Documentaries, more than any other category of film, successfully (or sometimes unsuccessfully) captures reality at its most uncomfortable means. Whatever the topic is, such as interesting, controversial, and often timely topics on all sides of humanity, you’re obviously going to be exposed to different points-of-view, especially in terms of debate. And speaking of debate, the neverending theme of gender politics (whether sexual or otherwise) is always going to come up, at some point. This is the case with Chris Hededus and D.A. Pennebaker’s brisk 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall, which captured for a moment in time, the sometimes toxic elements of masculinity versus feminism.
The film (which was edited down from 3 1/2 hours to a minor 88 minutes) took place on April 30, 1971, where New York’s most elite intellectuals (including Susan Sontag) gathered in the city’s Town Hall to witness legendary (for better or worse) writer Norman Mailer battle against a panel of four inimitable figures of the Women’s Liberation movement, Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling, over his highly lambasted new novel, The Prisoner of Sex. With Mailer, being who he is, the intended serious debate instead turned into racy and unexpected arguments, sometimes between him and the women; the women with each other; him and the less-than compliant members of the audience; and the women against the audience. In the end, after the debate ends, you obviously get the sense that nothing is ever really going to change, and that the battle-of-the-sexes fight is going to continue on.
Despite its limited technicality, you are given a seat to the three-ring circus that knocks you out with its moments of explicit language, much of it contributed by Mailer. However, you also get moments of unexpected eloquence from him, especially during a speech that is interrupted by Johnston’s antics like when she is onstage making out with a couple people from the audience, and many of the outbursts, catcalls, and comments from them as well. No matter where you stand with him, you have admit that he manages to mostly keep his cool. As for the women, they all get their chance to spar with him and they do get their points across, successfully and unsuccessfully. These are women who don’t cower from him, they do meet him head on. You see why they became some of the most well-known forerunners of the feminism era. The film does that pretty well, I think.
Criterion was right to bring this into the collection, and it contains some pretty informative supplements, such as a new interview with Hededus; audio commentary with Hedgeus and Greer; footage from a 2004 celebration of the film, with Greer, Ceballos, Johnston, Hededus, and Pennebaker; a memorable appearance from an episode of The Dick Cavett Show in 1971 with Mailer promoting The Prisoner of Sex; and archival interviews with Greer and Mailer. There is also a great new essay by film critic Melissa Anderson.
Although it is a relatively minor display of history, it is a highly entertaining document of still timely topics, and a testament to real, old-school debating that is obviously missing from today’s high- and low-brow surface of social media and beyond. You’re bound to get real some substance from it, if you decide to give it a chance.