Surf’s up: Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker capture a high-water mark of second-wave feminism.
Town Bloody Hall, directed by Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection
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Kate Millett drove Norman Mailer off the deep end in 1970. First, she treated his work to a withering analysis in her best-selling debut, Sexual Politics, an instant classic of the women’s movement. Then she taunted him from the cover of Time—or so it must have seemed through the fisheye lens of his paranoid vanity. “At times he is gallant enough to render homage to the enemy as a worthy opponent, a good swinging bitch, but . . . he can also fall into the jingoism of the sexual patriot,” Millet had written of Mailer’s adversarial approach to women. He proved her right with “Prisoner of Sex,” his punishingly long response, published in Harper’s the next year. It was a spectacle of raving, wound licking, and potshots, yet it displayed a grudging spirit of engagement, too. Rather than dismiss her radicalism outright, he threw himself into the roiling surf (or the blazing spotlight) of feminism’s second wave. At least, for one night, he tried.
Town Bloody Hall—a scrappily brilliant cult classic by Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker—captures Mailer, still stewing over Millett in 1971, as the besieged moderator of “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation.” (The raucous documentary’s sometimes shaky footage was abandoned by Pennebaker until he partnered with Hegedus, whose dynamic edit premiered in 1979.) The event, organized and hosted by Shirley Broughton, was held at the fabled venue Town Hall just off Times Square. It was a benefit for her esteemed “Theatre for Ideas” series—a detail worth mentioning only because, in the film, the steep ticket price appears as a point of contention right away. Before the crowd is seated, a woman heckler in the packed lobby sets the evening’s tone, loudly condemning each panelist (and women’s lib as a whole) for betraying the poor.
Four good swinging bitches, a diverse group of white women, formed the lineup—Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), played the moderate; Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch (1970), the radical; Jill Johnston, dance critic at the Village Voice and author-to-be of Lesbian Nation (1973), the separatist; and critic Diana Trilling was . . . the critic. Each woman, allotted ten minutes to start, faced a sold-out room of the jeering, skeptical, and starstruck masses, plus members of the New York literary elite. What ensued is hard to describe.
We witness a debate on a topic as big as the world in Town Bloody Hall, one with no fixed terms or single proposition. The tension is ambient, abstract, roaming; the camera seems to scan the room wildly in hopes of catching it flare. Mailer, sardonically chivalrous and fidgeting with hostility, is a bomb ready to go off. He had no doubt hoped for something like a symposium on his Harper’s treatise—it’s the focus of his introductory remarks, and he proceeds to fuss over its themes all night. Alas, “Prisoner of Sex” is more like a toddler’s dirty diaper than a topic to be seriously considered; panelists sometimes gesture at the smell but mostly politely ignore it.
Reformed housewife Ceballos certainly isn’t there to indulge a tantrum; she’s come to hype the NOW agenda with her solid soapbox rhetoric and generous smile. (The organization’s cofounder Betty Friedan pounces later, during the Q&A.) But predictably, that respectable (back then, anti-lesbian) strain of middle-class feminism falters. It’s Greer who steals the show. (Town Bloody Hall takes its name from one of the young Australian’s exasperated outbursts.) These days, she’s in the news for her transphobia—a confounding tendency among certain of the aging second wave—but let’s remember her as she was at the rostrum in 1971, too. Statuesque, with a perfect shag and a refined oratorical style, she strikes at the meta-meaning of this public encounter, taking aim at Mailer through the archetypal power he represents.
“The significance of this moment is that I’m having to confront . . . the being I think most privileged in male elitist society, namely the masculine artist,” she declares. There’s no need to illustrate her point with an example—it’s right before our eyes. Beyond the muscular misogyny of Mailer’s prose and persona, there was an uncancellable man of letters who’d stabbed his wife a decade ago, almost fatally, doing little damage to his career. The contrast is implicit when Greer articulates a woman artist’s bind.
This is Millett’s terrain, too—the metaphysics of sex as a category as well as an act. But while Greer stood at a safe remove (she could return to her seat and laugh), Millett practiced a heretical microscopy Mailer could only understand as personal attack. She was wise, I think, to decline Broughton’s invitation, though it meant she missed not only Greer’s victory as her unspoken representative, but Johnston’s differently exhilarating rebuke of the sexual patriot—and the bourgeois conventions of the panel discussion he futilely tried to control.
Hegedus and Pennebaker’s approach to Johnston’s herstorical reading of her poetic polemic “New Approach,” which famously begins “All women are lesbians,” underscores its casual outrageousness and Johnston’s easy charisma. In a series of close-ups—of panelists and audience members alike—we see bemusement and pleasure playing across attentive faces, and realize that, for once, the peanut gallery has been calmed. Johnston has total command of the room as she coolly recruits for her cause. It’s the frenetic film’s sole moment of peace, and Mailer ungraciously cuts it short. Johnston’s not done, though: she cues the entrance of two women, who she makes out with, as though to literalize her Fluxus-inspired kiss off. Eventually, the sapphic trio clears the stage for Trilling, whose vexed presentation is anything but anarchic or relaxed.
Her dense talk praises Mailer, but she’s hardly in his thrall. Using complicated sentences better suited to the page, she highlights his position’s overall weakness as well its particular, glaring flaws (his outlandish opposition to birth control, for one). Yet with the same prickly demeanor, she disapproves of feminism’s “authoritarian” impulses: she curiously takes as prescriptive its stance on the clitoral orgasm, and she judges unnamed movement figures as censorial for refusing to partake in the evening’s melee. Afterward, having proven herself a free agent, she’s left frowning and friendless on stage. It is poignant, then, when Susan Sontag rises from her seat with a “quiet question,” after the discussion opens to the floor. Mailer has patronized his guests without relent, but it is at his calling Trilling a “lady critic” that Sontag has taken most offense.
Hers is but one of the dazzling cameos that punctuate the film’s chaotic final third, the last of which features Anatole Broyard being told by Greer, in essence, to fuck off. The exchange is emblematic of Town Bloody Hall’s battle-of-the-sexes fireworks and emasculating repartee, but the documentary is not ultimately defined by its hallucinatory, camp qualities. Culturally and legislatively, the women’s movement was on the verge of significant wins, and perhaps Hegedus’s feminist investment in the moment—and this goldmine of material—grounds the work in seriousness. Throughout, shots of Greer’s smoldering boredom, Ceballos’s glee, or Trilling’s displeasure represent the atmospherics, the fault lines, and the emotional stakes, if not a full picture of the arguments and issues at play. And perhaps from such an impressionistic disarray a still-relevant strategy can be observed and taken to heart. “For against the logic of virility, it is pointless to reason,” Millett wrote—words to live by fifty years ago and today.
Johanna Fateman is a writer, art critic, and owner of Seagull salon in New York. She writes art reviews regularly for the New Yorker and is a contributing editor for Artforum. She is a 2019 Creative Capital awardee and currently at work on a novel.