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