Town Bloody Hall
1979 / 85 min.
Starring Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston
Cinematography by D.A. Pennebaker
Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus
No matter the subject, Norman Mailer was the star of whatever he produced—in Advertisements for Myself, a mix of self-criticism and self-congratulation—he could have been talking to himself. He took to using the third person in The Armies of the Night. He sometimes adopted a new name—in Of a Fire on the Moon he was “Aquarius.” He directed and acted in a handful of independently made films and plastered his mug on campaign posters that papered New York when he ran for mayor in 1969. His career was one big selfie. But what an ambitious self portrait it was—Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos—he tried to top them all.
He worked hard to be a new kind of empathetic writer, sinking into the psyche of all creatures bright, beautiful, and dangerous. In The Executioner’s Song he got in the head of the killer Gary Gilmore whose insistence on his own execution became a cause célèbre. In Ancient Evenings he transformed himself into an Egyptian priest moving through the stages of reincarnation. He even regressed to his original form when he took a deep dive into what it means to be a sperm. That last performance can be found in his 1971 book The Prisoner of Sex in which he dealt with what were to him the most unknowable creatures of all—women.
Kate Millett roasted Mailer in her book Sexual Politics and Prisoner of Sex was a response of sorts—a 52 page jeremiad weighing the pros and cons of feminism written by a man who spent his career celebrating machismo. It was first published by Harper’s Magazine in March of 1971 and immediately sparked a lively debate among the usual suspects. It resulted in letters to the editors, fire-breathing editorials, and a town hall featuring leading proponents of the women’s movement. It was moderated by Mailer himself and took place on April 30, 1971 under the title “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation.” Mailer helpfully began the program by describing his Harper‘s piece as “probably the most important single intellectual event of the last four years.” As Anatole Broyard said in his review of The Prisoner of Sex, “It is just as easy to ridicule Norman Mailer as it is to admire him.”
Mailer was a terrible actor (just watch him in Beyond the Law—with an Irish brogue, yet) but put him in front of any camera as himself and he’s magnetic. D.A. Pennebaker’s record of that evening, Town Bloody Hall—part political diatribe, part confessional, part nightclub routine—features several charismatic speakers but Mailer is unquestionably its star.
His competition though, is strong. He shares the dais with four brilliant and diverse women; Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling. Ceballos was the president of New York Chapter of the National Organization for Women. Greer had just entered the limelight with the publication of her cheeky take on feminism, The Female Eunuch. Johnston—who gives Mailer a run for his money as the evening’s grandest performer—was dance critic for The Village Voice and author of Lesbian Nation. Trilling—as formidable a thinker as her husband Lionel—was a reviewer for The Nation and author of We Must March My Darlings.
Taking no chances, Mailer introduces them alphabetically. Ceballos characterizes her role in NOW as the “square” approach to women’s liberation. Greer holds forth in a humane and personal way—she’s an intellectual populist. Trilling brilliantly parses the feelings of a woman caught between Mailer’s insistence on traditional male/female identities and those of his feminist opponents. And Johnston just about runs away with the show, transforming her allocated time into a stand up act; “I’m a recovering lesbian from the feminist wars.” and “Some women would like to have their cock and eat it too.” She’s good-natured and rowdy but is reprimanded by Mailer—most likely jealous of her reception—for going over her time limit, which causes an audience member to bellow “What’s the matter Mailer, you feel threatened ’cause you found a woman you can’t fuck?”
It wasn’t the first outburst of the evening—the movie is consistently punctuated by catcalls, walk-outs, and protests from homeless people who couldn’t afford a ticket. Pennebaker (who photographed Mailer’s Wild 90 and Beyond the Law) dips, ducks, and prowls the auditorium with his camera—his imagery (edited by his wife and production partner Chris Hegedus) has the urgency of a boxing match.
The Town Hall donnybrook led to an even more raucous evening later that year on the December 1st episode of The Dick Cavett Show. That night Cavett welcomed New Yorker writer Janet Flanner, Gore Vidal (Mailer’s perennial bête noire) and Mailer himself. Vidal and Flanner charm the audience with tales of Eleanor Roosevelt, evenings in Paris, and other topics that cement their reputations as jet-setting literati. Then Mailer shambles on, somewhat drunk and more than a little grumpy. And soon the fireworks start—Mailer and Vidal trade increasingly vitriolic insults while Flanner acts as Vidal’s cornerman. The remaining 30 minutes are Mailer at his most impassioned, which is to say combative, funny, paranoid, eloquent, embarrassing, and nakedly candid. He appears human in a way the supercilious Vidal and the haughty Flanner do not (they emulate the same relationship Martita Hunt and her vampire son shared in Brides of Dracula). The broadcast sparked as much controversy as the Town Hall and spawned one of Mailer’s finest pieces, “Of a Small and Modest Malignancy,” in which Mailer reports on “his own wretched collaboration with the multimillion-celled nausea-machine, that Christkiller of the ages—television.”
That Cavett show is featured in its entirety on the new Blu Ray from Criterion, Town Bloody Hall and, being video, looks perfectly passable. The feature itself looks very fine (it was shot on 16mm) and the grainy image adds to the you-are-there atmosphere. Criterion has loaded the disc with other fascinating supplements including lengthy interviews with Mailer and Greer, a reunion of sorts from 2004 with Ceballos, Johnston and Greer and a feature-length commentary from 2004 with Greer and Hegedus.
There’s also a brisk write-up from Melissa Anderson printed on the back of an enclosed broadside—the front of the poster (and the cover art) resembles a circus poster in garish reds and yellows. It all reinforces the sideshow nature of the event. Kudos to Criterion for doing such a thoughtful job on this prime artifact of the 70’s era zeitgeist.
The official rundown of extras from Criterion:
- New 2K digital restoration, supervised by director Chris Hegedus, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New interview with Hegedus
- Audio commentary from 2004 featuring Hegedus and author Germaine Greer
- Footage from a 2004 celebration of the film, which brought together participants Greer, Jacqueline Ceballos, and Jill Johnston and directors Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker
- Appearance from 1971 on The Dick Cavett Show by author Norman Mailer, promoting his book The Prisoner of Sex
- Archival interviews with Greer and Mailer
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing