Town Bloody Hall: On the High Seas

<i>Town Bloody Hall:</i> On the High Seas

Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s restless, captivating Direct Cinema triumph Town Bloody Hall is a work of oceanography, documenting one splashy moment in the cresting and crashing of American feminism’s second wave. The film chronicles the “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” held on April 30, 1971, at Manhattan’s Town Hall, the hallowed performance venue and meeting space for activists on West Forty-Third Street. The event was sponsored by the Theatre for Ideas, an organization founded in 1961 by dancer and choreographer Shirley Broughton; by 1969, New York magazine was hailing it as “the forum for [the city’s] intellectual elite.”

Occasioning the colloquy was the appearance, in the March 1971 issue of Harper’s, of Norman Mailer’s unhinged, incendiary essay “The Prisoner of Sex,” his rebuttal to his drubbing by Kate Millett in her landmark feminist treatise Sexual Politics (1970), in which she devotes an entire chapter to analyzing the work of the novelist, whom she lambastes as “a prisoner of the virility cult.” This passage from his Harper’s piece typifies Mailer’s bluster: “[Millett’s] lack of fidelity to the material she read was going to be equaled only by her authority in characterizing it . . . and the yaws of her distortion were nicely hidden by the smudge pots of her indignation . . . Everywhere were signs that men were guilty and women must win.” 

Broughton rightly thought the furor caused by the Harper’s article would make for a high-profile event, one that—featuring Mailer in conversation with prominent women selected for their varying positions within or toward feminism—could also serve as a fundraiser for her organization. As seen in Town Bloody Hall, moderating in a suit jacket and striped tie, Mailer never eases up on his pugnacity during the symposium. He alternately provokes further outrage from, flirts with, and fulminates against the panelists, who speak in alphabetical order, each allotted ten minutes at the microphone: Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, which, with its emphasis on attaining equality through political and legal reform, she nervously acknowledges as the “‘square’ organization of women’s liberation”; the more radical Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch (1970), an international best seller that lays out the harm done to women by the nuclear family as an institution; Jill Johnston, the gonzo dance and cultural critic for the Village Voice and unrepentant lesbian supremacist; and Diana Trilling, the literary-critic doyenne, who, unwilling to forge common cause with her cospeakers, seems at best skeptical of feminism itself. (Conspicuous by her absence, Millett, who turned down an invitation to appear on the panel, is mentioned throughout the evening. The same year that Town Bloody Hall was shot, Millett released her own documentary, Three Lives, a triptych of autobiographical accounts by women.)

“The histrionics, the preening, the bombast, the mesmerizing stage presence: all are elements that were singularly suited to Pennebaker.”

A highly self-conscious consciousness-raising, Town Bloody Hall demonstrates that, for these discussants and the literati-glutted audience—several members of which have their own star turns in the documentary—the personal is not only political but also voluble. The film abounds with loamy, invigorating talk, even if on occasion an argument is hard to follow, if not outright incoherent. True to the name of the event’s promoting institution, the conversation manifests both theater and ideas, with the former more in evidence, onstage and off. The dramatics start before the panelists even assemble. In the theater’s lobby, as a throng of attendees—almost exclusively white, their average age between thirty-five and forty—pick up tickets, a bespectacled woman in a poncho mounts a protest: “Women’s lib betrays the poor!” she yells, then calls out Mailer and the speakers as fellow traitors of the indigent. A nattily attired man and woman stare at her with contempt and ask, “Why?”

We never hear her answer—perhaps she didn’t have one—but the exchange crisply establishes the fractiousness to follow, the verbal sparring so emblematic of an era when public intellectuals wrangling on television (as Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. had infamously done on ABC in 1968) was not an uncommon sight. The ponchoed dissenter reappears about halfway through Town Bloody Hall, heckling Mailer et al. from the audience before storming out. Perhaps in the lobby she encountered the Beat eminence Gregory Corso, who had likewise marched off in high dudgeon earlier, yelling, “All of humanity! Not just half of humanity!” while Ceballos was outlining NOW’s agenda for the compensation of women’s domestic labor and other liberal proposals.

