Thank you one and all!
Norman Mailer interviewed by John Whiting
October 17, 1970
WHITING: In The Armies of the Night, you say at one point that you were attracted to speaking in public because, like writing, it was the occasion for some mystery and a moment to know the blood of the gambler in one’s self. And what I was wondering is whether speaking in public contributed at all to your desire to make films.
MAILER: I think it did, and I think the idea that I’ve had from the beginning—that you can make films with people without a script—derives doubtless from the knowledge over the years that you can conduct a very loose public meeting. In other words, you can go out to lecture and really stand up there without anything more in your head than a general knowledge of the topic. If it happens to be your own work, this of course gives you great expertise—you know that you can decide three minutes before you go up how you’re going to begin. When you get up there and look at the audience you might decide to start by reading something, or you might just start chatting, or you might start by saying, who’s going to ask me a question. Any way at all will work, and the fun of such evenings is to see them start coming apart, because you’re trying for a little too much more than the audience cares to go along with, and then see if you can restore it.
I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve talked in public by now over the years, but I know that there’s some nights when I can bring it off and there’s some nights when I can’t. There are any number of times when I appear in public and talk, and people go away afterward terribly annoyed because they feel that none of the things they wanted to hear were talked about, and that the evening ended in a sort of a modest shambles—it was completely inconclusive, and there was a lot of name calling and the audience had a parlous time. This has happened often and there have been times when I’ve been able to bring it off and the evenings have ended as more or less stimulating occasions, with an awful lot to think about because a great many uncharted episodes occurred.
Of course, talking in public—all this experience over the years added up to my confidence that it was possible to make a movie where you did not necessarily know the end or even the middle when you began—that certain instincts that had been developed over the years could help you to push off into places that hadn’t necessarily been travelled in before by film‑makers.
WHITING: You draw this distinction quite sharply between Public Speaking, capital P, capital S, and speaking in public, [Mm hm] the one being the sort of [mechanical, yeah] imposition of one’s self on an audience, and the other being a sort of cooperative [a colloquy, a dialog]. In films—in Maidstone, for instance—did you over get as much resistance from your actors as you get from a hostile audience?
MAILER: You couldn’t make a movie—I mean after all, the situation, far from being identical, is not even parallel. I mean, the director is finally a general, an executive, the captain of the ship, the artist. I mean, he’s the man who must be respected to some degree. If the cameramen are not listening to the director, then what hope is there for making a film? Finally, film‑making is an organized and disciplined process.
But you will get into trouble with your actors of course—if you have no trouble with your actors you’re not going to get any performances out of them. It’s just that the trouble is of another order, and the mutinies tend to be more silent. The criticism is voiced to the rear of you much more than to the front of you. And it’s quite different from facing an audience. In fact, very often the problem is that people are not speaking out enough and you have to sort of try to find out where people really do disagree with you, because if you don’t find out, they’re going to be going in directions that are not even unhappy, they’re just impossible for what you’re up to.
NOTE: There was one notoriously violent incident which neither of us mentioned. The only scene from the film that still survives in cinematic memory, it is uniquely upsetting. Rip Torn's extraordinary decision to hit Mailer on the head with a hammer was retroactively justified by the fact that Mailer included the scene in the final cut. Watching it during the gratuitous violence of the midterm elections, both physical and psychological, it's more disturbing then ever—cinéma vérité with a vengeance!
WHITING Did you interrupt scenes that you thought weren’t going well?
MAILER: I tend to do that rarely for two reasons, one is I don’t have enough experience, and you need an awful lot of experience to know when an actor’s going to warm up and when he’s just going down hill. So I would tend to be conservative about that, I usually let a scene run on too long rather than cut it too abruptly, but there’ll be times once in a while when my mind‑synch would tell me the thing to do was to rough an actor up by interrupting them two or three times in a row, in order to get their adrenalin flowing. Sometimes you just see two actors that are playing very little but their own mutual hangover, and then you’ve just gotta step in.
WHITING Now, you’ve explained that your films are based on the relative autonomy of your actors and your cameramen in the filming experience. But of course in the final stage of cutting and mixing, you as the director are very meticulously in control of the whole situation, and the model of this might be described as that of an anarchistic society under a benevolent dictatorship. [Mailer laughs] Do you think that’s a fair comment?
