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MAIDSTONE (1970).

Norman Mailer is one of America's most acclaimed and outspoken writers, but in the late-'60s he wasn't satisfied with a Pulitzer Prize and best-selling novels like The Naked and the Dead -- he wanted to be a more macho John Cassavetes by directing and starring in a trio of improvisational underground features; WILD 90, BEYOND THE LAW and MAIDSTONE. These ragged projects received spotty distribution and substantial critical abuse, and at some point during each one of these fascinatingly self-indulgent films I felt the urge to beat Mailer about the face with a hardcover copy of The Executioner's Song. MAIDSTONE, the third film in Mailer's indie triptych was his craziest concoction yet. A messy mix of politics, sex and celebrity, this spectacular folly was shot in just five days, with five camera crews chronicling a small army of Mailer's friends and colleagues, who were all lured into this free-form, whirlwind moviemaking experience. Norman only allowed himself three hours of sleep per night, over 45 hours worth of raw footage was shot, and after two years of editing, he regurgitated this bizarre 105-minute hodgepodge. It's a four-alarm disaster, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world! Mailer stars as universally-admired movie director Norman T. Kingsley, who's also running as an independent candidate for the Presidency of the United States. (Talk about an ego! Kingsley is compared to Fellini and Bunuel, while in real life, Mailer couldn't direct his own beer shit.) Set entirely in and around Kingsley's East Hampton mansion (dubbed Maidstone) during a non-stop party, a British TV-journalist (Mailer's 3rd wife, Jean Campbell) reports on the decadent fun while his neanderthal-rat-pack entourage (known as the "Cashbox") is led by Kingsley's enigmatic half-brother Rey O'Houlihan (Rip Torn, indulging in rampant Method craziness, as we'll soon learn). Kingsley tries to convince some young black men that he's the best honky for the White House; a shirtless Norman debates the president of a women's college; he charms a bevy of counterculture reporters, who adore his blunt honesty; and when Kingsley isn't campaigning, he shoots a sex scene with Torn for his next epic, plus a nude bedroom moment with Ultra Violet. Elsewhere, a roomful of powerful bigwigs (including Harris Yulin) discuss whether this "Mad Hatter" maverick (who compares the Presidency to being "a monkey in a shooting gallery") should be murdered before his grass roots support overwhelms The System's stooges, Nixon and Humphrey. Hard to believe, the film's first chaotic hour makes sense in comparison to its final 45 minutes, which spiral out-of-control with topless actresses, emotional outbursts, people wandering aimlessly, a rap session between Mailer and his cast, and a tuxedoed freak-out entitled "The Grand Assassination Ball." Then there's Rip Torn, who looks alternately stoned, exhausted, horny, and pissed-off -- but that still won't prepare you for his most infamous sequence, when certifiably-nuts Rip follows through on the film's assassination scenario but (oops!) forgot to inform Mailer or his nearby family. It's a mindblowing moment, as Torn suddenly grabs a toolbox hammer during an idyllic afternoon stroll and attacks Mailer, with both ending up bloodied (Mailer from a hammer blow to his skull, Torn from Norman biting the shit out of his ear). Blurring the line between reality and fiction, MAIDSTONE is a one-of-a-kind fiasco that meshes a muddled political drama, foolish avant-garde filmmaking and an engrossing encapsulation of Mailer's Godzilla-sized ego.

© 2007 by Steven Puchalski.