Given his extraordinary, prolific accomplishments as a writer, Norman Mailer’s short career as a filmmaker is often characterized as inconsequential in biographical contexts, something in which he dabbled between writing projects. Such analysis fails to recognize the incredible commitment Mailer made to filmmaking first with his three improvisational features and later with his adaptation of Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Inspired by the likes of Cassavetes and Warhol, Mailer was intrigued by the manner in which these artists challenged the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, a frequent concern in his own writing. He took their improvisational strategies into even more dangerous territory with his first three films which not only demonstrate his innovative approach to directing but also feature fascinating performances by the man himself. The denouement of Maidstone is the stuff of legend, in which Mailer and Rip Torn engage in a no-holds-barred physical and verbal assault raising provocative questions about the limits of fictional representation. Although largely ignored when first released, these films are an essential piece of the canon of 1960s American independent cinema. Twenty years later, Mailer returned to filmmaking with Tough Guys Don’t Dance, this time with the backing of a major studio. However, his stylized, neo-noir met with similar indifference by critics and audiences and has only recently been reconsidered for its radical challenges to genre convention. This series includes all four films made by Mailer as well as three rarely-screened documentaries, one directed by Pennebaker and two by British filmmaker Dick Fontaine which offer powerful examples of Mailer’s dynamic screen presence. – Haden Guest
About the Collection
This collection contains complete and original sound and picture elements from Norman Mailer’s three underground films of the 1960s (Wild 90, Beyond the Law and Maidstone), including original camera negatives, A/B roll, workprints, outtakes, projection prints, sound and picture elements from Mailer’s unreleased, second version of Beyond the Law, Beyond the Law (Blue). Offering a unique insight into the career and personality of one of the most important figures in American letters in the second half of the 20th Century, digital copies of several of Mailer’s more significant television appearances have been compiled by Mailer archivist Michael Chaiken, and added to this collection.
During his work with the Mailer Estate as their archivist, Michael Chaiken rediscovered Mailer’s first film, an untitled surreal short shot and edited in the months leading up to the publication of The Naked and the Dead. The film had been divided into two pieces, one of which was in the possession of the film’s star, Millicent Brower. The Harry Ransom Center, which houses Mailer’s papers and a large portion of this film, teamed up with the Harvard Film Archive to reunite and restore this forgotten film. The restored version had its world premiere at 2009’s New York Film Festival as part of their acclaimed “Views From the Avant Garde” program.
A finding aid for the collection can be found here.