ESSAYS ABOUT WILLIAM E. JONES’S BODY OF WORK
Aram Moshayedi, “500 Words: William E. Jones,” artforum.com, January 26, 2011.
William E. Jones is one of Los Angeles’s leading independent filmmakers; his films often circulate in the context of museum and gallery exhibitions. On February 2–5, the Österreichisches Filmmuseum in Vienna will host the first retrospective of his film works in continental Europe. On the occasion of this presentation, Jones discusses the recent shift in his approach to his practice as well as the changing expectations that viewers have from one viewing situation to the next.
After I finished Is It Really So Strange? in 2004, it became difficult for me to make another long film. I was left with the question of how to continue a body of work under adverse circumstances, since the conditions of funding and the technological possibilities for independent filmmaking have changed radically over the past twenty years. Experimental filmmakers of previous generations have found ways to cope, ensconcing themselves in academia or becoming technical fetishists—repairing cameras and going on eBay to find 16-mm projector parts. That is not my situation. I thought it was more important to do things that were in keeping with my interests rather than rigidly adhering to an arbitrary form like the feature-length film.
I began to adopt a practice more like that of an artist than that of a filmmaker. An independent filmmaker puts everything into a project that can take years to realize. Every thought, every feeling, every bit of money goes into one movie, and if that movie is a flop (as it often is), financial and emotional devastation follow. It is a very difficult way to live one’s life. My first two films each took approximately six years to make, and I was lucky. The films were screened, they were released on video, and I was able to make more of them, but I got tired of the protracted struggles. I have come to prefer the way many painters work, making several pieces at once, switching from one to another, and ultimately producing a number of discrete works.
Becoming more prolific and being less attached to any one work has been liberating. If someone doesn’t like a particular movie of mine, it doesn’t matter much; there are plenty of others to see. For me, it is most important to continue making work and to be part of a discussion—to be present in the world. I think artists are a bit better at doing this than filmmakers are. Even highly successful feature filmmakers go silent for a while.
Those who make theatrical films have the privilege of getting the undivided attention of a group of people for a certain amount of time. Cinema spectators walk into a theater, they all see the same movie, and they have a common experience that allows for a discussion. This sounds old-fashioned, and I suppose it is. The experience of seeing art is more in tune with contemporary society as a whole, where distraction is the rule. Most art spectators wander in and out of galleries looking at moving-image works in a casual way.
At first I considered this distracted attention nothing but a problem, but then I came to understand that a different context provides me with an opportunity to make another kind of work. A long film produced with an economy of means must have a sustained argument, narrative, or visual strategy to lend it coherence. An artist can produce a work that has an extreme and concentrated visual impact, almost like an abstract painting, and this possibility is entirely appropriate to the cinema. Many of the first films projected in public offered brief views of subjects that were thrilling and sublime, like Niagara Falls or, in the earliest instance, a train arriving at La Ciotat station. Independent films have neglected the cinema’s genius for providing cheap thrills, but big-budget films certainly haven’t. Critics ridicule movies that consist of almost nothing but explosions, but they fulfill an enduring need in spectators. From the very beginning of cinema, that’s what movies have been, explosions! So I am making my own explosions, in another context.
Ed Halter, “Porn Yesterday,” artforum.com, February 22, 2010.
The dynamic of William E. Jones’s work lies in the tensions produced between, on the one hand, deep-running vortices of emotion and longing and, on the other, the angular severities of social control, unearthed and drawn out from the otherwise obscured historical matter of gay men’s subjective lives and shared fantasies. Among the source materials for his five long-form pieces, numerous short films, and printed publications are 1970s pornography, legal data, pop music, and personal memories: Extraordinary and unexpected facets emerge from the obsessive jewel-cutting that Jones performs on this raw ore.
Massillon (1991), Jones’s first feature-length film, revisits his hometown of Massillon, Ohio, represented in two dialectical registers: rigidly lensed shots of municipal buildings, tree-lined highways, and other local landscapes, and Jones’s voice-over, coolly measured and calculated, relating both autobiographical anecdotes and a history of antisodomy laws. Recalling a time when the distant glimmers of gay liberation made little impact on a boy coming of age in a declining Rust Belt city, Jones’s words evoke a process of sexual awakening that transpires within a thick cloud of unknowing, defined as a persistent search for information and enlightenment through subterranean clues, vague rumors, and covert networks. These range from lingering suspicions about two seemingly straight friends who openly joked about blowing each other to recountings of a furtive truck-stop fuck, for which the blunt odor of shit emerging from the hole-in-the-ground toilets bears a comparable weight to Proust’s madeleine—wafting through Jones’s memory not so much for any perverse pleasure but rather as a marker of our socially determined degradation.
