Monday, October 25, 2021

Panem et Circenses: Town Bloody Hall

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

Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall (1979) is an unauthorized record of a public “Debate on Women’s Liberation” held in Manhattan in 1971. I say unauthorized because the venue prohibited filming, but the filmmakers came anyway at the behest of Norman Mailer, moderator and author of the anti-feminist essay “The Positive Sex,” which served as the excuse for the event. Four prominent feminists take the stage with him, and the audience is a Who’s Who of the New York literati. You can read here about the fascinating background of the event and the film’s production history.

After watching it, my immediate reaction was that maybe I had misunderstood what such a panel is for. No single constructive conclusion is reached, not even whether the women’s liberation movement is a good idea in general (Mailer is one of the holdouts).

The closest we get to an agreement is on the observation that there is no real debate, in that the participants’ terms and concerns are completely misaligned. Mailer wants to disseminate his usual pseudo-existential claptrap; Cynthia Ozick, speaking from the audience, is right to call him a priest for the irrelevance of his opinions to the immediate matter of women’s liberation. (Ozick, responding to the line in his decade-old Advertisements for Myself, “A good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls,” asks outrageously, “When you dip your balls in ink, what color is it?”)

Diana Trilling, along with Mailer, warns against authoritarian tendencies in the movement, and her speech is so carefully written that it was later directly reprinted into one of her books. Lesbian separatist Jill Johnston leaves in implied symbolic protest, or at least her departure becomes one, after Mailer cuts off her associative poetry performance fifteen minutes into her ten-minute allotment. Jacqueline Ceballos seems only to have come to promote the organization for which she serves as the New York chapter head, the National Organization for Women (NOW), by giving a programmatic speech (she also goes over time).

Only Germaine Greer appears to be attuned to what such a panel is actually for: publicity and provocation – to thought, hopefully. She is pithy and witty and scores zingers in her British accent, so that we barely notice how her equally witty though slightly less pithy speech merely gestures toward its unsubstantiated conclusion.

And then we have Mailer, who everyone agrees is an odd choice of moderator, to say the least. He is patronizing, as some audience members shout out, and also combative, spiky, defensive, and uncharitable, though not without humility when pushed.  He struck me as a general reactionary blowhard, his lip service to the movement notwithstanding.

The mood can be summed up by this exchange. From the audience, Susan Sontag objects to Mailer’s calling Trilling a “lady critic.” He acknowledges alternatives he could have used, but instead of conceding the point, he doubles down on the very thing Sontag is objecting to by saying that he meant precisely to call Trilling “best in kind,” and that there are “good reasons” why most critics throughout history have been men. We don’t know whether those reasons are biological or sociological, though, because he’s cut off by the vituperative uproar of the audience. Seeing a lost cause, he tries to weasel his way out by saying that it was a put-on, fooling exactly no one. But before that, as the audience is still in general pandemonium, we get a closeup of Greer cringingly hugging herself and throwing an incredulous yet resigned look straight to camera, as if to say, How did we get to this point?

It’s not just this scene – the “debate” gets derailed so often that one begins to wonder whether what one thought was a locomotive is actually a road train. Curse words and explicit sexual terminology are bandied about when warranted, and sometimes when unwarranted. Loud audience walkouts aren’t infrequent. And the limited microphone sound range and improvised handheld camerawork, with its quick pans and sharp zooms, just add to the chaos. (The film was shot by Pennebaker, Nick Doob, and Mark Woodcock.) Is it really so na├»ve of me to have walked in expecting at least minimal progress by the end of the panel?

After sitting on the shelf for more than half a decade, the footage of the three-and-a-half-hour event was edited by Hegedus into the 85 minutes we have today. At first I wanted to say that the presentation perfectly matched the subject, but in truth I don’t know if what we have is form following content or content following form. Without a full transcript of the proceedings, it’s impossible to say what parts of Town Bloody Hall were teased out by the filmmakers, and what parts were already there in 1971. Perhaps the more substantive discussions were left on the cutting-room floor, and we should fault the medium of film for the circus. Then again, perhaps not.

– CJ Sheu has a PhD in contemporary American fiction from National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cj_sheu.

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