The histrionics, the preening, the bombast, the mesmerizing stage presence: all are elements that were singularly suited to Pennebaker, who had established himself prior to Town Bloody Hall as one of Direct Cinema’s nimblest chroniclers of performers and performance. Having captured Jane Fonda in the infancy of her career in Jane (1962); Bob Dylan at the peak of his superstardom in Dont Look Back (1967); Janis Joplin’s raw, hungry cover of “Ball and Chain” and Otis Redding’s third-rail electricity while singing “Shake” in Monterey Pop (1968); and Elaine Stritch’s rage in Original Cast Album: “Company” (1970), Pennebaker was an excellent choice to record the peacocking and posturing—and outright lunacy—certain to take place that late-April night in ’71. In fact, it was the event’s most excitable participant, Mailer himself, who had suggested to Pennebaker that he film it. The two men knew each other well: Pennebaker was a cinematographer on the first three films Mailer had directed, between 1968 and 1970: Wild 90, Beyond the Law, and Maidstone. Mailer acts in all three; by the time of Town Bloody Hall, Pennebaker was an adept at spotlighting the writer’s twitchy, hectoring demeanor.

But, as he explained to the New York Times in 2017, Pennebaker never got the official okay from the Town Hall management to film the event, a constraint that led him and his fellow camera operators (Jim Desmond and Mark Woodcock) to spend much of the night evading security, finally finding refuge onstage. Deeming the rushes unusable after an initial viewing, Pennebaker stashed away the footage. Hegedus, who was already working with Pennebaker and would begin codirecting with him in 1976, started editing the material, which she has called “incredibly rough,” in the midseventies. An avowed feminist and an admirer of several of the symposium’s participants, she adroitly condensed the rollicking three-and-a-half-hour event to eighty-five minutes. The film premiered theatrically in 1979. (Pennebaker and Hegedus would marry in 1982 and go on to make 1993’s The War Room, among other notable documentaries.)

Germaine Greer and Norman Mailer

The occasional shakiness of the camera aptly mirrors the frenetic energy of the evening. While Mailer’s overweening outbursts—“Hey, cunty, I’ve been threatened all my life,” he yells at one heckler; “You are all singularly without wit,” he castigates the audience at large—make for dynamite footage, his perverse charisma is often eclipsed by Greer’s aloof duende. Resplendent in fur stole, sleeveless maxidress, feminist-fist pendant, and shaggy, luxuriant brunette mane, the Australian writer—whose exasperated utterance supplies the film with its title—abounds in glam-rock allure, her poise perhaps the result of her earlier stints as an actor. (A week after the Town Hall symposium, Greer appeared on the cover of Life, which called her the “saucy feminist that even men like.” The copy typifies the condescending language deployed by the mainstream press in its reporting on feminism at the time; in 1970, Time had labeled Millett, whose portrait by Alice Neel graced its cover, the “Mao Tse-tung of Women’s Liberation.”)

Striding to the rostrum, Greer proclaims that she is a political movement of one: “I do not represent any organization in this country,” she begins. “And I daresay the most powerful representation I can make is of myself as a writer, for better or worse. I’m also a feminist. And for me the significance of this moment is that I’m having to confront one of the most powerful figures in my own imagination, the being I think most privileged in male elitist society—namely, the masculine artist, the pinnacle of the masculine elite.” The film immediately cuts to Mailer; he laughs, perhaps at the dis or at something offscreen.

All on the panel—save one—seem mesmerized, if not starstruck, by Greer. Johnston sticks out her hand to clasp Greer’s in sisterly solidarity as the tall antipodean author makes her way to the podium. At the very end of Town Bloody Hall, Ceballos—who has been quiet for most of the evening, clearly aware that she is outmatched by the brio of her fellow speakers—gushes to the author of The Female Eunuch, “It was worth being on this panel with you!” For all his combativeness with Greer, Mailer is clearly smitten with her. (“There was so much sexual tension going on between Norman and Germaine,” Hegedus has said. “I almost edited it as a love story, in a certain way.”)

Trilling, however, remains unimpressed. After delivering her own disquisition—a difficult one to parse, skipping, among a host of other points, from developmental psychologist Erik Erikson to vaginal orgasms, both topics raised by Mailer in his Harper’s screed—the éminence grise upbraids “Miss Greer” for her purported misreading of Freud. Greer tartly halts the rebuke: “One of the characteristics of oppressed people is that they fight among themselves.” The retort echoes this dire assessment from a year earlier by Ti-Grace Atkinson, a prominent radical feminist (who also declined to participate in the Town Hall debate), of the movement’s internecine battles: “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.”

