Mailer for Mayor: dull documentary of limited historical value

Dick Fontaine, “Mailer for Mayor” (1969)

This BBC documentary was included in UK journalist / film-maker Adam Curtis’s recent post “White Negro for Mayor” on his blog. With a minimal voice-over narrative, the film follows writer and intellectual Norman Mailer on his campaign to stand for mayor of New York City in 1969. Mailer discovers that he needs a huge campaign machine, an army of volunteers and (even in those days, over 40 years ago) shit-loads of money to finance his tireless campaigning. With an original theme (the 51st state), catchy logos and enthusiastic support from young people, fellow intellectuals like Gloria Steinem and an assortment of bohos, culture vultures and hipster types, Mailer tries to make some headway in the general consciousness of sceptical or apathetic New York City voters. Can he actually make an impact on a cynical electorate and become mayor?

The fly-on-the-wall style of presentation and the minimal narration which could have put all the details into a general context frankly made the film an ordeal to follow. Much of it is pernickety on details and viewers outside the United States (and many inside the US) not familiar with the day-to-day routine of political campaigning as it was done decades ago will be totally lost. The film is never clear on what Mailer’s platform was all about and I confess to having to look up Mailer’s Wikipedia entry to find out what it was: he was in favour of decentralising the city in a way such that every neighbourhood would have its own school system, police force, housing progams and philosophy that gave it purpose and direction. Minor issues that he stood for included non-fluoridation of the water supply and the freeing of Black Panther leader Huey Newton who was in prison at the time. While most of Mailer’s supporters were too young to vote, he did get some backing from surprising quarters: the libertarian economist / anarcho-capitalist and political activist Murray Rothbard gave his platform the thumbs-up, believing that Mailer’s decentralisation proposal would be the only answer to solving New York City’s many urban problems.

Not suprisingly, Mailer fails dismally in his campaign and the political right-wing forces he’s up against triumph yet again. If there is any value for contemporary audiences from the documentary, it is to show that life in 1960s NYC wasn’t the free-wheeling, love-is-all-you-need hippiedrome we imagine it was: for most people at the time, life was as strait-laced, conformist and dominated by socially and politically conservative ideologies as in the 1950s. The political machinations of Mailer’s more professional and seasoned opponents are as slick and cynical as ever they were in the days when Orson Welles made “Citizen Kane” and before then; the voters are also as disaffected and unimpressed by politicians and their hacks as their descendants are now. What has changed is the scale on which these things happen: larger amounts of money spent on spin and greasing palms, greater voter alienation, a greater sense that once again an opportunity to reach out to people, listen to what they’re really saying rather than going “I feel your pain” and actually doing something to right the wrongs of society is being wasted.

It should be said that Mailer was no angel: he married six times with five marriages ending in divorce and he is known to have been violent to his second wife at least and unfaithful to his fourth wife. His fifth marriage in November 1980 lasted just a day and was done to legitimise the birth of a daughter in 1971 while he was married to Missus No 4.

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