MAILER: Well, I think it’s an imprisoning comment. It may be fair but it certainly is leaving me in jail as a benevolent dictator. No, I think that if you’re going to say that, then you’ve got to say that every artist is a benevolent dictator, which I’m not prepared to say. I think there’s such a thing as taking over a final authority, even in the most democratic of societies. There always are people who are delegated to finish the job, or to carry the job out. And the delegation of authority is a critical matter, because one thing I know is if a man does not have the authority to do a job and do it his way, but he has to do it with a committee all the time, I mean, that’s horror. The greatest argument I ever have with left groups is this sort of fussy insistence on committee decision. I mean after all, the horror of the corporation is precisely that it does everything through committees. That’s why I find it so absurd when left-wing people begin to do things through committees too.
There’s an interesting dialectic between community decision and individual decision. Unless the two keep working back and forth, you can get very little that’s interesting. What happens here is we start with a communal process and it then becomes an individual business when I take it over, then it finally becomes a communal process again when audiences see it. But it’s the going back and forth that counts. And I wouldn’t dream of ever making a picture and then having to submit my cuts to a committee, or to the actors.
WHITING: Do you then have any opinions—you sort of obliquely indicated an opinion—on such phenomena as happenings, and audience‑participation theatre, and other artistic events in which the artist voluntarily relinquishes control?
MAILER: I think they’re interesting only if the artist relinquishes control in order to gain a greater control later—in other words I go back to the notion of a dialectic between control and the relinquishment of control in order to obtain a higher establishment of control, in order to relinquish it still again to get still a higher establishment of control and so forth—in other words I think there’s nothing interesting at all about control disappearing; I think control’s a natural human activity.
I think on the other hand there’s nothing more paralysing and suffocating than a control which never relaxes its control. This is one of the reasons why we all hate the very notion of dictatorship, because we think of a fist that’s tightly clenched and just never opens. But what’s interesting about events and happenings, I think is not our hope that all art is going to turn into the event and the happening, but that they open the way for us to see more. To see more ways of beginning to explore the discovery of reality, which is what art is finally all about.
I mean, art says in effect that it’s a separate discipline, that it’s a discipline as valuable as science. It’s as indispensable a means of perceiving the universe as any other. But for that we have to discover new modes all the time, new ways of appreciating reality. And of even beginning to perceive it, because the act of perceiving reality, which most people who are filled with common sense think is a routine matter, is actually an extraordinarily complex matter. And finally as one begins to go into it more and more deeply. it’s a foundationless matter. There no such thing really as a firm notion of reality, as one looks at it. So these ways of making pictures are more than just a matter of saying, let’s dispense with control. Rather, what we’re really saying is, let’s open those ways in which we achieve our control. Let’s take more risks.
Finally, I go on the firm notion that we all go around acting all the time, and we all go around manipulating social situations to the best of our ability. Which is why I said a couple of days ago that Maidstone bore a peculiar relation to Rasho‑mon because, when in Rasho‑mon we have the four versions of the tale, each one’s completely different, each person who’s telling the story is at the center of it; and they figure as—whatever else they figure as, they each figure as the major manipulator. The one who tells the story has the most important effect upon the story, which is one of the profound things that Rasho‑mon is saying. Well, in Maidstone, if you have a scene with ten people in it, each one of them, living in their own consciousness, sees himself as the major manipulator in the scene which is taking place, which is why Maidstone is a movie different from other movies. Because—in the average movie, if you’ve got ten actors on stage, seven of them know that they’re essentially there as background. One of the reason’s they’re there as background is because they learn professionally that that’s what they are. They’re there as background, and so they’re just trying to present one facet of themselves. They’re trying to look eager, or bored, or whatever the director’s told them to look. And you’re not getting the full spectrum of presentation that any human offers at any instant. When people are in life, they offer much more than one suggestion of themselves. That is they may decide they wish to look eager for reasons that the situation demands. But besides looking eager, they’re also looking resentful, hopeful, optimistic, worried‑‑‑in other words we present ten aspects of our self at once. And I think one of the things that we get in pictures like Beyond the Law and Maidstone—one of the things we do get is this fullness of presentation, which is why I’ve said over and over and over again that these pictures get better every time one sees them. Because there’s more and more to discover each time, which can’t be said for the average movie no matter how good—there’s a tendency for the average movie to start emptying itself out about the third time you see it.
