News and Commentary – Another Semester of 70s Films: Norman Mailer’s Maidstone

This week’s focus in class was actually Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, but as this is well covered ground here at Mid Century Cinema, today we will consider instead a film that has some interesting parallels with that picture. Both Norman Mailer’s notorious Maidstone and Wexler’s Medium Cool attempt to blur the distinction between fiction and “non-fiction” films (documentaries), in order to reach for a more “real” form of cinematic expression than typically found in conventional movies—an aspiration of the French New Wave that was embraced by the New Hollywood, and pushed to the limit in both Medium Cool and Maidstone.  (And they were not fooling around. Writer-director-cinematographer Wexler, with a background in documentaries, operated one of the cameras in the midst of real – and dangerous – events that unfolded during the blended fact/fiction that was Medium Cool; Legendary documentarian D. A. Pennebaker operated one of five cameras that captured the somewhat controlled and often unscripted chaos during Mailer’s five day shoot in Easthampton.)  The films also share an ambition to take head-on smoldering racial issues of the time (Wexler much more successfully)—each director goes out of his way, for example, let the camera linger on monologues by black militants. 

The two movies are also indelibly marked by the shared trauma of their times. Medium Cool was already in production when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated (an additional, powerful scene was added on the fly), and it first anticipated and then captured on film the police riots that erupted outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Maidstone was conceived in the shell-shocked days following Bobby’s death, and after his film was completed Mailer witnessed the Convention and its attendant melees as a journalist, an experience captured in what we consider to be his greatest book, Miami and the Siege of Chicago. One ought not assess Mailer’s undisciplined and wild film now without keeping in mind the madness that was 1968 more generally, and the extent to which the loss of Bobby was so utterly devastating.  (This is an implicit theme in one of our favorite novels.)  Certainly it was so for Mailer, who put it this way: “The novelist John Updike was not necessarily one of his favorite authors, but after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, it was Updike who made the remark that God might have withdrawn his blessing from America. It was a thought which could not be forgotten.”

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves with this comparison: Wexler’s movie is something special from the hands of an experienced master; Mailer’s film is a muddled experiment by a talented amateur—occasionally interesting, often meandering (or worse). Vincent Canby’s tepid review had it exactly right: “The truth of the matter is that “Maidstone” is a very mixed bag, and were it not the work of one of our most brilliant writers . . .  it would be very easy to be apathetic about it.”  But it is Mailer’s picture, and remains a fascinating document for that reason.  It sort of has a plot—a legendary American filmmaker (“Norman Kingsley”—Kingsley is Mailer’s middle name) is in the midst of shooting a movie whilst seriously considering a run for President as mysterious cabals of supporters and opponents mull the possibility of his assassination.  (The enormous Mailer ego is certainly not absent here.)  Ragged and often problematic (the movie’s attitude towards women, is, not surprisingly, iffy), the final two segments of the film are nevertheless worth taking seriously.  In Chapter 11 (following Godard, the movie is divided into chapters), after the “movie” has been shot, Mailer addresses the cast by (real) name as he discusses the unconventional way that the film was made, the search for something “real” and “the thing I was trying to show in the movie,” explaining that a more structured production could not get at The Truth.  Chapter 12 – after the end, all of the players have gone home – has the infamous and shocking sequence wherein the ever-intense Rip Torn returns with a hammer that he might assassinate Kingsley (nothing against Mailer, the wild-eyed actor insists).  Things go utterly haywire as both men shed blood as those around them scream and panic.  It’s not easy to watch—but it certainly is real.  And, some additional food for thought: Pennebaker’s camera never stopped rolling (bringing us right back to one of the key themes of Medium Cool, on the responsibilities of the participant/observer); and Mailer ultimately decided to include the “scene” in the film.  Not surprisingly, including “getting bludgeoned by and then biting the ear of a deranged actor” was not his original plan, but in the words of his official biographer, he changed his mind, “realizing that he was complicit, if not directly responsible, for what happened.” 


Mailer and Kingsley Have a Good Deal In Common


Assassination Ball

Kingsley (Mailer) and O'Houlihan (Torn) at the Fictional "Assassination Ball" 


Mailer to Cast

Mailer Explains His Motive: "An Attack on the Notion of Relatity" 


Mailer Torn

Torn (Torn) and Mailer (Mailer): Sometimes Reality Bites