The Ambivalent General

1967 had been a banner year for Norman Mailer.  Mailer had found a personal gratification in his work Why Are We In Vietnam? And his second film Beyond The Law.  Mailer also felt that he had found a political pulpit from which to express his scathing views on the Johnson Administration when Jerry Rubin invited him to address a crowd of “student revolutionaries”.  Rubin had been very impressed with Mailer and later observed, “the crowd went crazy.  It was the first time anybody had made fun of the President”. [Rollyson, 186]  To top finding a home with the New Left, Mailer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his seminal work Armies Of The Night.  However, 1968 would prove to be a much more tumultuous year, full of ambiguities for Mailer.  Though, somehow, Norman Mailer was able to stay true to himself and true to being one of the great authors of his moment.

Norman Mailer had always blamed the Vietnam War on President Johnson.  Publicly, when Mailer spoke or published, he often attacked Johnson, both as the Nation’s leader and as a man.  In private, Mailer confided in friends that President Kennedy had had a quick and easy solution to Vietnam, and that Johnson had instigated his own agenda to finance his “Great Society” on the coat tails of his success with the war.  Mailer concluded that the plan had backfired.

Thus, when Robert Kennedy launched his Presidential campaign in 1968, Mailer and his intellectual contemporaries maintained hope for the country.  Though this hope was short lived, it inspired a radical idea in Norman Mailer.  When Kennedy was shot on June 5th, 1968, Mailer quickly began devising a film.

Since the early sixties, Norman Mailer had been a part of the “underground” film scene in New York.  Mailer had co-financed Ron Rice’s film The Queen Of Sheba Meets The Atom Man, so it was no surprise when he made two films of his own, Beyond The Law and Wild 90.  But it was Mailer’s next film that would garner infamy and controversy, titled Maidstone.

Maidstone is about a famous film director [played by Mailer] who decides to run for the Presidency of The United States, only to be assassinated by his half brother [played by Rip Torn].  Norman Mailer had become very concerned with the mortality of politicians and the power of media, and in short the perverse power of the two combined.  Mailer intended his film to be an analysis of the dark side of the sixties [even including long “blue” scenes with Warhol star Ultra Violet].

Mailer was always the lead in his “underground” films, and it came as no surprise the casting of Rip Torn.  Rip Torn had been in Mailer’s previous film Wild 90 as well as the stage production of The Deer Park in 1965.  Mailer had also hired documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker to photograph the film, which was shot at friends’ houses in Provincetown.  The rest of the cast was filled in with friends, mistresses, wives and ex-wives.  Shooting lasted 4 days, with little or no resemblance to the outline Mailer had written.  It was at this point that Rip Torn decided to “save” the movie.  With Mailer distracted with friends and the sorting out of the film’s meaning, little had been done to resolve the film.  So on the last scheduled day of production, Rip Torn decided to return to the plot outline, and kill Mailer’s character, ending the film.

The final day of shooting for Maidstone took place on a Provincetown beach.  Rip Torn remembers:

“shit, let’s get down to what no one seems to realize-the only direction I

had was when Norman first told me his idea…and the way it worked was

he’d set up a kind of military perimeter.  I’d left this perimeter and he

thought I was gone.  But I put on a pair of sneakers and waded up

through a swamp, so mysteriously that all of the sudden I just reappeared.

I thought it was an obligatory scene, that he was gonna play dead.  Like bang,

you’re dead.  Only he didn’t, the joke was on me.”[Manso, 487]

When Rip Torn came out of the swamp to “kill” Mailer in the film, Mailer fought back.  The two men became engaged in a real and violent struggle that would comprise the last ten minutes of Maidstone and leave Rip Torn with a chunk of ear missing which Mailer had bitten off.  The production had been just as confused, violent and sexually ambivalent as the decade it hoped to capture the essence of.

Following the production, Rip Torn spent two months in the hospital when his ear became infected after Mailer bit him.  However, Maidstone would not open until 1969, and when it did open, most critics disliked the film, though found Mailer’s style interesting but underdeveloped.  Jonas Mekas said this about Mailer’s cinema: “The films of Pasolini and Robbe-Grillet look like shadows of their own earlier books; the films of Norman Mailer have nothing to do with his books: If you want, you can consider them completely new books written on film.”[Mekas, 314]

The Maidstone production left Mailer ambivalent and confused about politics and the youth movement.  He had hoped making the film would have helped him grapple with the times in the wake of assassination. Yet, it seemed that staging the “love-ins” and parties of the New Left in Maidstone raised the question as to how much Mailer the artist had to do with social revolution.  A similar dilemma had faced Mailer upon the publication of The Naked And The Dead, when he was suddenly thrust into the New York intellectual arena.  Mailer felt he hadn’t the talent to write, or the credentials to be taken seriously.  Hence when Harper’s Magazine asked him to cover the Republican and Democratic conventions, he said yes.  Mailer lost a lot of money and friends with Maidstone, and hoped the assignment would rejuvenate and direct him.

