Blu-ray: Town Bloody Hall

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTORS: Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
RELEASE DATE: 8/18/20 | PRICE: DVD $22.99 Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: New interview with Hegedus; audio commentary from 2004 featuring Hegedus and author Germaine Greer; footage from a 2004 panel featuring participants; 1971 Dick Cavett Show with Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Janet Flanner; archival interviews with Greer and Mailer
SPECS: NR | 85 min. | Documentary | 1.33:1 | monaural |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio 3Dishes.jpg (40×13) | Video  | Overall 

Long, long ago, in the 1960s and ’70s, there were several authors — all of whom wrote books written for adults to read — who were bona fide celebrities. Their work was discussed in newspapers, they were invited on popular TV talks shows and sometimes they even indulged in unusual events like the one that is the subject of Town Bloody Hall, a 1979 documentary by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

The event was a debate on April 30, 1971, between Norman Mailer and a group of feminist writers at Manhattan’s Town Hall to address Mailer’s recent article (later expanded into a book) “The Prisoner of Sex.” The article was an attempt by Mailer to address the women’s liberation movement and his reputation as a “male chauvinist pig” — which came about for several reasons, including an incident where he stabbed his wife (never mentioned in the film, but brought up by Mailer himself in one of the supplements).

The film is an absolute delight for several reasons, among them that it shows a group of  brilliant writers being both profound and petty, and one of the 20th century’s finest novelist/essayist/journalists behaving like a “heel” wrestler. It also offers a riveting snapshot of the issues that broke up the “New Left” and the fractionalism that continues in feminism and other Left philosophies – as we see Diana Trilling, an “old guard” intellectual, being quite angry with the new feminism represented by Germaine Greer (whom she seems far angrier at than Mailer).

Germaine Greer and Norman Mailer in Town Bloody Hall

The scales were tipped a bit by the fact that Mailer was not only a participant but was also designated as the MC for the evening. Thus, he ends up getting the last word in the numerous exchanges, but some of the women writers ask some pointed questions that utterly deflate him.

The affair, which reportedly ran close to three hours, is quite tame for the first quarter of the film. Jacqueline Ceballos of the National Organization for Women speaks about the difficulties facing women, and feminist icon (and a literary troublemaker on the order of Mailer) Greer discusses how women are regarded as “menials and goddesses.”

Things heat up for real (read: Norm loses his temper) when poet Jill Johnston reads a non-linear piece that declares that all women must be lesbians. She then invites two women from the audience to roll around the stage with her — at this point Mailer loses it and the film kicks into high for its remaining hour.

As Mailer begins to voice his annoyance at Johnston’s attempt at performance art, women in the audience begin to taunt him, and one does have the feeling that one is watching very well-dressed, affluent white people acting out a pro-wrestling (or perhaps even punk rock) scenario. The women in the crowd verbally taunt Mailer, and the otherwise brilliant writer begins to address his hecklers with greetings like “Hey, Cunty…”

Mailer’s flustered state produces some very funny and extremely nasty replies to the hecklers. What’s most interesting is that even in this openly crude mood, he still is able to make some articulate statements about men’s place in society, noting that they too are trod upon if they are not financially privileged.

However, his resonant and accurate points do get lost amidst his rejoinders to the audience (including one odd and bizarre threat that he will take out his “modest little Jewish dick” and put it on the table). The smart stuff he says is also trumped by the tough remarks/questions posed by women writers in the front rows who were asked to  contribute to the proceedings. These women hit Mailer where he lived, by repeating his own words back to him.

Betty Friedan delivers a brief statement about feminists being a diverse group who “talk in different tones” and don’t agree on all issues. Susan Sontag takes issue with Mailer’s patronizing tone (chiding him for having introduced Trilling as “our foremost lady critic”). Journalist Lucy Komisar brings up the fact that characters in Mailer’s novels have nicknames for their penises (including “the Avenger” and “the Retaliator”). Cynthia Ozick offers the best question of the night and one that makes Mailer himself laugh at something he once wrote. Ozick quotes Mailer saying “A good novelist can do without everything but the remnants of his balls.” She adds, “For years and years I’ve been wondering: When you dip your balls in ink, what color is it?” (His eventual answer: “I will cede the round to you. I don’t pretend that I’ve never written an idiotic or stupid sentence in my life – and that’s one of them.”)

