*. Thank heavens for subtitles. Aside from the justifiably famous scene where Norman Mailer barks at a dog, what this movie is perhaps best known for is the incomprehensibility of its dialogue.
*. In the first place, the actual sound recording is muddy, and even with the subtitles there are plenty of “inaudible” and “indistinct” tags. There were, alas,” technical problems.” Mailer himself confessed that the results made it sound like “everybody is talking through a jockstrap” (and where he got that image from is anyone’s guess).
*. But even with a clearer soundtrack there would still be problems. The characters often express themselves by way of what are glossed in the subtitles as “roars,” “grunts,” “growls,” and (my favourite) “gibbering.”
*. And still it gets worse. When the characters can be heard, and speak clearly, just what they are saying is often totally obscure, even to each other. Did words like “gazoo” and “fyootch” exist, or was Mailer just making them up? What does the “prunes” vs. “dunes” exchange refer to? Or what does it mean when the Prince tells 2R “You knocked the zoo off the sink.” This is a bold statement, presumably, in response to which 2R helplessly stammers “What? What are you talkin’ about?”
*. Perhaps the only good thing you can say about the sound is that it matches the photography, which might be described as drunken fly-on-the-wall: buzzing about and frequently out of focus.
*. Aside from these technical matters . . . well, there is more bad news. There was no script, leaving the actors on their own to improvise on a horribly vague theme. What on earth is going on here anyway? Why are Mailer and his boon companions stuck in that room? Who is after them? Are they perhaps waiting for Godot?
*. Perhaps the latter. The whole thing has the feel of warmed-over existentialist drama. There’s no exit from such a room, at least until the fourth wall comes down and everyone just shakes hands and agrees the show is over. This much I can accept, but there’s no content for the form.
*. Can we criticize the performances of the “Maf boys”? After all, none of them were actors, and they had no script. Mailer shot a lot of film (reportedly 150 minutes) and one has to wonder, given the quality of what made it into the final print, just what horrors fell to the cutting room floor. I suspect there were quite a few bloopers. As it is, Buzz Farbar’s Cameo seems to be trying hard not to break into giggles much of the time.
*. Given all the talk of cock and cunt, to what extent may we be permitted to see these three Big Swinging Dicks as repressed homosexuals? Getting locked up together for such a long time and “going stir” will do that to even the manliest man. Or so I’m told.
*. The Reservoir Dogs of its time? Contemporary reviewers were struck by its profanity, though I don’t recall there being much of this aside from the over-use of “cock” and “cunt.” Mailer thought it had “the most repetitive, pervasive obscenity of any film ever made,” which is the sort of thing that Tarantino might have boasted of his debut.
*. But what does such a comparison tell us? Both are low-budget, auteur films, but Reservoir Dogs is a far more professional and slick production. In 1967 slick wasn’t a good thing. In the ’90s it had become essential. In this sense at least the ’90s were much less wild.
*. Have we lost anything? I think independent filmmakers are as experimental as they’ve ever been, but they don’t seem as confident in their individual vision. Say what you will about Mailer’s ego, but confidence was one thing he did not lack, There are days (not many, but there are some) when I miss his barbaric yawps, yelps, barks and gibbers.