|Cinema Libre: Norman Mailer|
Mary Dearborn's appraisal sounds over the top but — You know? It's not entirely absurd. He was in all events one of the heavyweight contenders on an era when a whole raft of writers was competing to be the most attention-getting, outrageous and provocative. It wasn't easy to be more provocative than Gore Vidal, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, or other contemporaries, or to outshine as a prosemaker that older generation of Hemingway and Faulkner, but Mailer did his damnedest.
Like Vidal, he participated in politics as a candidate for office — not the Senate, like Vidal, but for mayor of New York. Like Hunter Thompson, he'd fuel himself on alcohol and drugs (though unlike Thompson, he was not a firearms enthusiast). Like Kerouac and other writers he admired, he wrote fast and furiously. And, most of all like Hemingway, he tried to live the experiences he wrote about, from war to prize-fighting to political campaigning.
And far more than any of them, even more than Hemingway, he outraged and openly insulted feminists. Though — or because — as he and many of his lovers said, he "loved" women. "Love" can mean many different things. In his case it meant that he strongly desired to couple with them, to possess them, to please them. And imagined that he was pleasing them by being outrageous, by talking dirty in public or even, in a drunken drug-fueled rage that is one of the most impactful moments of the documentary, attacking and stabbing his wife under the apparent illusion that he was a bullfighter and she the bull.
And he also wrote some of the most powerful descriptions of death and killing, of male rage. Drawing on and channeling his own rage to make us feel and shiver with the shot, the stab, the punch, the fuck. His themes were always sex and violence. His problem, that he didn't know the difference. Violence was always orgasmic, sex to be complete had to be violent.
He wasn't always a great artist — sometimes he was just a stupid clown. But he could be a great artist, and sometimes was. Maybe his most important work is the nonfiction (Armies of the Night, etc.). But — for him and I think in reality — it's all "fiction," because every supposed fact is really a distortion through somebody's way of viewing and describing events. And that's why a work that the reader knows is "fiction" can be truer, because it avoids the pretense of objectivity and openly calls on the reader to draw on his or her own experience to feel and complete the story. This is an insight from one of the "Extras" in the DVD, from an interview in Mailer's last year of life (2007).
This addition to the abundant Mailer literature — no writer seems to have attracted more attention — doesn't give us much in analysis of why America could grow and celebrate such an enormous ego, despite the suggestion in the title "Norman Mailer, The American"— that is, that he and his fame were uniquely American phenomena. That's something for us to think about. Something about "America" made him possible.
What the documentary does offer is a lively composite of videoclips and interviews, some of them insightful and others revealing the incomprehension of people Mailer had stunned — most notably, Adele Morales Mailer, the wife he took for a bull and nearly killed. Except for Adele's very personal account of that fateful night, most of this stuff we knew before. But the documentary is most interesting, to me and probably most writers, for the scenes of Mailer himself, talking about life and writing. If you get the DVD, don't miss the snippets of his remarks, at widely different times of his life, in the "Extras." Mailer was very intelligent, and occasionally — but only occasionally, and only when sober — he was also wise.
Just released by Cinema Libre
Check out these video clips: http://vimeo.com/album/1917630
Also worth reading, this obit from the New York Times, by Charles McGrath:
Norman Mailer, Towering Writer With Matching Ego, Dies at 84