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HE HAD HEARD a good deal about Mr. Norman Mailer, and so walked all the way down Brattle Street to meet him for dinner before his performance last Friday. Even to initiates. Mr. Mailer was not immediately recognizable. There was a man standing by the stair case in the home of the Advocate Trustee with an inordinate number of companions for a dinner guest--but that man, rather short and wearing gold-rimmed spectacles, seemed already to have passed the touchy line separating the confidently middle-aged from those rapidly approaching the status of Senior Citizen. Fortunately, spectacles removed and fingers relaxed around a never-neglected glass, he became, most assuredly, Norman Mailer. We found an aging angry-young-man looking tired under his cowl of curly, grey, and bedraggled hair, his fight eye swollen almost shut from an operation earlier in the day. But he was to grow younger and livelier as the evening drained away.
Beatle-booted, bell-bottomed, turtle-necked, and althogether more hip-looking, we thought, than the next students gathered around him, Mr. Mailer was as generous with his conversation as anyone could demand. He held away over the worshipful without pause, punctuating 5th Avenue prep-schoolese with occasional puffings of his torso and rockings on his heel. A man who writes like a good whore smiling form the hip should be a good talker. Mr. Mailer is, and was Friday--at least, we learned, for a while. He did not, in fact, dine at all, but kept his post by the bar, answering the honest and ridiculous questions of undergraduates without sign of boredom, resisting even the beckoning words of the young daughter of the host who leaned over the bannister above Mr. Mailer's head to whisper desperately "Dinner, dinner."
When we had finished ours, he was commanding the same position and warming to questions about his films.
"Nao, nao nao, I don't write them." he explained to one of the uninformed. "It's awwl spontane-yus."
The conversation had turned inevitably to one of Mr. Mailer's avocations, boxing and to the chances of middleweights against Olympic wrestlers in street fights, when an Advocate editor introduced to the Guest of Honor another guest--the chief of Harvard's police force, an occasional journalist himself.
"I like your writing," Chief Tonis said cordially, "and I hope you like my work."
"Well ah'll tell you," said the Boxer, smiling from under an arched eyebrow and playfully extending a knuckle, "--'scuse me for hittin you--Ahm gonna rise the tropps to rebellion tonight, and ah hope you"ll get thirty thousand of your best out."
"I hope," the undaunted Chief continued. "The next time you come you'll visit my department.
"If I only had time," the graceful reply.
THERE WAS to be no rebellion, but we did watch an inconclusive fistfight between one indomitable heckler and another member of Mr. Mailer's audience in Lowell Lecture Hall that night. Hackling was in order, but questions from floor not pertaining to Mr. Miler's films were, he warned not. For the engagement was officially for the showing of clips and for pleading the cases of three films.
There was, however, a prefatory harangue from the Filmmaker. Before finding a real glass to replace the plastic cup he had brought to hold his Old Forrester and ice, he had essayed to warm up the audience with imitation of Muhammed Ali.
"Lissen! Ahm gointa tell you, Ahm gointa call ya all pals tonight as you know why? "Cause Ahm doin'a benefit, Ahm given' all money to the Advocate."
He was indeed. The dialect as only one of many he used freely in the course of the evening, and pals was only one of many things he called the audience as they responded to his often witty and coherent monologue with pained silence, sporadic hissing, and brief-Anglo-Saxon shouts.
Never one to give in against unfair odds (and we suspect that Mr. Mailer, armed with a microphone, gets even money against the collective voices of a jammed Lowell Lee) he worked his way to a begrudged dominance by catching the audience off-guard with asides in impressively fluent double-talk, invocations of Harvard's Classical past, of God's blessing on the Advocate and Drinking in Public. We thought, at the time, that Mr. Mailer has a lot to learn about making films, but that he stands unchallenged authority the of putting audiences where he wants them.