At the Republican convention, Norman Mailer had one assumption, that he would find Nixon to be yet another Lyndon Johnson.  Mailer, like many journalists, were unsure of Richard Nixon since he came out of retirement, it was the last thing anyone had expected.  Even more unexpectedly, Mailer was impressed by the civility and unpretentiousness of Richard Nixon.  Nixon was straight forward, and the Republican Party nicely kept the order.  Norman Mailer described the convention as thus: “On and on they came, the clean, the well-bred, the extraordinarily prosperous, and, for the most astonishing part, the entirely proper…they were back looking for a leader to bring America back to them, their lost America…The Wasp had to come to power.”[Mailer, page 1]

Just one year prior to the convention, Mailer had reveled in the affirmations attributed to him by Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and their New Left, but at the Republican Convention of Miami, Mailer had found a closer association.  For all of his life, Mailer had rooted for the under dog, from his acceptance to Harvard to his managing of boxer Jose Torres, but it was the stability and the equality of the Republican Convention that drew Mailer.  Politically, Mailer was a skeptic, but as a man, the Convention seemed attractive to him.  One must also understand that to “belong” amongst intellectual America, one had to be Anglo-Saxon [least this is how Mailer the Jew saw it] and in being an American Jew, Mailer had always looked to assimilate and become as Anglo-Saxon as possible.  This contradictory parallel in his character became an uneasy obsession.  After the assignment, Mailer returned to New York to prepare for the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

The Chicago Convention presented a much-desired situation to politically find himself, just as the Miami Convention had.  But where Miami only complicated Mailer’s own self-perception with regards to the events of ‘68, Chicago was expected to sort them.  After all, the charisma of the crowds and the youth movement had inspired Mailer’s Armies Of The Night, and had sent him into the “leftist ranks” of Rubin, Hoffman, Leary, Ginsberg etc.  Yet Mailer was a little skeptical after Miami, and still drained by the Maidstone fiasco.

Befuddling as it may seem, Mailer’s first decision in Chicago was to not take part in any riots that may result from the SDS.  From the time of his arrival, Mailer sensed the impending doom that awaited the SDS at the hands of Chicago police.  This decision runs contrary to the tone and action that defined Armies Of The Night.

In fact, Norman Mailer watched the riot from his hotel, which overlooked the park, drinking very heavily.  Earlier that day he had addressed the yuppies along with such literary giants as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet, but that was the most hands-on he had been thus far.  Once satisfactorily drunk, Mailer left his room and went down to the park to asses the aftermath of the riot.  While back on the street, Mailer intentionally picks two fights with policemen.  In each fight, the police officers involved had not known whom Mailer was or that he was present as a journalist.  It was Mailer’s friend Pete Hamill who bailed him out of trouble each time.  Once weary with the fights and the leftist youth, Mailer and Hamill decided to spend the rest of the night at a party at the Playboy Mansion.

In Miami And The Siege Of Chicago, Mailer once again put into practice the egotistical style with which he penned Armies Of The Night; a third person account of his exploits at either convention.  The difference between the two books was in its tone.  Mailer had progressed from the electric and hopeful outlook of Armies Of The Night to a confused ambivalence, not sure whom to glorify with both the right and left seeming ambiguous:

“Delegates came to their feet, and applauded an empty

screen-it was as if the center of American life was now

passing the age where it could still look forward; now

people looked back into memory, into the past of the

nation-was that possible?”[Mailer, page 204]

Upon the release of the book Miami And The Siege Of Chicago, it was clear that Mailer had sobered up his political views.  Still siding more towards the left in Miami And Siege Of Chicago, he had managed to distance himself, becoming more objective and thoughtful.  The sixties had changed, and Norman Mailer with them.

Many critics cited Miami And The Siege Of Chicago as a retread of Armies Of The Night.  But a couple managed to understand that Norman Mailer had captured the naïve action packed hopefulness of the left in Armies Of The Night, which, by 1968, after all the assassinations and murder in the streets had become quiet disdain in Miami And The Siege Of Chicago.  When The Naked And The Dead was first published, Mailer was hailed as “the greatest American Author of our time”.  That is perhaps the key to the work of Norman Mailer, reflecting the “times” in America.  Mary Dearborn said it best when she wrote-“he [Norman Mailer] always maintained that his subject was time”.[Dearborn, page 313]

-Robert Curry

Citations-

Mailer, Norman. Miami and the Siege of Chicago. New York: Signet Books, 1968.

Mailer, Norman. The Spooky Art. New York: Random House, 2003.

Mekas, Jonas. Movie Journal. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972.

Poirier, Richard. Norman Mailer. New York: Viking Press, 1972.

Adams, Laura, ed. Will The Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up. Port Washington:        Kennikat Press, 1974.

Manso, Peter. Mailer His Life And Times. New York: Simon & Schuster,  1985.

Dearborn, Mary. Mailer, A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

Rollyson, Carl. The Lives Of Norman Mailer. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

O’Neill, William. Coming Apart. Toronto: Times Books, 1971.

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