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Armies of the light

By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 18, 2007

After 90 hours of footage and two years in the editing room (nothing like those long hours at a moviola to take the edge off exuberant improvisatory spontaneity), Mailer spun out a farrago not so much like Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool or Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider as the camp classic Myra Breckenridge. Random clips of mild debauchery (is that white girl actually fucking that black dude? and why doesn’t he take off his sunglasses?), cryptic intrigue (who’s loyal to Kingsley? who wants him dead? what’s the difference?), and tedious set pieces (Kingsley affecting a black accent as he assures the Brothers that he’s “the best white man around”) end in an anti-climactic “Assassination Ball” and a pedantic al fresco class in film art headed by Mailer.

But then a moment explodes that vindicates everything I just described. Rip Torn, who plays Kingsley’s troubled brother, refuses to accept the end of the film without its logical conclusion: Kingsley’s murder. Is the scene that follows staged or spontaneous? It’s like the inverse of the tennis match in Blow-Up, and the blood is real.

It took Mailer nearly two decades to clear his head enough to get behind the camera again. His adaptation of his novel TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE (1987; September 22 at 9:45 pm) violates every principle of cinema he had previously held. Overscripted, rococo in its cornball clichés and byzantine plotting (flashbacks within flashbacks, for a start), devoid of improvisation and Mailer’s on-camera presence, it’s a must-see. A down-and-out writer and ex-bartender played by Ryan O’Neal wakes up after a two-week bender to a bloody jeep, a severed head, and no memory. Then things get really freaky. As with Brian De Palma at his fruitiest, the question arises: is Mailer shitting us?

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