I think the first time, what happens is that Maidstone plays with people’s expectations of plot. You see, there have been a great many improvised movies made before I came along to make mine, but one of the great differences is most of the improvised movies have been avant-garde movies which were extremely avant-garde—and their stories, if nothing else, were extremely avant-garde. And, for various reasons, they were also pictures which were extremely slow in pace, because improvisation tends to be slow. Well, I came along with a different notion of improvisation which is I wanted to take stories which were much closer to commercial stories and popular myths and legends, and deal with very conventional material like policemen and criminals in a police station at night—or deal with a spy story, which in effect is what Maidstone is along with everything else. It’s a story about men in a powerful government bureau who are planning to kill a rather sinister fellow who’s running for President under dubious auspices, and so forth and so on, sort of fragmented Hollywood myths. And then take them and play with these old familiar stories, in the way that a commercial movie would play with them—in other words have fast tempo and good dialog and all that. So we end up with something that’s odd, because, I think, it gets into that middle ground between people leading their everyday life, and people living their fantasy life. Of playing out stories. At any rate, working with this truly familiar material‑‑of spy stories and suspense stories and cop stories and so forth. An audience has expectations, they’ve seen a thousand movies in their life. These movies have turns of plot which are almost as regular as the musical scale.
So as my story proceeds in Maidstone there are expectations. you keep thinking the picture is going to turn a corner to the left, and all of a sudden it turns a corner to the right. Something that you thought was going to continue doesn’t continue. A character you get interested in disappears. Another character you haven’t quite met pops into the picture suddenly. All of these things prove maddening the first time through, because they keep twisting the neck and wrenching one’s consciousness in ways that you’re not always prepared for. That’s done purposely because I want people to have a feeling of how disruptive life itself actually is—of how absolutely bewildering an average day can be if we start looking at it in terms of our expectations. Because it happens to many people as they go through each day with certain expectations and the expectations keep being wrenched. And I think the first time one sees Maidstone, you get a sense of how really bewildering a day is. However, when we go back at night and we fall asleep, we start reordering the day, and we get more of a sense of what the real meaning of the day was. Well, the second time you see Maidstone, you know where the story’s going to go, and so you’re going to be frustrated less. And you’re going to be better prepared for the sharp turns. As a result, you can relax a little more, and begin to see what’s actually going on on the screen. About the third, fourth and fifth times, it gets really interesting because there’s an awful lot going on on that screen. And at a certain point one says, my God, this is pretty interesting, there really is something going on that I didn’t see before at all. Such at least is the director’s fond hope.
WHITING: Of course this is the sort of thing that leads to attacks from both traditional cinema and from avant-garde cinema, because it doesn’t fit into the presuppositions of either group.
MAILER: Well it’s not wild enough to satisfy avant-garde film-makers; and it certainly is not comfortable for the commercial film‑maker. And so it is in this middle ground. But I think it’s a place that we’ve all got to get into—in other words, I think that the commercial movies have just got to be opened up. And you know, there are a great many commercial movies that are doing just this now.
WHITING: The chronology of Maidstone is more or less continuous [YES] except for the dream sequence, which is clearly labelled a dream sequence.
MAILER: Well, you see the dream recapitulates the events of the movie. Except they’re somewhat different from the dream, they’re close, but they’re different. And I felt that the dream is almost the place where everything I’ve been working on in films up to this point comes together. In other words I think that the justification of this method—If it’s presented anywhere in any of my film work. it’s presented in that dream. Because, I think if nothing else what we show is that you can present a dream that has absolutely no fantastic or surrealistic material in it. Usually in the average Hollywood movie when they want to show a dream, they then spend half the budget on having the actors carried away on clouds, and having extraordinary lights, and having ogres pop out of the woodwork, and so forth and so on, and chorus lines weave in and out, and the lights are used also, and what we do here is we use exactly the same material as we used before in the movie—same people in virtually the same scenes. And yet something’s going on that’s subtly different. And because it’s subtly different it feels like a dream—I mean, I don’t think anyone would argue that you’re not watching a dream at that point, it’s very much a dream I think. But it’s a dream that’s achieved with particularly simple means, and I’m sort of pleased with that in the film. Well, some of the most terrifying dreams after all are those dreams which are extraordinarily realistic and just have one element wrong in them. In other words, there’s no dream more terrifying probably than the dream which seems to delineate the details of a perfectly ordinary day, except there’s just one thing wrong with this day, which is you’ve committed a murder. And, you know, no dream could be more frightening than that.
[NOTE: Fourteen years later this became the plot of Tough Guys Don’t Dance!]
WHITING: When you act in your dreams, you tend to portray a character who verges on the diabolical in one way or another—like they used to say about Sidney Greenstreet, “the man you love to hate”. (UH HUH) Is this a legitimate observation, and if so, is it intentional?
MAILER: No. Well, I think I’ve played three roles now. I played the part of a sort of petty Mafia boss in Wild 90. And I played a police detective in Beyond the Law, and then of course the movie director in Maidstone. And I think really I was just looking for three quite different roles. If they all come out as diabolical, then it may be that I’m intrigued with the diabolical, and how people get pushed over in those directions. But I’m not sure that I would agree with you, that the three characterizations are all diabolical.
