There are perverse types who think that if one places a group of people in the same room who've sworn, metaphorically or literally, to destroy each other, the reflex to go for one's gun will subside and what will result is a frank exchange of opinion, insights and life stories. And after the participants have learned that they're not nearly as distant from each other as they had thought, they'll lock arms, brothers, and sisters all, and stroll down the beach into the fiery sun of a higher revolution. All eyes raised, shoulders broad, worker and intellectual, farmer, and chemist, all eyes upraised and looking to the top of the mountain we will climb, as one, united in cause and spirit. Anyone of us can, of course, say 'posh' to the .and know, ' smirking. that enemies remain antagonists to the bone despite the demands of decorum. The results of these situations are inconclusive and crackling with uncertainty, a heap of hot laundry alive with static electricity, neither side abjuring to the points made by an opponent. A lot of us like to watch a spat, a public argument of bright people trying to keep their personal views out of a heated grousing about matters that concern us all more so than the entertainment value of raised hackles and arched backs might otherwise indicate on first view. These are situations where otherwise reasonable people are reduced to the level of kids fighting over the use of a prized toy. As in hack-and-slash horror films, many of us get a cheap thrill over blood being drawn for no good purpose. Or, one could postulate, no one looks good in a shouting match if that passes as a good purpose. That is a reminder to the rest of us to pick our battles and pick our venues in which to have them.
So was the case with the film Town Bloody Hall, a documentary in the cinema vertie mode by director D.A. Pennebaker, a little view film I had the good luck to see at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in the early 80s. Filmed in 1971, it is an account of a debate between writer Norman Mailer and an impressive panel of prominent feminist polemicists including Germaine Greer (author of The Female Eunuch), radical lesbian Jill Johnson, literary critic Diana Trilling and a representative from The National Organization of Women, whose name I am unable to recall. Pioneer 2nd Wave feminist writer and critic Kate Millet had viciously vilified Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and Mailer himself in her tract Sexual Politics as outstanding representatives of an elitist male literary culture that has oppressed women by distorting their image so that the imaginations of male fictioneers might be better served. Mailer. whose pugnacious reputation has at times dwarfed his writings in the public mind, countered with The Prisoner 0f Sex, a scathing attack on Millet's lack of literary critical skills and her deliberate misreading~of the texts she was dealing with. It is also at turns a brilliant defense of Millet and Lawrence and a convoluted agonizing over the "existential" aesthetic in male/female relationships.
Mailer's book sparked a fair amount of public debate, and some enterprising souls thought it would be a neat idea to have The Prisoner confront representatives from the opposition. To be expected, the event was hardly a shining example from a Kansas debate manual, but was rather a riot of rhetoric, name-calling, heckles from an unruly crowd and public spectacle. In other words, an intellectually worthless few hours, but, I'd say, a rousing good time. much like a TV wrestling match on a Saturday afternoon. With Mailer officiating, each speaker was to be given ten minutes to speak, after which Mailer would pose a question. Things got off to a proper start. First to talk was the NOW representative, who offered a list of moderate feminist proposals: housewives should draw a living wage, women should get equal pay for equal work and other less than incendiary ideas. Greer spoke next, eloquently attacking the premise of Mailer's literary heroisms and poetically called for an art of the collective, not of one voice but many. Then matters derailed and declined to the point where the night got permanently off-track. Reading from a text composed in the stream on conscious manner that has always sent me to pounding my head against the wall, Jill Johnson rhapsodized that all women are able to love all other women and until men are able to love all other men, the hopes of an all-embracing social revolution will be scuttled like pipe dreams. Mailer, poking a pencil through a cardboard coffee cup, his face a mass o( downturned lines, cut Johnson off at this point, saying that she'd done five minutes over the time limit. Johnson stands motionless while the audience heckles Mailer, demanding that he let her conclude. After an exchange of curses, he initiates an audience vote and concludes that the 'nays' have it. Someone heckles Mailer again. and Mailer, agitated. points to the crowd and says "If you think you can do a better job than me, then come up here (the stage) and take this microphone from me."Johnson effectively undercuts Mailer's angry-dad tantrum as she begins to make-out and grab as with a woman-friend on stage while Mailer demands that she "act like a lady." When the audience cheers the pair on, Mailer says "You people paid twenty-five dollars to see two pairs of dirty jeans wrestle on stage, which seems odd to me because you can ee all the cock and cunt you want down the street for four bucks." Johnson and friend leave the hall, not to return.
Picking up the pieces after Johnson's psycho-theatrics was hard, and for the rest of the debate the panel split hairs on Mailer's "poeticized" understanding of biology, whether vaginal orgasms were possible, Mailer's warnings that Women's Lib has the potential of becoming a leftwing totalitarianism, why the women's movement must concern themselves with their own lot over all other causes and a host of other feelings, all accompanied by the interjections of an audience. With that, the night was ended, with no one's mind changed and few friends gained. What fascinates me about Town Bloody Hall isn't how concisely it's members articulated their views - in the long run, everyone loses their cogency as tangent pin out faster than a car on a greased blacktop- but just how the women's movement will have to shore up their own politic. In 1971, when this film was made, the movement was just beginning to develop a coherent analysis of the society that was oppressing women. At this time of theoretical splendor, a clumsy and clammy argument over vaginal orgasm, a pertinent citing of a housewife' right to draw a wage and a far-reaching critique of the culture and politics of art and literature were the order of the day. In the ten years since the debate, the right wing in the country has managed to shore up its own resources and have shown themselves to be astonishingly effective. The fact that Ronald Reagan won the presidency on a platform that opposes abortion and the ERA and holds a grab-bag of other. " Conservative sentiments means that the women's movement is faced with a crisis, a crisis that means that the advancements women have managed over the years could be handily wiped out, setting them back to square one. Town Bloody Hall quite unintentionally reveals what the women's movement must do: hipster bohemianism must be doffed and women must more than ever enter the gritty, un-scrubbed ruthlessness of mainstream electoral politics. And that will be the next test on the movement. If it's to have a lasting effect on the culture in which all of us live, it must be affirmed at the voting booth. A sudden, un-decorated realism is cast upon all of us.