Friday, September 25, 2020

Balls: The Criterion Collection Release of Town Bloody Hall (1979)


“It was a trivializing, peripheral, silly sort of event, in the best uptown tradition,” Germaine Greer said in 2004 of the panel discussion — or public forum, or celebrity sideshow, or one-off improvised sitcom episode — that was staged by the Theatre of Ideas at New York’s Town Hall on April 30, 1971, under the banner “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation.” In one respect at least, she wasn’t wrong: the event, which put Greer onstage with three other women representing a range of feminisms, plus Norman Mailer, was very much a production of and for the Manhattan intellectual elite. But the evening was also what it promised to be, a theater of ideas — ideas held up, tossed down, kicked about, laughed at, shouted over, defended, derided. It was raucous and suspenseful and dirty and funny and unsettling, and everything else we’d want theater to be.

It’s all there in Town Bloody Hall, which D.A. Pennebaker (along with two other cameramen) filmed on the night, and which Pennebaker’s creative partner and wife, Chris Hegedus, edited into shape in 1979. The film has now been restored and given its first DVD release by the Criterion Collection, with stellar extras including a new interview with Hegedus; years-later interviews with Greer and Mailer; a partial reunion panel convened in 2004; audio commentary from Hegedus and Greer; and the complete Dick Cavett Show of December 1, 1971, in which Mailer, his brow darkened by drink and professional resentment, took a combative posture toward guests Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner, Cavett, and finally the audience. The Criterion release is a nifty package, and the main attraction still packs a punch. Whatever evasions are attributable to the event or its participants, as a film and as a document Town Bloody Hall is nothing less than thrilling for anyone who cares about the people, the issues, or the history. 

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Germaine Greer and Norman Mailer in Town Bloody Hall (1979).

Mailer and Greer are the headliners, but also onstage are Jacqueline Cebellos, head of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women; Jill Johnston, lesbian activist and dance critic for The Village Voice; and critic Diana Trilling, representing somewhat the intellectual-liberal establishment, but mostly her self-assured self. With Mailer moderating (why him? feminists asked; why not him?, answered the women who consented to appear), each panelist is allotted time to deliver prepared remarks, after which the floor will be opened to discussion and questioning. The format breaks down almost immediately. Cebellos, laying out NOW’s rational antisexist critique and program for economic parity, is interrupted by a furious little ass of a man (Beat poet Gregory Corso) who shouts angrily that the dialogue should not be limited to women but should concern “ALL OF HUMANITY! THIS IS HALF OF HUMANITY!” (Not the origin of the “All lives matter” sentiment, but a pioneering use of it.) The audience will continue to be, as much as any of the onstage personalities, a determinant of the event and of the film: a many-headed, many-minded, polyvocal presence.

Johnston’s address is a poetic stream of sex-consciousness whose climax never quite comes in sight. Ordered by a restive Mailer to wrap it up, Johnston instead engages in a spontaneous roll-around with two other women, with whom she departs the stage and the panel for off-campus activities. Trilling does her best to establish discipline after that funky blast of free love. In long, chiseled sentences which take sustained concentration to follow by ear, she worries, along with Mailer, that Women’s Libbers are calling for an end to sex difference; affirms, along with Greer, the viability of the vaginal orgasm; and delivers, to deserved applause, this humanistic truism: “As an added benefit of our deliverance from a tyrannical authority in our choice of sexual partners, or in our methods of pursuing sexual pleasure, I could hope we would also be free to have such orgasms as, in our individual complexity, we happen to be capable of.”

Between Johnston and Trilling comes Greer — and the first thing noted by anyone writing about her in her early stardom is that she embodies glamour. With her dead-level gaze, often pointedly averted from whomever is talking; her long shaggy hair; her fur stole; her height — she is a rock star. Then she speaks, and in speaking casts a spell akin to a rock star singing. Her elegant and heartfelt essay takes on “the masculine artist,” whom she sees as “the pinnacle of the male elite.” With several meaningful side-eyes at Mailer, both ocular and verbal, she decries this archetype's worship of violence, and consequent perpetuation of a warrior mentality whose result is that “the battle is dearer to him than the peace could ever be.” As for Mailer, he is just as physically compelling in his own way as Greer. Stout and cannonball-like, he spit-hisses his words through clenched teeth and tight lips; but his would-be menace is always qualified by his twinkle and grin, his jug ears, his soft blast of graying hair. (Defending himself against Greer’s charge of immaturity, Mailer asks forbearance on grounds of being “profoundly boyish”; the remark, if not the defense, is valid.) As a counterpuncher and rhetorician, Mailer does a fine job of defending himself against the crowd’s rising antipathy. He does an even finer job of stepping repeatedly in his own manure.

