IS IT REALLY SO STRANGE?
video, color, 80 minutes, 2004
Making the connection between The Smiths’ working-class, Manchester-raised, ethnic Irish experience and that of the sons and daughters of Latino immigrants in Los Angeles, Is It Really So Strange? is the first documentary that allows the fans themselves to speak at length about their lives, their loves and their brief encounters with their idol.
National Film Theatre, London; Vienna International Film Festival; Kino Otok, Izola, Slovenia; IndieLisboa, Lisbon, Portugal; Mix Brasil, São Paolo, Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro; Beursschouwburg, Brussels, Belgium; Fusion Festival, Los Angeles; InsideOut, Toronto; 2005 COLA Exhibition, Los Angeles; thefilmworks, Manchester, England; 7 Inch Cinema, Birmingham, England; Singapore International Film Festival; Aurora Picture Show, Houston; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Anthology Film Archives, New York; List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts; New York Public Library, New York
Chris Chang, “From the Desk of Film Comment,” FLM Magazine, no. 19.
If you know what LGBT stands for, and you prefer your cinema transgressive, you’ve likely heard of a San Francisco film festival called Frameline. For the past three decades it’s catered to a community united by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered lifestyles. (Some 70,000 people attended the 2006 edition.) This past June, in collaboration with the folks at the indie distributor Strand, the festival launched a DVD label. This endeavor has released only three titles so far—but if their quality is any indication of things to come, home entertainment just got a little more interesting. The company’s fund-raising slogan? “Changing the world, one film at a time.”
The first release, William E. Jones’s Is It Really So Strange?, is a brilliantly odd documentary ostensibly about the defunct English indie rock band The Smiths. Jones, a self-confessed Smiths devotee, has made what may be the most eccentric fan-boy film imaginable. His focus is on the band’s Hispanic following in Los Angeles—but the true essence of the enterprise is an expression of his own passion for both the music and the Smiths’s frontman, Morrissey. On the face of it, the appeal that a fey Manchester-raised fop of Irish ancestry would have to a Latino subculture is hard to fathom. But is it really so strange? Jones unpacks all sorts of psychosexual ambiguities and ethnographic nuances and draws a number of intriguing parallels. Highlights include conversations with members of a Smiths tribute band plus an unexpected “appearance” by Morrissey himself. A photographer friend was hired to take publicity shots of the singer and Jones tagged along. Although we don’t see footage of the encounter, pictures from the photo session are shown, enhancing the prevailing obliqueness of the project.
It’s hard to conceive of a music doc without music, but Jones has pulled it off—and then some. He’s taken his zeal for a pop icon and refracted it through the lens of an ethnic culture. What makes the thing so joyfully discursive is the meeting of the director’s mind with Morrissey—a near-legendary being who seems to thrive on his own ineffability. For years the singer famously claimed to be asexual and celibate—even though his appeal was patently homoerotic. Morrissey is nothing if not forever equivocal. Jones, in tackling him from multiple angles, fights fire with conceptual fire.
Erin Donovan, “Is It Really So Strange?” guru.greencine.com, August 10, 2006.
Is it Really So Strange? examines the enormous popularity of the 80s Manchester pop band the Smiths (and its massively charismatic and mysterious lead singer, Morrissey) with young Hispanic and Latino kids in East Los Angeles. It sounds incredibly niche but director William Jones transcends the "hey, look at my t-shirt collection" consumerist bent that stains fandom to show how these kids have used the lyrics and persona of Morrissey to carve out an identity for themselves in a place that nearly condemns all of their religious, cultural, sexual and personal expressions.
One of the most fascinating sections of the film starts when the subjects begin to account their fan-geekery exchanges such as fainting at a brief touch of Morrissey’s hand at a concert, stalking him at his home, tattooing his autograph on their bodies and tough guys (“greasers”) breaking down into tears at tribute band Sweet & Tender Hooligans’ concerts. But when pressed almost every fan interviewed in the film insists they would probably not enjoy spending any length of time with the man outside of his performances, citing his narcissism, cynicism and possible racism as factors that would shatter the image they hold of him and that, ultimately, it’s the music, not the personalities, that saves lives.
The film was recorded with a one-chip camera and with many of the interviews recorded only using the local mic, but Is It Really So Strange? remains a great story, told in perhaps the only way it could: low-fi.
