Breaking the Waves

Melissa Anderson on Town Bloody Hall

D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Town Bloody Hall, 1971, color, sound, 82 minutes.

IN OUR ERA OF HASHTAG FEMINISM, few chronicles of the movement’s second wave remain as bracing as the restless documentary Town Bloody Hall by direct-cinema stalwarts D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. A record of the “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” held on April 30, 1971, in Manhattan’s Town Hall, a venerable performance venue on West Forty-Third Street, the event was sponsored by the Theatre for Ideas, which New York magazine hailed in 1969 as “the forum for [the city’s] intellectual elite.” Occasioning this colloquy was the appearance, in the March 1971 issue of Harper’s, of Norman Mailer’s incendiary essay “The Prisoner of Sex,” his reply to the drubbing he got by Kate Millett in her landmark feminist treatise Sexual Politics (1970).

Mailer, in suit jacket and striped tie, moderates the symposium, alternately provoking further outrage from, flirting with, or railing against the four panelists (and/or the audience), who speak in alphabetical order: Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of NOW; Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch (1970); Jill Johnston, cultural critic for the Village Voice; and Diana Trilling, literary-critic doyenne. (Conspicuous by her absence, Millett 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.) True to the name of the event’s promoting institution, the conversation demonstrates both theater and ideas, with the former more in evidence, whether onstage or among the literati-glutted attendees. Preemptively declaring that NOW “is considered the square organization of women’s liberation,” Ceballos delivers a vanilla speech that is significantly enlivened when spectator Gregory Corso storms out, yelling, “All of humanity! Not just half of humanity!”

Discord also erupts among the panelists. Matronly Trilling upbraids Greer, who had earlier swaggered to the rostrum resplendent in boa and feminist-fist pendant, for her misreading of Freud in The Female Eunuch. The Australian writer—whose exasperated utterance supplies the film with its title, and who appeared a week after this symposium on the cover of Life, which called her the “saucy feminist that even men like”—tartly halts the rebuke with this declaration: “One of the characteristics of oppressed people is that they fight among themselves.”

Or sometimes love: The highlight of Town Bloody Hall—and a defining moment of sapphic sabotage—occurs when Johnston, whose free-associative manifesto begins, “All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it yet,” is joined onstage by two ardent female admirers, this threesome soon collapsing onto the platform in a tangle of groping limbs. The spontaneous same-sex make-out session also prompts Mailer’s best line of the night: “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.” Simultaneously twitchy, abusive, arrogant, and self-deprecating, the moderator constantly bears out this tart description found in a 1961 essay by James Baldwin, relaying what the black musicians worshiped by Mailer said of him: “They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” Yet this turbulence isn’t limited to just the hectoring, curly-headed MC; the entire debate at Town Hall is defined by a manic, stimulating energy—the kind that’s hard to replicate via Twitter wars.

Town Bloody Hall screens on Saturday, June 21, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the series “Flaherty at MoMA: Turning the Inside Out.”