Out in the audience, seated up front for quick microphone access, are many well-known writers, inheritors of the “uptown tradition”: Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, Betty Friedan, Nat Hentoff, Anatole Broyard, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Save for Ozick’s ordination, admiring it seems, of Mailer as “a sacerdotal, transcendentalist priest” of sexuality, and Broyard’s puerile attempt to flirt with Greer (description to follow), most of the celebrity input is negligible. The real audience action comes from a steady stream of accusations, defamations, retorts, heckles, and hollers from the outlying rows. (“We’re all women, goddamn you!” a voice shouts at Mailer — a man’s voice.) Cinematically, Town Bloody Hall is characteristic, not innovative. The technique and energy — swish-pans, zoom-ins hurriedly pressed into focus — will be familiar, if still exciting, to anyone who has seen and enjoyed more than one cinéma vérité documentary. Reaction shots are always tricky in cinéma vérité, given that you can seldom be certain the reaction you’re shown was really to the action that precedes it; but that said, there are many great reaction shots here, particularly of a shared uproarious laughter. And in general, Hegedus’s editing patches holes in continuity and keeps things moving on the nervous, preanalytical level where film language does its work on the eyes, the nerves, the imagination.

It’s worth recalling that the Town Hall event probably wouldn't have occurred, and Town Bloody Hall wouldn't exist, had two specifically literary events not preceded it by mere weeks. Mailer’s “The Prisoner of Sex,” a long essay detailing his response to Women's Liberation, had appeared in the Harper’s magazine of March 1971; Greer’s The Female Eunuch had come out in the U.S. on April 19, less than two weeks prior to Town Hall, which was in fact part of her press junket for the book. The event was aflame with the heat of these recent publications — and while it’s obviously possible to enjoy Town Bloody Hall without having read them, it’s a lot more fun, viscerally and intellectually, if you have.

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The Prisoner of Sex, released in book form later in 1971, is Mailer in high form in his most electrified phase, when everything from war to politics to space flight to prize fight was exploding his melon with cosmic inspirations; when he was rendering his consciousness in a prose that despite its unconventionalities of grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and even word formation was as intuitively graspable and sensually invigorating as the clear hot line of thought itself. But unlike his long 1958 story “The Time of Her Time,” Prisoner does not render the mysteries of men’s phallic paranoia so as to expose their delusions and insecurities; it’s more akin to An American Dream (1965), a brilliant if minor act of violence, with a challenging and defiant femininity subjected to masculine judgment and justice.

Mailer defined himself in the late sixties and early seventies as a “Left conservative,” and was he ever that. Prisoner is bold and unfettered, but also slimy and evasive. Watching him rehearse tired symmetries and regressive binaries as if they were divinations delivered unto him by angels of insight, even the Mailer fan mutters “For Christ’s sake, Norman” many times. He sees a social movement toward gender fluidity as a totalitarian scheme to erase sexual difference altogether: “The liberal supposition . . . that men and women [should] become more and more alike . . . gave him [Mailer] a species of aesthetic nausea.” The pressures and questions of Women’s Lib often make him appear not even a Left conservative but a Right one: “. . . the sexes were already growing similar, for whether equipped with phallus or vagina, they came accoutered in long pants and long hair . . .” At his crustiest, Mailer is simply an embittered crewcut muttering to his buddies at the Legion hall.

The only alternative to established sex roles that Mailer and other unsettled men were capable of imagining was either a diametric reversal, with women wielding male power (just as irrationally and selfishly, they feared), or a socially engineered melding of both sexes into a single non-sex. This latter notion especially, though straight science fiction, was and is as triggering to a dick-cradling hetero male as the words “Black lives matter” are to a Trump cultist. For Mailer, it endangered his sense “that man was a spirit of unrest who proceeded to become less masculine whenever he ceased to strive” — which statement betrays no inkling that there might be more than one kind of man, one kind of striving. The blurring of conventional sex traits — a woman giving out orders, say, or a man not seeking to dominate everything around him — awakens Mailer’s basic terror that under Women’s Liberation he will be deprived of his essence. And they called Strangelove satire.