Ioannis Mookas, “He’s Got Everything Now,” Gay City News, vol. 5, no. 8 (February 23-March 1, 2006) p. 50.
As quiet as it’s kept, a large, elaborate subculture has evolved among Latino youth in Southern California’s Inland Empire—the onetime citrus belt straddling eastern Los Angeles and western San Bernardino Counties—devoted to Morrissey. Yes, that mad Irish pop icon, what other?
When Los Angeles-based queer filmmaker William E. Jones caught wind of this grassroots phenom, he slipped into a concert of the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, an all-Smiths and Morrissey cover band based in the local, majority-Latino community. The adulation and cathartic euphoria he observed resounded with his own formative memories of The Smiths the first time around, and this perceptive documentary was launched.
Jones is an artist of rare sensibility whose slender filmography belies an immense talent. His 1991 debut Massillon was outshone by the New Queer Cinema klieg lights of Swoon and Poison, and though his second feature Finished (1997) premiered at Sundance and was released on video, Jones has largely nursed his muse out of view; last year’s tribute at London’s Tate Modern was a welcome corrective.
The florid angst of Morrissey cultdom may seem an odd match for Jones’ cool aesthetic. But in the interval since his The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), Jones has loosened up, and puts more of his physical person into his work than before, in one giddy sequence getting groomed with a cursive, lacquered quiff by Ruben, a Morrissey-smitten roughneck. As in his previous work, this essay is structured around a burnished script, read in voiceover by Jones in his hypnotically even diction.
The film’s interview subjects are its genius—Jaysin, the motor-mouthed former hustler; Mark, the bubbly illustrator who copies Smiths album covers in charcoal; Rita, the wiry, stilted academic; and Manuel, a retro-styled bohunkus with pompadour and flawless sideburns who elucidates Morrissey’s appeal for striving Latinos by comparing the Irish in England to Mexicans in the U.S., noting how both Catholic minorities have been excluded from the promise of their host nations, despite toiling for their profit.
Scarcely straying from his subjects’ poster-emblazoned bedrooms, Jones’ inquiry ranges farther than you’d expect, and has a sting, too—one of the Hooligans musicians unmasks Morrissey’s racist unconscious, locating it in the singer’s idealized fantasy of the white British prole milieu of his postwar youth. In the film’s last lap, the queen herself shows up, after an oblique fashion, in a joshing exchange with the lightly awed Jones, which only confirms the star’s mystique.
But the film’s pertinence lies in its expansive civic ethos. Jones is alert to the manifold ways that Chicanos, Mexican migrants, and other Latino communities have infused benighted areas like Pomona and Riverside with a flowering of not just pop culture, but a vitally authentic, marvelously hybrid people’s culture.
Amy H. Konig, “Is It Really So Strange? by William E. Jones (Frameline releasing, 2005)” http://amyhkonig.blogspot.com, December 17, 2005.
“For six years, Morrissey was without a recording contract. But all the while his cult survived…especially among young Latinos in the American Southwest.” Is It Really So Strange? is both a portrait of this surprising new demographic of Morrissey fans, and a shy yet ardent love-letter to the deity of ’80s sadcore. Documenting a flourishing Los Angeles Smiths scene, Is It Really So Strange? unearths a new “army of dandies” — and shows how fan culture may unexpectedly bridge the lines of race, age, sexual orientation, and geography. It’s a welcome alternative to the “Behind the Music” approach, spotlighting first-person narrative and heart-breaking, tender interviews with fans.
Is It Really So Strange? may disappoint those looking only to feed their Smiths obsession: it lacks concert footage, and offers only vicarious behind-the-scenes access. But anyone who has genuinely lived with the poignant, agonizing tug of the music will identify strongly with the new generation of fans who are introduced here. The film alternates between gently probing interviews with 20-something, mostly Latino fans in the greater Los Angeles inland empire, and confessional, first-person commentary by the filmmaker on this phenomenon, and reflections on his own passion for the music. We get glimpses of the all-Smiths, all-the-time club London Is Dead, and a tribute band called The Sweet and Tender Hooligans. We meet fans who have tattooed Morrissey’s autograph on their bodies, a man who came to question his sexuality through the music, and a teenage runaway who would turn tricks in Hollywood and then go home and listen to the Smiths.
