southern's wake.) As Vincent Canby wrote about it in the New York Times:

"Mailer conceived the film as a giant, multileveled improvisation, involving 100 or so friends and professionals, which would try to capture a new kind of cinematic truth and purity by letting his actors go where they would once the original premise had been presented to them. The premise, in fact, is just nutty enough to be brilliant:

"Norman T. Kingsley (Mailer), a notorious film director (modestly compared to Bufiuel, Fellini, Dreyer and Antonioni) who is making a spoof of 'Belle de Jour' on eastern Long Island, is being considered as a Presidential candidate. In the course of his production, he is visited by various delegations, interviewed by television, profiled by associates and the object of an assassination attempt that may or may not be the work of his brother, played by Rip Torn, who has been given the name of Raoul, apparently to add still another association between Norman T. Kingsley and various authority figures.

"That's the way the movie began, but, sadly, Mailer's huge cast didn't seem to improvise as well on-camera as they reportedly did off. The whole thing was becoming a disaster of the order of a rained-out Boy Scout picnic until, on the last day of shooting, Rip Torn improvised an attack on Mailer-Kingsley with a toy hammer that turned into a real fight. As the two men fought (Mailer's choppers neatly clamped on Torn's ear, drawing blood), Beverly Bentley (Mrs. Mailer) and the Mailer children screamed hysterically, and the cameras continued to roll.

"The result is a very mysterious scene that is more than just a close-up of the author-at-play. At one moment Mailer is shouting about trust betrayed, which is one of his most seductive themes, and in the next he is saying that he'll never forgive Torn for having, in effect, made a fool of him in front of his children. It's complex and dense and very much in keeping with what a major author is required to give his public in this era of Total Revelation."

I don't know if Mailer would want scenes like this as part of his legacy, as this occurred during his drunken, two-fisted period, when a wrong word or move could and very often did result in physical assault. I hope that Norman has better results wrestling on the next plane. Is there ear biting after death?

Labels: ,