Two decades have elapsed since I first experienced D.A. Pennebaker’s vérité film Town Bloody Hall, and it’s a little over forty years since the spectacular 1971 ‘dialogue on women’s liberation’ that it records was staged. I had a VHS tape of it that I wore out and lost somewhere between the end of my teens in England and becoming a middle-aged writer in America. But, in the context of escaping the anemic pallor of the Republican Primary debates, I tracked it down again as a DVD from Pennebaker Hegedus Films, and I commend it to anyone interested in divining the chum lines of feminism. Arguably, Pennebaker is best known for Don’t Look Back, his classic stalking film of Bob Dylan shot during 1965, but Town Bloody Hall is similarly impervious to a backward glance.
Central to the drama is the somewhat gothic figure of Germaine Greer, whose sullen glamour is flanked by Jacqueline Ceballos of the National Organization for Women (NOW) – who seems rather in awe of her – the scattershot Jill Johnston (the Marcus Garvey of Lesbos) and the didactic Diana Trilling. Greer, all cheekbones and dark fur coat, is radical feminism as illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, tall, languid, and sharp as a dagger employed to open hate mail; the hate male in question being Norman Mailer who was perhaps at the height of both his powers and his self-lacerating introspection, which is perhaps to say the same thing. As moderator, Devil’s advocate and stunt man, while gore fills the water Mailer lashes himself to the wheel and heroically attempts to steer the bloody boat through the hectoring winds of the massive audience at Town Hall, New York University.
If you fail to be impressed by this spectacle of five incredibly articulate, deeply flawed human beings torn between the sex war imperatives of making killer academic arguments and cussing like sailors, then you should consider yourself a rather fleshless person. Of many things surfacing from the debate in Pennebaker’s film is the fact that something has been lost or elided from more contemporary documentaries capturing elements of the history of feminism (Kerri Koch’s Don’t Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl, for example) which is precisely this visceral humor, the ability to stare down the danger, the hecklers (there are many), to not avoid the media moment. Implicit in all documents of riot grrrl, as a generational feminism coalesced around punk and a discrete pop culture located somewhere between craft circles and kung fu (and of which I am an admirer), is the forlorn question: what happens when the music stops? The answer is not that much. There is something elegiac about talking about riot grrrl. By contrast, in Town Bloody Hall the conflicts or navigations of the sexes are articulated with élan, wit, and through both good- and bad-natured mauling. Precious little is resolved. It doesn’t bookend or commemorate a movement so much as it implies the vastness of its solvent complexities. When the organ muzak that closes the film ends, you know that the debate goes out roiling under the neon and awnings, has several drinks and continues to demand: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It doesn’t matter who blinks. Everybody blinks. Mailer is outnumbered and sometimes outwitted. Sometimes it’s just a pecking party, and despite a low blow, he manages to strut away with belt held aloft. In other moments he is imprisoned by sexism, and not always his own. Is it merely water they are drinking on that stage? But Town Bloody Hall is not about the verdict. It is about the agony, the classical struggle; Germaine Greer and Norman Mailer are both Tiresias.
Greer and Mailer trade trash and shit with one another, with the rest of the panel, and with the “assholes talking to assholes” up in the dress circle. It’s more of a riot than anything that happened in the early 1990s. And it’s hilarious. Witness the cameo by Gregory Corso who storms out in fury at Ceballos after barely five minutes. Witness Greer harpooning the man who asks her what exactly post-feminist fucking should be like. Witness Mailer agreeing to concede a round when asked what color ink he dips his balls in to write, and having the public, or pubic modesty to admit that he is quite capable of writing junk. Witness the stage invasion of groping that ends Jill Johnston’s punhouse mirror show of poetics, and her making out with fans in front of the lectern as Mailer tries to recover order. Questions from the audience come from, among others, the deafening Betty Friedan and the demure Susan Sontag. Mailer goes after the white whale of feminist literary criticism that can’t tell the fish from the plankton, that somehow fails to distinguish between the author and his characters. Trilling the frump gets pedantic with Greer the gorgon. Greer calls Sylvia Plath a fool. Ceballos calls for women to be insured against divorce. Hair is pulled. Teeth are gnashed. What more can you want? Town Bloody Hall beats with the forceful pulse of spontaneity, honesty, and with all of the confusion that is sex. As with all of the best parties someone freaks out, someone goes missing, someone is thrown out, and in waves of misheard banter and the swollen intoxications of ego, everyone loses something of their dignity.