Mailer wanted everyone to conceive of sex as he did — as holy penetration and blessed reception, a sacrament of semen in “the great cave of becoming” (the womb, in less elevated terms). Ozick’s line about Mailer as priest of sex is canny: not only does it clarify his tiresome reliance on Christianized imagery, it calls back a key line from Blake: “Embraces are cominglings: From the Head even to the Feet; And not a pompous High Priest entering by a secret place.” For Mailer, that secret place is the womb, which he says makes woman “a privileged element in nature, closer to the mysteries than men.” Near the end of Prisoner, he lays out his cockamamie mystification of pregnancy:

For why not begin to think of the ovum as a specialized production, as even an artistic creation? Why decide it is inconceivable that somewhere in her unconscious a woman is able to draw on the essence of her experience and refine a marrow of her emotions, give substance to the force of unrequited desires, and lay in the tendrils of an oath, pull psychic equity out of the pain of her past, and spike the mix with the needle of her spite, that a woman can even search the most isolated ducts of her body for close to every quality she wishes to slip or to fling into the future, can search for what is most artful in her, and maybe will look for what is ill in her as well . . . yes, the present and the past and the notion of a future might all go into the construction of each ovum, even the stupidest and most demoralized of women thereby capable of a physical masterpiece of microscopic creation.

Such occultism of course demands that Mailer be anti-choice. To the new reproductive freedom, conferred already by Enovid (the first birth control pill) and imminently by Roe v. Wade, Mailer prefers “the days of honest abortion when the fingernails of the surgeon were filthy and the heart of a woman went screaming through a cave as steel scraped at the place where she touched the beyond.” Grant the hyperbole in that sentence, then subtract it, leaving only the idea, and you are left with the nostalgia of a man who has probably paid for an abortion but has never undergone one for an unclean, illicit operation which killed, sterilized, or otherwise damaged unknown numbers of women. Running for vice-president in 1988, Dan Quayle was asked why he opposed abortion rights; “Because birth is a miracle,” he’s supposed to have replied. “So is popcorn, if you don’t know how it works,” said comic Elayne Boosler. Mailer in this case is precisely as evolved as Dan Quayle. He knows how reproduction works, more or less — he just doesn’t care. As a man, he cares about the sperm he can deposit in a womb; as an artist, he cares about the metaphor he can extract from it. Masculinity and metaphor: for Mailer they are coeval, they are everything, and they mustn’t be futzed with by women who would rather not serve as his or some other man's uterine muse. For Christ's sake, Norman.

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The Female Eunuch, on the other hand, is a great book — liberating, energizing, mind-bending, hilarious. As well as dark and difficult. The product of a brilliant and eccentric mind, it demands dialogue and brooks no complete agreement. Endowed with deep funds of love, language, and learning, it is also a swashbuckling work of scholarship-as-payback, rich in science and statistic but also in a vitriol which Greer directs like a cool assassin — though not always at deserving targets.

No more than Mailer can she avoid “balls” as a useful image of power, or of its absence; it’s inscribed in her title, after all. The female eunuch has been divested of her sexuality: “The characteristics that are praised and rewarded [in women] are those of the castrate — timidity, plumpness, languor, delicacy and preciosity. . . . The castration of women has been carried out in terms of a masculine-feminine polarity, in which men have commandeered all the energy and streamlined it into an aggressive conquistadorial power, reducing all heterosexual contact to a sadomasochistic pattern.” Her book means to work up an alternative, and so she argues against the gender binary, dismantles Freud on penis envy and other matters, and adumbrates the blind spots of mainstream feminism. (Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, “represents the cream of American middle-class womanhood, and what she wants for them is equality of opportunity within the status quo, free admission to the world of the ulcer and the coronary.”) She is witheringly observant of the disinclination of most women to challenge, question, or even be curious about the systems which oppress them. 

