Climb into the wayback machine and return with us to the rowdy days of yore when intellectuals roamed Manhattan with woolly hair, rough manners, and often unruly tongues, ready to rumble at the drop of a syllogism. The date: April 30, 1971. The place: Midtown’s Town Hall. The event: “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” sponsored by the Theater for Ideas, which sounds so civil and Socratic—hah. The Dialogue turned into a donnybrook. Second-wave feminism was coming into its fiery own, any debate about “women’s lib” was likely to turn testy and shouty, and this one had the buildup of a heavyweight bout. Serving as both M.C. and boo-hiss villain was Norman Mailer, whose recent The Prisoner of Sex, his coruscating counter-blast to Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, solidified his status as belles lettres’ reigning male-chauvinist ogre. His bold challenger was the Amazonian tower of power, Germaine Greer, whose feminist polemic The Female Eunuch struck like a thunderbolt on both sides of the Atlantic. Filling out the fight card were New York NOW president Jacqueline Ceballos, cultural essayist and critic Diana Trilling, described by one observer as “Western Civilization’s ambassador to the proceedings,” and The Village Voice’s resident sprite of Joycean riverrun prose, Jill Johnston, future author of the proclamational Lesbian Nation.

The ruckus that ensued between the factions in the audience and the combatants onstage was captured in all its rude glory by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus in the 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall. After being only spottily viewable for decades, Town Bloody Hall—its title taken from a burst of exasperation from Greer—has been canonized in a DVD/Blu-ray Criterion Collection package, with nifty bonus trimmings. Like the best cinéma vérité (Don’t Look Back and Gordon Sheppard and Richard Ballentine’s 1963 profile of Hugh Hefner, The Most), Town Bloody Hall transcends time-capsule dustiness by pulling the viewer so tight into the action that the hum of electricity becomes palpable.

The panel at the debate. Filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker is on the left.

Anticipation buzzes from the opening shots. The keyed-up audience bustling about in the lobby and funneling their way inside are greeted by a female protester in a poncho sweater intoning, “Norman Mailer betrays the poor … Diana Trilling betrays the poor … ” Ah, the eternal caw of the Aggrieved Leftist, later shown being hauled out of the audience, swerving to deliver the parting shot “All of you are traitors and whores!” The Beat poet Gregory Corso self-ejects, whipping on his jacket and leaving in a loud, huffy outburst. Throughout the rumble of histrionics Mailer strives to keep order, gripping the microphone like a train dispatcher and making things worse with every snarly comeback. (“We’re all stuck-up snots, howzat?”) As taunts and insults fly back and forth with the sporadic bark of small-arms fire, Trilling remains “breathtakingly composed in the very teeth of chthonian pandemonium,” as Frederic Morton reported in The Village Voice, while Greer flaunts a glamorous hauteur through the sheer force of a prow-like jawline, rock-star hair, and a majestic disdain for pretentious diddlers. Her prepared remarks on the price of enshrining male artists attain a genuine altitude of eloquence and emotion, earning heartfelt applause; Trilling’s prepared remarks adeptly dig into the suppositions and limitations of both women’s liberation’s and Mailer’s thinking—bravura analysis in the classic Partisan Review manner.

Town Bloody Hall transcends time-capsule dustiness by pulling the viewer so tight into the action that the hum of electricity becomes palpable.

All in vain. Their conscientious prep work was upstaged that evening and in posterity by the seemingly impromptu antics of Jill Johnston, who delivered a lyric paean to lesbianism (“All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it, naturally”), a bebop solo that went way over time, prolonged by Johnston’s pausing to laugh at her own jokes, until Mailer, ready to snap his pencil in two, tersely snapped, “Jill, you’ve read your letter. Now mail it.” Whereupon one of Jill’s gal pals popped up from the audience and the two began making out. Then a third woman joins, tumbling them to the floor, rolling around, and dry-humping as if holding a love-in. “Come on, Jill, be a lady,” Mailer grouses, which gives the audience a big hoot.

Jill Johnston, a feminist author and critic, embraces another woman during the debate.

The rhetorical squalls and seriocomic highlights of Town Bloody Hall are sugarplummed with cameo appearances from famous brains taking part in the Q&A portion of the debate. Behold the beguiling charm of Susan Sontag justly taking Mailer to task for his patronizing usage of “lady” (as in “lady literary critic,” “lady writer”), the comedy stylings of Cynthia Ozick (who turns one of Mailer’s own quotes against him to hilarious effect), and the Blanche DuBois performance of Elizabeth Hardwick, her Southern accent thick enough to pour over pancakes. As for Mailer—brusquely defensive when he should have been gracious, hortatory when a judicious dash of irony would have sufficed—he did himself no favors at Town Hall, his braggadocious conceit that evening blighting his friendship with Diana Trilling. But in the heat of bickering he fired off an irate ad-lib that has traveled across time and space like a dire prophecy. Fending off hecklers, he rues, “The true perspective of the future is nothing but assholes talking to assholes,” and with one zap Mailer foretold the clamorous troll-dom of Facebook and Twitter, the boiling babble of social media. That’s why he was a genius and the rest of us ain’t.

Town Bloody Hall is available from The Criterion Collection

James Wolcott is a columnist for AIR MAIL