“There is no dignity in killing a movie that died ten years ago,” novelist Norman Mailer advised those attending the “Maidstone” screening on November 3, 1982 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts. He need not have bothered with the anticipated hecklers. Cinema was already dead. Jean-Luc Godard had killed it in 1969. Mailer had not resurrected it in 1982, but had given it an unholy afterlife. After ten years in limbo, his 1970 film was available for re-evaluation. But he wasn’t exactly asking for outside opinions.
“Maidstone” is a film that interrogates itself. “Is everything collapsing?” asks its the final scene. Mailer does not defend his film the way he did when it premiered. He doesn’t know if it sets cinema back to 1927, or whether it is so far ahead of its time that its time will never come. He does, however, maintain that there is more of the sixties in “Maidstone” than in any other twenty films dealing with that era. He is right in all his assumptions. “Maidstone” is very good, very bad, very important, and perhaps a reprehensible piece of cinema. Perhaps the time has come when we can overcome our prejudices against its shortcomings long enough to fairly evaluate its merits.
There is nothing wrong in shooting without a script, as long as you know what you want to shoot. Mailer’s five cameras shot forty-five hours of footage over a seven day period because the director relied upon his amateur actors to improvise a script that could have been conveniently outlined in half an hour. The movie he wanted to make became several movies that he had the possibility to make. Perhaps it could focus upon a director of pornographic movies who decides to run for the United States presidency. He is the target of assassins but the actors playing the assassins cannot get close enough to the director who is playing the candidate to kill him. So, when the shooting of the film is completed, actor Rip Torn attacks Mailer with a hammer to give an ending to a movie that needs one. Torn saves this disintegrating movie, which finds its form in violence emerging from chaos.
“A screenplay is not literature,” Mailer insists. Therefore, he does not attempt to write one, believing that film and literature are separate art forms and should be approached though different creative processes. To film a screenplay is to make a Hollywood film, a feat of which Mailer would incapable of achieving. Filming improvisations motivated by a flimsy story line and then finding the arc of the drama in the cutting room is his way of uncovering the nature of cinema while indulging himself in the mechanics of movie-making. In improve theatre, the actors are creators, not interpretive artists. Without direction, their results are a communal folk art. So “Maidstone, “although Mailer is the director, becomes Mailer’s film only when he is on camera. when he is behind the camera, the film belongs to the actor, and the director can reclaim it only in the cutting room. But so many perspectives have entered into the schema of the film that a singular vision has become impossible to impose upon the footage in revolt. “Maidstone” is in a perpetual state of disintegration while reflecting on itself. Mailer is not the creator of the film. He is its psychiatrist.
Toward the end of the film, after it failed to deliver a climax, the actors drop their masks to answer Mailer’s question of what they thought of the filming experience. They come across like patients in group therapy telling their doctor that they hate his guts. “I was cruel because I was playing a film director,” he answers. “And writers are much nicer people than directors.” Rip Torn is absent from this session. He is planning his own ending to a movie in which he sees himself as the heavy. When he attacks Mailer with the hammer, not even the cameraman knows whether the action is real or staged. Later, when asked by Mailer what he would have done had Torn killed him, the cameraman replied, “I would have kept on shooting.”