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Armies of the light

By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 18, 2007

Indeed. The same ghostly presence of time recaptured haunts Dick Fontaine’s documentary WILL THE REAL NORMAN MAILER PLEASE STAND UP? (1968; September 22 at 7 pm, with the director present). Maybe the film should have been titled “Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Sit Down?” — especially in the sequence in which a drunken Mailer commandeers the mic at a rally the night before the March on Washington in 1968 and pretty much repeats his performance from Wild 90.

The next day, sober and in a three-piece suit, Mailer joins the half-million demonstrators marching on the Pentagon, crosses a line of MPs, and gets himself arrested. Later that year he would win a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for his “non-fiction” novel about the event, The Armies of the Night. Between the book, perhaps his masterpiece, and Fontaine’s raw footage lies Mailer’s real genius, and it’s not improvisatory filmmaking.

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TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE: Ryan O’Neal and Isabella Rossellini in a must-see movie that violates every one of Mailer’s previous cinematic principles.
Nonetheless, he was indefatigable. For his next film, he realized he needed a more fertile premise and, perhaps, less of his own ego. In BEYOND THE LAW (1968; September 23 at 8:45 pm), Mailer plays Francis Xavier Pope, a poetic Irish detective (though his accent also suggests a Southern sheriff, or Broderick Crawford in Highway Patrol) enduring a busy night in a New York precinct station. Interrogations of rapists, murderers, and hookers (played mostly by Mailer’s own friends) interweave and evoke at times the electric immediacy of a Frederick Wiseman documentary. Some of the segments come alive with astonishing performances, such as Mailer’s friend Edward Bonetti as a wife killer and an insouciant, brutal Rip Torn as a biker. Even Mailer shines. At the end, he seems to have kissed the Blarney Stone as, with surreal hilarity and a bibulous brogue, Francis confronts his wife (Beverly Bentley, Mailer’s then-wife) with her infidelity.

Had Mailer pursued this line of filmmaking, setting up defined but flexible premises, employing cinéma-vérité techniques and explosive, confrontational improvisation, he might have rivaled John Cassavetes. But who wants the tragedy of the everyday when the Apocalypse beckons? And so we have MAIDSTONE (1970; September 21 at 7:30 pm), a film that in its megalomania, perversity, and purity embodies, for better and worse, all the excesses and virtues of the decade then just ended.

Here’s the pitch (not all that dissimilar from Robert Altman’s Nashville): Norman Kingsley (Mailer’s middle name), a filmmaker described as an heir to “Buñuel, Antonioni, and Dreyer,” wants to run for president. Interested parties gather at an estate in the Hamptons — it’s La règle du jeu with skinny-dipping, pot, and Black Panthers. Some want to support the campaign; others want to assassinate the bacchic director. Meanwhile, Kingsley is casting a movie that may or may not be pornographic. Okay, roll ’em!

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