By far most moving interview in the film is with a reserved 21-year old named Chris, who eschews flamboyant looks and could pass for a conventionally straight Latino male. He stoically narrates how he ripped all of his Smiths paraphernalia off his bedroom walls after his father made homophobic remarks to him. He also tells a story of meeting Morrissey in person: “It was horrible. I was so awe-stricken, I couldn’t say anything. I just cried.” As he holds up a photo from that meeting, his face crumples: a poster image for this joyous and heart-breaking subculture.
Kevin Thomas, “Screening Room,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2005, p. E8.
Outfest will present the third edition of Fusion, a festival spotlighting lesbian, gay bisexual and transgendered people of color, which runs Friday through Sunday at various venues and will present 14 programs of films and videos, plus related events. Screening Saturday is Is It Really So Strange?, the third work by William E. Jones. In his experimental first feature, Massillon (1991), he juxtaposed a bleak account of growing up gay in a small Ohio city with lyrical images of the community, with the personal giving way to the political as he delved into how homophobia and the ignorance that goes with it are embedded in our very language. The equally impressive Finished (1997) probed the life of Alan Lambert, a French Canadian porn star with whom Jones became infatuated but never met. Jones discovered that Lambert committed suicide as part of his half-baked messianic Marxism and because he believed, like Yukio Mishima, having reached the peak of physical perfection, he could only decline.
Jones brings to bear the extraordinary sensitivity and insight of those films to Is It Really So Strange?, in which he interviews a range of young Southern California Latinos drawn to the singer Morrissey. Each of the fans emerges as an articulate, reflective individual who responds to the singer for many reasons, primarily perhaps because of his expression of alienation and romantic longing, and because those of diverse sexual orientation can identify with him. (One young woman says simply, “He’s the one who heals all the wounds.”) What especially appeals to Jones about these Morrissey fans is that their various activities in tribute to him have occurred “out of love and spontaneous enthusiasm” and therefore are “expressions of popular culture in its truest and purest sense.”
Lisa Nesselson, “Is It Really So Strange?,” Variety.com, November 8, 2005.
Thoughtful and touching, Is It Really So Strange? examines a subset of fandom as deep as it is unlikely: The primarily Latino acolytes in Southern California of pop singer Morrissey. Interviewees, most of whom are young and Hispanic, articulate what Morrissey means/used to mean to them. Process builds a portrait of a bizarre phenom whereby a group of people half a world away from Manchester, England (where Irishman Morrissey got his start in the ’80s as lead singer for the Smiths), feel his lyrics speak utterly and completely to their emotional disarray. Fests, especially music and gay, are indicated.
Director-producer William E. Jones unpretentiously weaves himself into the proceedings – even meeting Morrissey himself through a stroke of serendipity – but nary a note of his subject’s music is heard. Instead, viewers learn the sartorial distinctions among greasers, rebels and pretty boys, and ponder the eternal lure of Morrissey’s sexuality: Is he straight, gay, or asexual and celibate? Lensing is straightforward and respectful.
Kristofer Collins, “Is It Really So Strange? (Morrissey Fan Documentary)” Fulvue Drive-In, 2005.
What was the last record to change your life? How old were you when it happened? Most likely you were a teenager, possibly pimply and just out of middle school, spending all your time and money at the mall, daydreaming about girls and/or boys too beautiful and too frightfully wonderful for you to ever have courage enough to strike up a conversation with, or, so much less likely, to gather in the fleeting bits of your fast evaporating bravery to ask out on a date. So instead of sock hops and malt shops, or whatever the de rigueur teenage courtship ritual of your day, you spent those long nights in your bedroom with The Record staring at the album artwork, working your fingers over the record grooves as though it were a Braille for the broken hearted, listening, listening, listening to songs that laid your heart bare, shone your dreams, fears, and secret fantasies on a giant screen for all the world to see while you stood to the side pointing and jumping up and down, shouting, “Now do you see? Do you understand? This is my life, my heart! Please will you please just love me?”
I was probably around 13 when U2’s “Boy” went excavating its way through my being; 16 when Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” broke my brain with its surrealist Americana; 18 when The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” took my heart to school for an advanced course in young love and older heartbreak. There were more I could add here but won’t for the sake of something approaching brevity.