But between Greer’s and Trilling’s presentations—and before their dustup and the tumultuous queries from the audience—comes the evening’s most insurrectionist speaker, and a legendary moment of sapphic sabotage. Introduced by Mailer as “that master of free-associational prose in the Village Voice,” Johnston immediately lives up to the description. “I think Germaine was born in Australia, and I was born in England,” she begins loopily, a big grin on her face. (A minute or so later, the camera makes her seeming non sequitur less disjunctive by zooming in on a Union Jack patch on her denim jacket.) Removing her aviator frames, Johnston starts her oration in earnest: “The title of this episode is ‘New Approach.’ All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it naturally. They are but don’t know it yet. I am a woman and therefore a lesbian. I am a woman who is a lesbian because I am a woman.” Her sermon, Seussian and Steinian in equal measure and peppered with puns (“Some women want to have their cock and eat it too”), is frequently interrupted by delighted laughter, both the audience’s and Johnston’s own. Yet her plan of action for the uprising—“Until all women are lesbians, there will be no true political revolution”—wasn’t in jest; two years after the Town Hall colloquium, she would publish Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution, which unequivocally endorses lesbian separatism.

And Johnston is all too willing to close the gap between theory and praxis. As her womanifesto exceeds her allotted time and Mailer demands she wrap things up, Johnston is joined onstage by two ardent female admirers; this threesome soon collapses onto the platform in a tangle of groping limbs. The guerrilla same-sex make-out session prompts Mailer’s best line of the night, alluding to Town Hall’s proximity to Times Square: “Hey, you know, it’s great you paid twenty-five bucks to see three dirty overalls on the floor when you could see lots of cock and cunt for four dollars just down the street.”

“The verbal combat highlighted in Town Bloody Hall was just one episode in an ongoing argument, an ever-changing movement.”

Susan Sontag

After this spectacular performance, Johnston and her lez conspirators simply leave the stage, and the Voice writer never returns. But the subject of homosexuality isn’t banished; it lingers, whether overtly or covertly. Gay activist Peter Fisher asks from the audience whether the female panelists believe there’s a “connection between the women’s liberation movement and the gay liberation movement.” Greer’s response lays bare more fissures within the feminist struggle: “I always thought it was part and parcel of the same movement. I know this means some of my sisters part company with me on this issue.” One of those sisters was Betty Friedan, also in attendance at Town Hall that night and seen, just a few minutes before Fisher speaks, railing at Mailer. In 1969, while president of NOW, Friedan had warned members of that group that a “lavender menace”—that is, lesbians active within the women’s movement—would destroy the credibility of feminists, who, as she imagined it, could easily be dismissed as misandrists.

Another luminary in the audience, Susan Sontag, was never officially out during her lifetime, though her same-sex relationships, even in 1971, were largely an open secret. Microphone in hand, Sontag announces that she has a “very quiet question” for Mailer about his condescending use of the word lady. (A little while later, Cynthia Ozick poses the evening’s most uproarious query: “Mr. Mailer, when you dip your balls in ink, what color ink is it?”) Seated immediately to Sontag’s left is the fleetingly glimpsed Adrienne Rich—who would declare her lesbianism five years later in a collection of poems, and would go on to write some of lesbian feminism’s most foundational essays. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sontag and Rich would engage in their own intramural skirmish about feminism in an exchange published in the New York Review of Books in 1975.

The verbal combat highlighted in Town Bloody Hall was just one episode in an ongoing argument, an ever-changing movement. The symposium’s illustrious participants themselves continued to develop their stances on feminism over the decades, sometimes ignominiously. At eighty-one, Greer, the film’s swashbuckling shero, for instance, is now notorious for her transphobic positions.

But nearly fifty years after the event it documents, Town Bloody Hall has lost none of its power to entrance—and enrage—with its manic, stimulating, polyvocal energy. Starting in the mid-2010s, the documentary became popular on the repertory circuit; those who had grown weary of a feminism articulated via hashtag or hot take surely found Town Bloody Hall’s bracing IRL discourse a tonic. The documentary itself was “remade,” in a way, courtesy of the Wooster Group, whose wan stage production The Town Hall Affair diluted the dynamism of the debate into austere slapstick. The play opened in New York just two weeks after the Women’s March of January 2017—an enormous, wildly imperfect, yet ultimately revitalizing gathering that may be the worthiest sequel to that unforgettable night in April 1971.

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