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Whoever said LSD should stand for "Let the Sixties Die" won't be nearly as pleased as I am to see that The Criterion Collection, the world's finest purveyor of off-road home cinematic distractions, has just released two packages – Quadrophenia and Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer. It seems the decade that won't let go has as firm a grip as ever.

Because, let's face it, something happened then that hadn't happened before or since. Call it illusion: the belief that one could be what one wanted when one wanted – a rock star or movie director, say – a kind of phantom freedom that blew back against the panic of conformity of the previous decade, but which proved fatefully and violently untrue.

Originally rising from the immediate post-punk ashes of 1979, neophyte TV director Franc Roddam's adaptation of the Who's thunderous double concept album of 1973 provided a vision of dead-end teenage insurgency so bleak, downcast and final it fizzled and largely disappeared upon release, but has since taken on the gradually accruing status of rock-movie milestone.

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Less adapted from the Who album than inspired by it – and admirably produced by a superstar band who wanted to tell a kitchen-sink gritty story of why the kids who first loved them weren't alright – Roddam's movie is infinitely closer in style and stark socioeconomic spirit to the working-class dramas of Ken Loach than the grandiose excesses of Tommy adapter Ken Russell.

Set in London in 1964, when working-class kids were aligning themselves into strictly defined and opposed pop cultural camps (Mods, who rode scooters, dressed spiffily and dug home-grown English-flavoured R&B, and Rockers, who favoured Harleys, leather and American-style rock 'n' roll), Quadrophenia tracks the cold-brick-and-warm-lager experience of a soldier in the Mod camp (Jimmy, played by Phil Daniels) as his hopes careen toward the white cliffs near Brighton, where the two factions squared off in a riot that rattled the country.

While the riot itself functions brilliantly as the movie's explosive steam-valve release, it's the life of the kids that really makes the point: There ain't no getting away from who and where you are. Eventually, the record will end, you'll have to take your miserably hung-over butt to work, and your own kids will grow up to remind you of what it was like to dream.

Meanwhile, in the real 1960s, Norman Mailer was up to another form of radical reinvention, and he dreamed in action. In lifelong thrall to art and experimental movies, the 45-year-old novelist-egoist-boxer-pundit-political candidate finally decided in 1968 to take the Bolex by the grip and, charging forward with a primal, bourbon-breathed howl, make a movie – a movie, not surprisingly but not unimpressively either, starring, written and directed by (no peeking here) Norman Mailer.

All three of Mailer's self-generated, improv-driven "underground" movies – Wild 90, Beyond the Law (both 1968) and Maidstone (1970) are in the new package, and while the first two are fitfully fascinating (and infuriating) exercises in Beckett-meets-Spillane minimalist high-minded machismo, it's the third that qualifies as Mailer's most convincing claim on self-made auteurism.

Shot at his publisher's East Hampton estate over five days in July, 1968 – right between the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Valerie Solanas's shooting of Andy Warhol, and the coming conflagration at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – Maidstone chronicles the making of a semi-pornographic art movie by a director who's at once brilliant, insufferable, bullying, autocratic, manipulative, visionary and (wild guess, folks) Norman Mailer. That he's also considering a run at the presidency and is the object of an assassination conspiracy, could only be reasonable in a Mailer movie made in July '68.

There are many reasons to consider the reinstalment of Maidstone as a brawling, bruised classic of '60s situational performance art, but the main one is the sequence that follows the director's post-fictional shirtless address to his cast and crew that the movie they've just made is "an attack on the nature of reality," which momentarily prompts cast member Rip Torn to literally take a run at the director with a hammer (to attack the attack on reality with a reality attack of his own). Real blood and much profanity ensues, with the actor, clearly in unhinged Method mode, pleading for justified motivation based on Maidstone's fundamental premise – that the truth is nothing more or less than what you make it.

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Mailer, blood dripping from behind his ear, is clearly unimpressed by the lecture in psycho-dramatic verisimilitude – and the viewer is faced with another argument for a decade whose wounds time still hasn't healed.

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Geoff More

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