Town Bloody Hall
Studio: The Criterion Collection
Dec 29, 2020
Town Bloody Hall is fascinating, not because it was ahead of its time, really, but because it is so precisely of its time, a snapshot of progressive women doing battle—and also just simply enduring—the presence of a Norman Mailer, a troll, an expert crowd-baiter, a brilliant writer and often unparalleled thinker who also harbored ugly and stubborn opinions on women and gender.
Filmed by cinema verité documentarian D.A. Pennebaker and a small crew in 1971, Town Bloody Hall captures Mailer’s verbal brawl with four prominent women writers and activists—Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston and Diana Trilling—shortly after his essay, “The Prisoner of Sex,” inflamed the women’s liberation movement and made Mailer its public enemy No. 1, if he wasn’t already.
Mailer’s essay and book of the same name were a response to writer Kate Millett, who had cataloged evidence of sexism in his work. Millett and many other feminists declined to participate in the townhall meeting, and the four panelists who entered the ring carried a fascinating array of styles and opinions, representing the dynamic and often messy nature of any social movement.
Greer, an Australian intellectual and radical feminist, and Trilling, a famed New York City literary critic—separated by a generation in age and rhetorical style—debate with each other nearly as much as they debate Mailer.
Greer, in a late moment of frustration, provides the film’s title, asking why she even agreed to attend this “town bloody hall” in the first place.
Jacqueline Ceballos, then-president of the New York Chapter of the National Organization for Women, represents the “square” contingent, as she said. She delivers the party line, which could not be more opposite than Johnston, the famed Village Voice writer and counterculture force of nature. She delivers a free-association poem, interrupted first by Mailer, and then with a bit of her own guerilla theatre, as she embraces and cavorts and rolls onstage with two women before ditching the event altogether.
Mailer clearly relishes his role as the heel.
He is often described as a verbal pugilist, but the better metaphor for the townhall debate is a pro-wrestling match. On stage, Mailer is an Andy Kaufman-like presence, baiting the crowd to the point of near riot. He’s happy to take direct knocks on the chin for laughs as long as his punishment excuses him to offend and retaliate. Greer’s charisma and wit nearly steals the show, but Mailer largely succeeds in derailing the whole affair, disingenuously pushing the participants to elevate the discussion while he jabs with low-brow insults and sharp one liners. The audience must strain to accept that he is there at all, that a panel on women’s liberation is moderated by a man, let alone a man considered by the women on stage to be a chauvinist, and yet the audience also must reconcile that Mailer is the reason the event exists.
Mailer, in both the debate and his inciting book, is plagued by an inability to see the unequal treatment women are given in society. Even if he believes women are biologically or physiologically equal to men, his ego refuses to acknowledge that women suffer in patriarchy. It dooms even his good-faith attempts to unpack what liberation means for the biggest questions about gender, sex, society, family, culture and humanity.
The crowd brims with the major literally figures of late ‘60s and early ‘70s New York City, a time and place where Susan Sontag is seated ringside. She asks Mailer why he refers to Trilling as a “lady critic,” rather than just a critic. Mailer retorts that he did it on purpose, to rib Trilling. As with many of his comments, they are a reaction to the moment, or meant to arouse the outmost spite and irritation. For Mailer, it’s all a bit of fun and games, for the women, it’s their life and work.
Pennebaker’s footage sat unused for years until co-director Chris Hegedus edited the three-and-half hour event down to a brisk 85 minutes, which was finally released eight years later in 1979.
The documentary is presented in a fresh 4K transfer for the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition, with special features including footage of a 2004 reunion panel with Caballos, Greer and Johnston, and a typically ornery appearance by Mailer on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971.
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