WHITING: You must be aware too that most viewers are going to view you in this as an old-fashioned Hollywood star—you know, playing one’s self. Does this bother you?
MAILER: No, I think it’s going to bother other people more than it bothers me because I think it’s part of the—well, let me put it another way altogether. I’ve lived inside a peculiar legend for twenty years now. In other words, I’ve been the one who’s been most intimately acquainted with the fact that there’s a whole body of rather unimportant writing, for the greatest part, about an American character named Norman Mailer. And in fact as we all know, it got to the point where I finally sat down and put this character Norman Mailer into a book and called it The Armies of the Night. Because I finally had gotten so used to seeing my name in the third person, and having to live with something that was quite external to myself but nonetheless had an enormous psychological reality for people, much more psychological reality thanI possess for people. So in a certain sense I’ve been aware of this peculiar phenomenon of the star for a long long time. I mean, the star really lives next to himself if you will. And so it seemed to me that it was perfectly reasonable to put it into a movie and I was quite aware that the greatest difficulty in these movies was that people wouldn’t be looking at it as an actor who’s either good or bad, who’s playing a part, but they’d be looking at it as, “There’s Norman Mailer doing this!” and all through it they’d be saying, Norman Mailer’s saying this, and Norman Mailer’s up to that, and “Look at Norman Mailer making a fool of himself here!” or “My God, Norman Mailer really did that fairly well,” rather than considering the performance itself. But I thought that was part of the “given”. I think that movies in some degree are not simply the telling of stories. I’ve been saying this over and over and over again. Movies are a quasi-religious ceremony, which calls upon all the elements of the occult, the mystical, and the everyday. And realigns them in some curiously crystallized form. Which seems to give a great deal of psychic sustenance to many people.
In other words. what I’m getting at is that we’ve always felt we understood the movies because they were comfortable, they told simple stories, they had pretty people in them‑‑‑and they were a pleasure, and we could escape from the cares of the day in order to have this agreeable experience. But I think that what’s happened is that, as the world, as the twentieth century begins to enter the whirlpool of its profound contradictions; not even movies can do that for us any more. Now we’re calling for movies to give us something that’s deeper. And so that comes out of the more profound nature of the movie itself, the fact that it’s a peculiar and most mysterious process which orders chaos. Which gives us a mirror, to the past. Because as I said, looking into a movie screen is a way of looking into a mirror which looks into the past. And so, these more mystical elements in film, I think, are beginning to predominate now, and people are getting interested in making films which do much more than just give one a little recompense for the pains of the day, but rather start invigorating the psyche and subjecting the psyche to the profound shock of contemplating its own processes.
WHITING: It seems to me that in a lot of your work—and the films seem to bear this out—that there is a model here of some sort of process in which the collective psychic energy of the race is centered through, channelled through hero figures of one sort or another, either diabolical or God-like. For instance, in Cannibals and Christians, you talk about Bobby Kennedy in “A Vote for Bobby K”, and you said that you would vote every time for the man who carried great potential for good or evil. And there’s a kind of an echo of this in Maidstone as well, where the director says that he may be unloosing forces (UH‑HUH) which may be for the good of the country or for the bad of the country. I see this as a sort of a nineteenth century hangover of the whole Carlislian idea of hero figures as embodying the energy of the race.
MAILER: Yeah. John, let me rest my case on one little point, which is, Jack Kennedy was a hero, and American life I think was reasonably interesting, and Richard Nixon is not what we would call a hero. And I think American life has paid a price at this point. When a man leads a country, and he’s a man of interesting and apparent contradictions—in other words, if people can know enough about him to know what’s going on in him on any given day, if he’s available to the people—as I said, my running mate, Jimmy Breslin, was available to the people—then there’s something marvellous about him in office, because people have something to think about every day—that is they can think about whether they like their leader or don’t like him, whether their leader is feeling well or feeling badly, whether their leader is being sensible or getting foolish—and this sort of involvement with the condition of the leader and one’s trust or lack of trust in the leader is, I submit, a sign of health in a republic. When the leader is faceless, then we’re in terrible trouble. I mean, why does everyone have such a feeling of dread about the FBI? It’s because J Edgar Hoover has been the most faceless man in America for forty years.
After another forty years, what remains uppermost in my mind is Mailer's extraordinary presence—his energy, his restlessness, his constantly exploring intelligence. He never played it safe, but was prepared to take chances, to act spontaneously, to stick his neck out. It worked often enough to justify the gamble.
Watching this movie again after forty years, a line caught on the fly: "Being the President is the equivalent of being a monkey in a shooting gallery."