Judge William Lee tried writing a novel. Next time, he'll try stabbing someone.
The life and times of Norman Mailer as told by those closest to him and the man himself.
Norman Mailer (1923-2007) has been called one of the most important writers of the second half of the twentieth century. The novelist and essayist has also spent time as a newspaperman (one of the original publishers of The Village Voice), a politician (running in 1969 to be Mayor of New York City), an activist (protesting against the Vietnam War) and a filmmaker (his Tough Guys Don't Dance was roundly scorned by critics and audiences). The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner was also married six times and fathered nine children. While I am aware of Mailer as a literary figure and a celebrity, I have never read anything written by him. Nevertheless, I will weigh in with my thoughts of the man based on the 85-minute introduction I received courtesy of this documentary.
Norman Mailer: The American, directed by Joseph Mantegna, assembles a lot of new and old interview footage, talk show clips and archival photographs to paint the portrait of the man. To complement the narration, the film also makes liberal use of stock footage. Sometimes the choice of footage is obvious but illustrative such as stock World War II scenes when talking about his military service. Other times, the footage is literal to the point of being ridiculous, such as actual scenes from a bullfight when one person recalls Mailer acting like a bull preceding an incident of domestic violence. The narrative of his life comes in a fast and constant barrage of various voices, hardly pausing for even a brief moment. The film presents the information fast and to the point but it can feel overwhelming at first.
The first section of the documentary covers Mailer's childhood and education. Then it runs through a checklist of the key points in his writing career. With the publication of The Naked and the Dead, based on his military service in World War II, he became a celebrated writer with his first novel. The film explains that the book made a big impression because he used the f-word a lot.
The first half of the film dealing with Mailer's early career is driven largely by a need to cover the chronology. Sure, he was driven by his need to prove himself as a writer but the film's handling of these years is done on autopilot. When reminiscences of his poor handling of drugs and alcohol enter the picture, this also feels hurried and somewhat detached. During the first part of the film, I developed little interest for this drunken, abusive egoist, so I was rather surprised the second part captured my attention as much as it did.
Biographers J. Michael Lennon and Mary Dearborn are called upon to give voice to the official record of Norman Mailer but it's the many people who knew him intimately that really supply the heart of this film. Adele, his second wife, is one of the people who talks about Mailer most admirably even though he stabbed her (and she retells the incident and its aftermath in detail). Some of his other wives are heard or at least seen in old clips. Some of Mailer's children also share their memories of growing up with him, even if the memories aren't all pleasant. Though he proved to be a troubled husband and an irresponsible father, it's evident that he inspired loyalty among the people closest to him.
Another strength of the documentary is its use of footage that shows Mailer reacting in the moment to spontaneous events. In particular, two extended clips are highly entertaining and show how the man conducts himself when he's challenged. The first clip is from The Dick Cavett Show when he and Gore Vidal have a hostile exchange. The second is from Mailer's experimental movie Maidstone when actor Rip Torn unexpectedly attacks him with a hammer. These two scenes, along with several other short clips in the film, make it easier to see how Mailer was such an iconic presence in his time.
The DVD suffers somewhat because of the various sources that make up the material seen in this film. Consequently, the picture and audio quality is inconsistent throughout. Often, the image quality of the archival material is soft or appears to have originated from a low-resolution source. The scenes that look like newly shot interviews are flatly lit. The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 aspect ratio but many still photographs are displayed with a slight horizontal stretch in order to fill the screen. The stereo audio mix works adequately for the most part but in a couple of scenes there is some minor distortion in the sound.
The disc includes 12 minutes of additional interview clips indexed by the topic for which Mailer provides an interesting statement. Some still pictures of Mailer's letters to Adele are also on view. The film's trailer is also available as an extra on the disc.
Norman Mailer: The American is perhaps best enjoyed by established fans of the man and his works. There is a wealth of clips featuring the man and just as many of close relations remembering him. The film is less effective for viewers unfamiliar with the literary celebrity because the film is concerned with how he was famous without really explaining why he was famous. The film helped me to gain some appreciation for his large personality but only a rudimentary understanding of the impact and import of his work.
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