Home Video Hovel- Norman Mailer: The American, by Matt Warren
Before watching the new biodoc Norman Mailer: The American the only thing I knew about the iconoclastic writer was that he was a controversial, media-friendly blowhard who was at least as famous for his outrageous antics as he was for his contributions to the literary world. But now, having seen director Joseph Mantegna’s featherweight hagiography, my well-informed opinion on the man is this: Norman Mailer was a controversial, media-friendly blowhard who was at least as famous for his outrageous antics as hew was for his contributions to the literary world. Also, Rip Torn almost chewed his ear off once.
Norman Mailer follows last year’s American: The Bill Hicks Story, and as far as I can tell there’s no relation between the two films. But it seems worth noting that both have co-opted the term “American” to describe vulgar, abrasive anti-authoritarian social critics who, though they might protest otherwise, clearly reveled their detractors’ scorn. This probably says something significant about out national character, but I’m not sure what, exactly. And I’m not sure it’s good PR. But I think in both cases what these titles hint at is the American sense of Individualism. For both Hicks and Mailer, Individualism meant reacting antagonistically towards outside influencers—lashing out was a way to assert personhood. And Mailer certainly did not lack for tormentors, real or imagined, which included five decades’ worth of presidents, book publishers, and ex-wives.
The American is a workmanlike, PBS-style overview of the highs and lows of Mailer’s personal and professional career. The attraction here is ostensibly the film’s subject, not its construction. Mantegna displays very little artistry, preferring a blunt barrage of file footage and talking heads. But even within this unambitious framework, Mantegna’s filmcraft is lacking. Interview footage is over- or underexposed, the audio is blown out, and the editing displays no sense of narrative thrust. Mantegna doesn’t dig too deep, presenting a version of Mailer the corpulent, bellicose writer himself would have no doubt endorsed: a lusty, masculine brawler-intellectual committed to exposing hypocrisy and injustice in every walk of American life.
Even as The American makes a convincing case for Mailer as an important 20th Century public figure, the film seems totally uninterested in his writing career. I still don’t know what, exactly, he did as an author that was so radically different, or skilled, or significant. I don’t have any sense of his influence on other writers, and I have no insight into his imagination or objectives. Mailer seems to have been purely reactive, simply pinballing against different irritants and spewing prose-shaped bile in response. This is probably why Mailer continues to be more known than read. His talents don’t invite, they expel.
There is some good footage here. It’s fun to watch Mailer sparring with Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show, for example. Or running for mayor of New York. But the highlight is some raw footage from an aborted improvisational film project that saw Mailer nearly murdered by fellow cast member Rip Torn. Bored with the directionlessness of the shoot, Torn decided to inject some drama into the proceedings by attempting to crush his Mailer’s head with a rock. Much grabbling and face biting and ear-tearing ensues, leaving both men bloodied and bewildered. It’s pretty amazing, and confirms once again that Rip Torn is 100% unfuckwithable.
Norman Mailer: The American may be a good primer on the historical character known as “Norman Mailer,” but it doesn’t do the one thing Norman Mailer professed to hold dear. It doesn’t cut through the bullshit.