EVENTUALLY he relinquished control of his projectionist, and there ensued a total of perhaps fifty minutes of sequences from Wild 90, Beyond the Law, (Blue), and the feature-length Maid-stone, Because the sequences were so short, we decided to suspend final judgement on Mr. Mailer's films until we should see them in entirely. After the first few seconds of Wild 90, however, the impatient began to pass judgment on Mr. Mailer as film-maker.
His fundamental technique is to place actors, trained and otherwise, in roughly planned situations, and to let them improvise freely thence forty. In his first film several Mafiosi are holed up in a room waiting to be rubbed lout; the actors are Mr. Mailer himself and some cronies, and they play affectionately with guns, bottles, women, and each other.
Beyond the Law was much less humorous. One segment had some affecting portrayals of detectives interrogating murder suspects, and for brief moments the film seemed to vindicate the Director's theory of getting closer to the tensions of real life than do the cosmetically perfect creations of most Hollywood hacks.
The Novelist had elsewhere written an essay on his techniques of making films, explained in terms of his latest and longest work, Maidstone. With the intention of recording events truly appropriate to the nature of the medium rather than to the conventions of pre-film literature (the essay tells us,) Mr. Mailer invited a large group of friends, actors, actor-friends, and non-actor non-friends for a week-long party in Easthampton. There, with the use of four estates and the help of three cambers crews, the sol-disant Prisoner of Movies made a film in which "the country has become so absolutely disheveled that a movie director is running for president-and he's also making a paragraphic film at the same time." The director is named Norman T. Kingsley and is played by the director, Norman K. Mailer.
The essay describing all this is laden with references to the then recent assasination of Bobby Kennedy, the strangely ominous atmosphere of the Easthampton party, and suspicions of a spontaneous assassination attempt on Mr. Mailer himself. The denouement of the film came, we are informed, when on the last day of the week Mr. Rip Torn attacked Mr. Kingsley Mailer with a seriously weilded hammer, hit him on the head with the flat of it, and in return had his ear bitten bloody. We wonder whether Mr. Mailer might really have been more pleased with the way the film emerged if the assasin had attacked more viciously, the victim had pleaded vainly for protection from enraptured onlookers, and had died bloodily before the cold eyes of the camera. We of course should have been displeased if this had happened, because Mr. Mailer would not have been able to explain the film to us.
Nor would he have been able to attend the reception that followed the films--which reception was held, through as eleventh-hour tactical decision by Advocate editors, at the lampoon castle rather than at the Advocate Building. The move did not, finally, confound a crowd of well-wishers who had heard Mr. Mailer mention a "libation" that was to follow his address. And so we found Mr. Mailer in the Lampoon banquet hall surrounded by a crush of unexpected undergraduates.
HE WAS, we decided, a man of prodigious endurance and good nature to resume his obliging cocktail-party manner after an already long evening. There he remained until well after midnight, still standing, talking to whomever could get a word in, turning his wit to whatever challenge was offered, land occasionally butting heads with a hairy Welshman named Thomas.
As we listened to him, Mr. Miler complained of the ill effects that drinking from plastic cups has on his bowels. And feeling sympathetic, we offered to find him another real glass to replace the plastic--in exchange for an interview. He agreed, but, once supplied, demurred, and we were only partly consoled by his offer to shake our hand, Others, much more interested in his conversation than in interviews, seemed altogether delighted by his presence. One cheery visitor who has called for drink repeatedly during the lecture did penance at the party by keeping the Guest's glass filled.
Earlier in the evening, Mr. Mailer had told his audience "Left-conservatism's my position. Arose the mob to their folly and the oppressed to their genies." He had also asked all the women of the audience who thought him a pig to raise their hands, and had told the near-unanimous respondents. "You've been raped by the intellectual pigs of the Ladies' Left." We heard no one at the reception engage him in serious political argument. But one wise student asked him whether he had really enjoyed his return to Harvard.
"Drinkin's drinkin' "smiled back the novelist with a curl of the lip corresponding to an aire of Irishness he had taken on for the last part of the evening.
We had to agree, nodded our head, and went home."
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