The supplements in the package are delightful. A 2001 interview with Greer, shot for a documentary on Pennebaker and Hegedus finds her reflecting on the debate as a “silly event” that was structured as a “set-up” (given Mailer’s status as the MC). She lists which writers turned down an invitation to speak on the panel (Kate Millett, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan). She also reflects, though, that there was indeed a sexual tension between she and Mailer (whom she still considers a great writer) but absolutely no social interaction between the two.

A short but in-depth interview with Mailer, also shot for the Pennebaker-Hegedus doc, gives much background on his ties to Pennebaker, who was the chief cameraman on Mailer’s three fiction films. In fact, most of the discussion is about these films, leading one to believe that this featurette would’ve worked best with the 2012 Eclipse box Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer.

He notes that he stopped talking to Pennebaker after the shooting of Maidstone (1970), as he was mad that the uniquely talented cameraman-filmmaker (who by the time of Mailer’s third film was a major force in music documentaries) didn’t try to stop Rip Torn from attacking him in the most famous scene in the film. He admits the two became friendly again afterward, to the extent that Pennebaker was recruited to use his crew to film Town Bloody Hall. Mailer’s summation on the event? “It wasn’t my brightest night.”

Chris Hegedus speaks about her career in an on-camera interview shot for this release.  She describes her background in avant-garde film and her turn to documentary, which was helped along when she went to work for Pennebaker. She interestingly leaves out any mention of the fact that the two filmmakers were a couple, married from 1982 to Pennebaker’s death in 2019.

Pennebaker gave her co-direction credit because, while she wasn’t present when the event was filmed, she was the editor of the feature, working on it from 1976-’79. She boiled down the three-hour event to a viewer-friendly 85 minutes. She notes that what kept her interested in the program was the fact that, while there was a great deal of levity during the debate, “the women weren’t joking.”

A 2004 reunion of the women members of the panel finds them recalling the event in detail. Greer belittles it, declaring “Nobody really cared what the meaning was of anything anybody said.” Ceballos, on the other hand, looks on the debate as “a wonderful theatrical evening.” Her joy came mostly from the jokes made by the women speakers – “They always said we had no sense of humor….”

Most interestingly, the most boisterous member of the original panel is now the most sedate speaker at the reunion, as Jill Johnston seems somewhat chagrined by her performance. She reads a written statement containing her memories of the evening, suffused with what sounds like a tone of regret for walking out of the event after Mailer got mad at her and her friends for rolling around the stage. Johnston defines herself as currently being an “RLFW (Recovering Lesbian from the Feminist Wars).”

The pièce de résistance of this release is an item that fans of Mailer, Gore Vidal, Dick Cavett and great American talkshows have been waiting for years to see on DVD/Blu-ray: the legendary Cavett show on which Mailer and Vidal feuded on-air. Again, the sight of two brilliant intellectuals squabbling is one that is foreign to today’s television viewer, and this particular episode was perhaps Mailer’s finest moment as a “heel.”

The stage was set, as Mailer waited backstage while the show’s first two guests — New Yorker writer Janet Flanner and Vidal — had their guest spots. It’s made clear that Mailer had been drinking while waiting, and he comes on ready to debate (read: verbally pummel) Vidal over an article that GV wrote about “The Prisoner of Sex” (that again).

Mailer proceeds to behave just like an angry wrestler working the mic. (“I want to ask all of you something – are you really all truly idiots, or is it me?”) He snaps at Janet Flanner (a wise and mellow grandmotherly type), challenges Vidal’s intelligence and wit, derides Cavett as a host who just reads questions from index cards and openly insults the audience — which, once again, works to produce a steady stream of heckling.

Unlike Lester Maddox, who famously walked off the Cavett show, Mailer remains for the duration. He also says some incredibly funny things while inebriated and angry. (He also makes some very valid points about the overly simplistic way he is perceived by both feminists and Vidal — even to the point of invoking the stabbing of his wife himself — but these smart observations are obscured by his temperament.)

Like the women writers in the audience at Town Hall, Vidal wins the verbal argument by eventually focusing his insults solely on Mailer’s writing. As ridiculous as the whole affair is, it’s also extremely entertaining and two things that talk shows never are these days — brainy and unpredictable.

Buy or Rent Town Bloody Hall

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”