Or maybe the last record to come smashing into your life and rearrange all of the mental/emotional furniture arrived while you were in your twenties and had been through not only marathons of teenage longing and all that angsty nobody-understands-me stuff but also a real relationship or two that simply, even though you tried your best, did not work out. At the time you were installing the newest edition to your private museum of missed chances and lost loves when a song came on the radio or it came seeping out of your annoying roommate’s bedroom who you had no choice but to share an apartment with as all your best friends were living with their significant others, and the song just laid you low. You ran out immediately, bought the record, ran back home, threw the album on, cracked a beer, lit a joint, and disappeared oh so gratefully into the sound.
I guess I was in my early twenties when Sinatra’s “Wee Small Hours of the Morning” seemed to contain everything I would need for the following decade and quite possibly the rest of my natural life; my mid-20s when Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” re-contextualized my entire world and insisted I rethink past assumptions. Again there were more records, always more records that meant everything to me.
If you’ve made it to your thirties and beyond then this singular sort of event probably doesn’t happen so much to you anymore if at all. Our capacity for a record, particularly a rock’ n’ roll record, to take our heart and turn it inside out, to become our best friend, to be recognized as our own private internal monologue externalized is greatly diminished with each passing year. The world insists we build our own ingenious personal defenses and shields; as long as you are in this living thing then you will build ever-stronger walls to keep the world out. This is not to say it doesn’t still happen from time to time, the magic of record snaking through some tiny chink in your armor.
I’m in my thirties and my generation is certainly heir to the prolonged adolescence brought into being by the baby boomers so I’ll admit right here that I believe the Shangri-las recording of “Train from Kansas City” to be working its necromantic musical mojo on me right now, doing its invasive open-heart surgery, and recasting a once important relationship in my life in its own terms of 1960s teenage beat-queen operatics.
William E. Jones’s documentary Is It Really So Strange? while purporting to be about the passionate Morrissey fandom that sprung up in southern California during the six year period that Morrissey was between record contracts, and therefore artistically silent and at the same time physically present as he was residing right outside of Los Angeles, is at its core about the very thing I’ve been rambling on about – The records that change our lives.
Morrissey’s records, especially those he made while in The Smiths, arguably are albums designed specifically for the task of burrowing into the confused, adolescent consciousness and bonding with the listener at such a level that the record becomes as necessary for continuing one’s day-to-day living as the blood feverishly pumping saltily through said listener’s confusedly anxious heart.
I’ve mentioned this before on Fulvue Drive-In but I’ll reiterate it here that The Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” did just this sort of thing to me when I first encountered it as a teenager.
Jones films a series of interviews with Moz acolytes and allows the interviewees the space and respect to discuss, sometimes in painfully intimate detail, how they arrived at such a place where this one man’s songs, a man from an entirely alien culture in most respects, connected with their souls so totally. Men and women, straight and gay, Anglo and Latino, old and young all speak very intelligently and reflectively about themselves and the music they love. Jones’s technique is very simple – point the camera and let the people have their say. Sometimes he’ll interject a question or two but he is never ironic about the enterprise, there’s nary a smirk anywhere to be found in the film.
Is It Really So Strange? is an eloquent statement about the power of pop music and its ability to reach those people in a culture who are often most marginalized and in its way give those people a voice or at the very least tell them “You are not alone.” And recognizing that we are not in fact alone in this oft-times harsh uncaring world is truly a life-changing event in everybody’s life.
Becky Snodgrass, “William E. Jones,” C.O.L.A. 2005. (Los Angeles: Department of Cultural Affairs, 2005) pp. 28-31.
Filmmaker William E. Jones deals with such interwoven issues as desire, masculinity, and sexuality. His films are often tied to notions of homosexuality and social themes or groups identified as outside of the mainstream. Jones’ filmography includes The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), Finished (1997), and Massillon (1991). He received his undergraduate degree in Film Studies from Yale University in 1985 and his M.F.A. in Film/Video from the California Institute of the Arts in 1990. Jones has termed his projects “essay films on the boundary of experimental and documentary film, taking up subjects that could be treated in documentaries, yet emphasizing [his] personal relationship to those subjects, as in a literary essay.”
