Nothing But the Doc

Review: “Norman Mailer: The American”


Last night I attended a special screening of Joseph Mantegna’s Norman Mailer: The American, part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s bi-monthly Independents Night series, which presents NYC premieres of new American documentaries. And my main take-away with the experience was: what an antithesis of the audience for a Justin Bieber documentary!

Yes, leave it to me to compare Justin Bieber: Never Say Never with Norman Mailer: The American, but the latter is the first doc I’ve seen theatrically since the former and I just couldn’t help thinking about them together. For instance, Never Say Never is about a kid who hasn’t really lived much yet and his biographical concert film is more broadly about the zeitgeist of the last couple years. Meanwhile, the Mailer film is about a man who lived a very long and very full life, and his bio ends up more broadly being about the zeitgeist of a great many years. In a way, at least for now, Bieber represents the 21st century as much as Mailer represents the 20th.

The funny thing is that Mantegna, during a post-screening Q&A, brought up the context of Mailer in a pre-YouTube time, how he could create Jackie Kennedy’s celebrity solely through the writing of a piece in Esquire. Now people, like Bieber, are discovered and created through the Internet, I guess. Yet the film also ironically features a whole lot of great footage that Mailer addicts can already find on YouTube, such as the infamous fight with Rip Torn at the end of Mailer’s artsy film Maidstone. And the juicy argument between Mailer and Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett Show (man, I wish that or another like-minded show existed today). It’s a common problem for docs working with archival footage today.

Of course, these and other clips are given biographical context and also are supplemented by commentary from scholarly and familial figures Mantegna interviews. Daughter Danielle Mailer, who also participated in the Q&A, provides a lot of insight into her experience with the film, which she appears in as a little girl, for instance. And also there are a number of interviews with Mailer included, I don’t think shot specifically for this documentary, that fill in with constant comic relief and other brilliant anecdotes and bon mots. Like how plastic is making our society more violent and how jazz is excitingly sexual, with solos akin to the act of trying to come under excruciating circumstances. Writer Harriet Sohmers Zwerling gives the doc a lot of other amusingly meaty moments, such as talk of threesomes and theories that Mailer was in fact a repressed homosexual (first wife Adele Mailer also implies this).

Coming in as someone relatively unfamiliar with the man (I wasn’t even aware he worked with Richard Leacock and DA Pennabaker), the film is a great introduction to his persona. Yet from what I can tell still a revealing portrait, and it’s as fair and critical as it is certainly favorable as a memorial. When prompted for negative reactions by Mantegna, some viewers admitted to disliking its lack of cultural and historical context, which I found absurd. If anyone needs a basic 20th century history lesson, they’re not likely drawn to a film about Mailer anyway.

My main problem, since the filmmaker asked (and I’d say regardless), is with the production quality. The picture and sound, especially during interviews, would look terrible on TV let alone the giant screen of the Walter Reade Theater. It’s ugliness works for the crude man and language, though. A doc like this should look rather rough and unpolished and sound so distorted. Plus it doesn’t matter given how otherwise well-crafted it is. The sequence in which interviewees, including Adele, recount the events of the night Mailer stabbed her, is complemented by archive bullfight footage, quickly cut, and it is intense and emotional and mostly just awesome.

Norman Mailer: The American is not a shiny and entirely positive portrayal, and in spite of my appreciation for some puff pieces (i.e. the Bieber), that’s what I love about it.

The doc is still without distribution, so stay tuned for more info. For now, watch the trailer below: