Town Bloody Hall Movie Review
On April 30, 1971, a group of panelists came together for a discussion on the feminist movement, largely in response to an essay published by Norman Mailer entitled "The Prisoner of Sex." Mailer was at center stage, flanked by the following: Jaqueline Ceballos (the president of the National Organization for Women), author Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch), Jill Johnston (a writer from the Village Voice ), and critic Diana Trilling.
Mailer played the moderator in the beginning, allocating each of the four peers beside him approximately 10 minutes to attack his published views in prepared speeches. After that, questions came from the audience to any member sitting on stage. Some of these, such as famed director Susan Sontag, were planted, others jumped up without waiting to be called on. All were provocative and entertaining.
What ensued was a battle over what rights were owed to women and how concepts of gender need to be altered. While some of the issues are no longer as valid or seem silly, like Ceballos' urging for paid vacations for housewives, equal pay is still an issue. But whether or not the points of discussion still carry over three decades later, the basic principle of Town holds true -- that in any given political movement there will always be a mixture of agendas. And as Mailer is quick to point out, these disparate views are part of the curse that keeps social change moving at such a slow pace. Yet without them, totalitarianism would strap freedom even more.
Even with such recognizable names on stage, directors Pennebaker and Hegedus wisely choose to film the excitable audience, a perspective tool popular in their films with good reason. Because this is not just about the feminist fighters, but also the effects of women's rights on the general population. The spectators are just as important as the speakers sitting with microphones. They also tend to be just as entertaining as they pop up and down in their seats to scream about their grievances.
The spontaneity akin to theater is held throughout the film. Early on, Johnston leaves the stage to fool around with women who have come up to hug her after a humorous, heart-felt speech. Mailer is continually assaulted but able to counter with intelligence and originality that leaves you respecting his philosophies, whether you agree with them or not.
Granted, Town Bloody Hall has its frustrating moments, mostly due to the constraints of shooting a one-time-only event and the equipment of the era. The cameras and lights of the early 1970s were clunky, with the crew forced into confined spaces where they obviously had to move often. It's easy to miss something in the constant energy generated in the crowded room. Still, if you can keep your focus on the historical relevance of women's liberation, it becomes a keen study of human nature trying to grow.