Jones’ newest essay film Is It Really So Strange? investigates a cultural phenomenon, an unexpected allegiance on the part of thousands of Latino youth in Los Angeles to the one-named popular music icon Morrissey. For those uninitiated, British songwriter and vocalist Morrissey has garnered what some consider a cult-like fan base, and his lyrics often express themes of alienation and sexuality. The 2004 C.O.L.A. grant enabled Jones to complete the full-length Is It Really So Strange?, boasting a title borrowed from a song by The Smiths, Morrissey’s former band, often deemed one of the seminal groups of the rock music genre. Morrissey was the frontman for The Smiths from 1982 until 1987 before launching his solo career. The C.O.L.A. exhibition program features the American debut of the film.
Jones first pursued his interest in Morrissey’s Latino/Angelino fans with a series of photographs taken during Morrissey concerts and tribute band shows in April 2002. Jones’ interest quickly swelled in an ambitious decision to develop the photo series into a full-length essay film. Is It Really So Strange? fuses Jones’ original photographs, a narrative voiceover, and interviews. The interviewees include Morrissey fans, the filmmaker’s students and friends, music store employees, and tribute band members. Their backgrounds are diverse and ages range from three to sixty years old. Jones transcribed each of the interviews, choosing parts most interesting and relevant to his investigation. From there, Jones was able to piece together the visual flow of his film wholly based on conceptually relevant themes, commonalities, and differences. The scope of subjectivity is substantial and its product is provocative. Jones’ film does not seek to provide vast definitions and classifications, rather, it tactfully aims to explore a grassroots phenomenon and reveal cross-cultural possibilities and affinities. By using an analytical approach, Jones prioritizes content over image, deduction over predetermination. Jones considers his work on this project “transformative – an abandonment of a priori ideas.”
Jones imposes no voiceovers on his interview subjects; voiceover segments are reserved for still shots, typically of Jones’ photography. Every interviewee appears more than once in the film; therefore the audience is listening to sustained voices, not mere sound bites. The effect is that subjects speak for themselves, as does the filmmaker. Jones employed two cameras during interviews – one camera captured straight shots, the other provided cutaways – and Jones maintained an unbiased explorative stance during edits. In a time of filmmaking that is rife with manipulative editing and voiceovers, these modes of traditional filmmaking prove surprisingly successful, and Jones’ final product may well be considered radical in its honesty.
Jones was able to procure the rights to only a single song – one by The Smiths entitled “This Charming Man” – which he uses in the closing credits. The film is stronger for its “missing” soundtrack, as Jones ultimately is not focused on the music and the man behind it, but rather on a group of people who choose to stand behind that man, thus reflecting and transforming the cultural icon.
Andrew Male, “Sweet and Tender Hooligans,” Mojo, May 2005, p. 30.
For any British Morrissey fan, one of the more intriguing aspects of the man’s appeal has been his legion of Hispanic and Latino fans in L. A. Now, film-maker William E. Jones has made probably the definitive documentary on the subject, Is It Really So Strange? The result of two years of interviews with mainly Hispanic and Latino fans, Jones’ film is an intriguing portrait of one of music’s more fascinating subcultures.
“A rebellion against conformity and traditional machismo enacted in a language poorly understood by parental figures proves irresistible (to them),” says Jones. However, he was a little disappointed by Morrissey’s 2004 return. “He went from mysterious demigod to mere mortal celebrity. Of course, his comeback provided my movie with an ending, so I can only be grateful.”
Articles about Is It Really So Strange?, the exhibition of photographs at David Kordansky Gallery, February 27-April 4, 2004, (shown at right) can be found at shiftlessbody.com. The photographs can be seen here.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE ARTICLES
Lars Erik Frank, “Det er ikke så mærkeligt, at de kan lide Morrissey,” Panbladet (Copenhagen) July 2006, p. 41.
Gregor Bauman, “Morrissey kot James Dean?” Financial (Ljubljana) June 1, 2006, p. 103.(my apologies to speakers of Slovenian for the poor resolution of the text)
IS IT REALLY SO STRANGE? CREDITS
directed, written, and narrated by William E. Jones
camera by Jim Fetterley, William E. Jones, and Cyril Kuhn
additional camera by Julian Hoeber and Liz Rubin
edited by Paul Hill, Catherine Hollander and William E. Jones
sound mix by Craig Smith
photographs of Morrissey by Jeff Burton