At the darker end, Greer can be as much the Left conservative as Mailer, mainly in a chauvinistic heterosexism that dare not speak its name. While not overtly against homosexuality, she accepts the line that it “results from the inability of the person to adapt to his given sex role.” The female eunuch is, in fact, “a female faggot. Like the male faggots she lives her life in a pet about guest lists and sauce béarnaise…” Homosexuality’s increasing visibility is not seen to be a result of gay activism or the social shift, but a desperate reaction against deadened forms of institutional sex — other such reactions being “group sex, criminal sex, child-violation, bondage and discipline.” (Such cutting-edge claptrap was not uncommon in radical-feminist writings of that period: see not just Valerie Solanas’s 1967 S.C.U.M. Manifesto, which may or may not be dismissible as a psychopathic rant, but also Phyllis Chesler’s groundbreaking Women and Madness, from 1972, which saw homosexuality as the pinnacle of male neuroticism and narcissism.) As for lesbians, Greer takes the not very liberated, albeit then widespread, view that most of them were turning to woman-love as a temporary means of punishing and/or reforming recalcitrant men — in effect, using each other's bodies to leverage a better heterosexual deal.

But The Female Eunuch remains an enormity for what it offers, and for what it asks. The wit cuts: “Men’s habit of wrapping their nether quarters in long garments has resulted in a wastage of the tissues which can be seen in the chicken legs which they expose on any British beach resort.” And then it slices: “One vaginal deodorant is even flavored with peppermint to provide an illusion of freshness and inhumanity.” The analysis plucks, one by one, all the feathers off the myths of romantic chastity (“Just as the Holy Communion is not a real meal and satisfies no hunger, the Almighty Kiss stands for a communion which cannot actually be enjoyed”); of marriage (“If women are to effect a significant amelioration in their condition it seems obvious that they must refuse to marry”); of the nuclear family (“Women’s liberation, if it abolishes the patriarchal family, will abolish a necessary substructure of the authoritarian state”); of standards of female desirability (“The women who dare not go out without their false eyelashes are in serious psychic trouble”); and of the economic system (“Women must also reject their role as principal consumers in the capitalist state”).

Opening with a famous proclamation that still goes to the heart of our social and sexual lives — “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them” — The Female Eunuch is a depth charge in the pits of misogyny. Sentences send up echoes from one’s own experience and observation, echoes which multiply and amplify, driving the reader ceaselessly to agree, disagree, reconceive, realign, relate this idea to that reality, that era to this one. Only the dullest and least permeable mind comes away from such a book completely unchanged. That makes The Female Eunuch a rarity, and far worthier of being read and reread today than most other topical bestsellers of its time, so many of which masqueraded as manuals for personal enlightenment or comprehensive designs for a liberated society, and were full of rosy ideals but free of thorns, and of life.

*

Back at Town Hall, things are winding down; the evening seems to have passed its apex. Then Anatole Broyard, a writer and editor who once threw literary weight east of the Hudson, makes himself the focus of one of the most excruciating embarrassments ever caught on documentary film. Smirking, he asks Greer to formulate and deliver, on the instant — “perhaps in the form of a one-act play” (!) — what a post-liberation sexual encounter would amount to. He is asking, not so very subtly, for a pornographic reverie, a public hand job. Greer responds with the verbal equal of a javelin through his ribcage. Not content to expire quietly, wriggling on the lance, Broyard rebuts that he “tried to make my question non-polemical.”

Balls you did,” Greer answers.

With just that emphasis: white-hot and ice-cold at once. It’s all the tonic and depth of The Female Eunuch compressed into a paradigm. Simply as a human being, you want to cheer.

Broyard: “Uh . . . I really don’t know what women are asking for . . .” Laughter, jeering at this paraphrase of Freud’s most infamous question. And the fool continues: “Now, suppose I wanted to give it to them — ”

Whereupon Greer delivers the coup de grace. And that you must see and hear for yourself.

Mailer may have done his best to boss the show, but Greer has given the night its dramatic climax, its ritual sacrifice. (Hey, he asked for it.) Even Mailer smiles, or is at least respectfully silent, at the spectacle. Which makes sense: he knows the importance of “balls” as a metaphor, and this is where he and Greer can come together. Except that for him, the word stands for power and potency — and for her, it means “Bullshit.”

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics At Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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