These epistemological challenges become centered around a more specific object of desire in Finished (1997): Quebecois gay porn star Alan Lambert, who committed suicide in a public square in Montreal in 1992 at age twenty-five, a few years after Jones first encountered his photo in a phone-sex ad and became inexorably drawn to his image. In hunting down and piecing together a biography for Lambert, Jones reconstructs him less as a person than as an incommensurate collection of evidence: magazine photo shoots, the frozen title sequences of his video releases (arranged alphabetically: Bare Bottoms, Beach Dreamer, Boot Camp, Boot Camp II . . .), footage shot at sites in Canada and Los Angeles where Lambert lived and worked, information gleaned from interviews with former coworkers (identified only by initial letters, like the subjects of old diary entries or Freud’s clinical essays), and Lambert’s rambling, semicoherent suicide note, written in the form of a self-aggrandizing socialist manifesto. Finished becomes ultimately about the impossibility of moving beyond these surface ephemera, but occasional flashes occur: Jones notes that the Lambert video A Matter of Size was released in France under the title La Folie de grandeur—a pun that can be translated back as “delusions of grandeur.”
Though Finished notably abstains from using footage of Lambert in action, Jones recuts porn films and videos to compelling effect in a number of other works. In V.O. (2006), he selects non-sex scenes from precondom titles as a means of reviving their documentary value, rereading the source materials as collusions between indexical records and utopian aspirations; similar operations reveal, more darkly, the politico-economic underpinnings of Eastern European productions of the ’90s in The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998). However, Jones goes hardcore in Tearoom (2008), an hour-long found object of bizarre but significant provenance: silent, color 16-mm police surveillance footage shot from behind a two-way mirror in a men’s room in Mansfield, Ohio, in the early ’60s, explicitly capturing a heated trade in sexual favors between everyday men from a range of classes and races. Captivating for both its historical rarity and its proto-Warholian cinematography, Tearoom is a Jones film degree zero, paradoxically exploring repression as both a brutal historical injustice and an incomparable formal device.
Melissa Anderson, “‘The Films of William E. Jones’ at Anthology,” Village Voice, February 23, 2010.
“William Jones is haute gay,” a critic/programmer friend said admiringly to me recently about the fiercely intelligent filmmaker being feted by Anthology with a weeklong retro. Jones is as drawn to the high (Euro-cinema worship, formal experimentation) as he is to the low (pornography, fandom), deftly mixing the two to create fascinating excavations of homosexual histories: pre– and post–gay lib, before and after AIDS.
Born in 1962, Jones starts the historical inquiry with himself in his first feature, Massillon (1991), the name of the small industrial town in Ohio where he grew up. Early memories—Sunday school, wrestling in gym class, sex at a rest stop—are conveyed through a series of mostly static shots of the Buckeye State and the filmmaker’s own dulcet narration (present in most of his features and featurettes). The autobiography soon expands both geographically and discursively, as Jones moves the setting to Southern California (where he now lives) and from the personal to the political and linguistic, recounting the history of sodomy laws and the etymology of buggery.
“There was a time when I hoped to return to the moment before desires had names,” Jones poignantly notes in Massillon. But Jones’s film-essays map out the precise contours of longing. In the fan study Finished (1997), about porn actor Alan Lambert, who committed suicide in 1992 at age 25, Jones’s infatuation with the star of Bare Bottoms—elucidated over shots of the San Fernando Valley (the world’s porn headquarters), Montreal (Lambert’s hometown), and non-fucking scenes from Lambert’s oeuvre—leads to a noir-ish investigation that reflects the plot of Frank Capra’s 1941 film Meet John Doe, and, ultimately, complete disillusionment. Another idol analysis, Is It Really So Strange? (2004), an exploration of Morrissey’s popularity among Latinos in SoCal, is Jones’s most “conventional” work—an assembly of rough-hewn talking-head interviews, which, through the thoughtful questions Jones poses to his subjects, still unearths nuggets about the masochistic pleasures of unrequited love.
The unearthing continues with the wry mash-up v. o. (2006)—the title refers both to “voiceover” and “version originale”—in which non-XXX scenes from mostly pre-AIDS gay porn (Nights in Black Leather, L.A. Tool & Die) are combined with audio from lofty productions by Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel, Guy Debord, and Manoel de Oliveira, and a BBC interview with Jean Genet. Jones’s most provocative and powerful act of archaeology returns him to his home state in Tearoom (1962/2007), a re-presentation of original footage shot clandestinely in a men’s public restroom by the Mansfield, Ohio, police in the summer of 1962 as part of a crackdown on gay sex in the Midwest. Not wanting to dilute the film’s potency, Jones did almost nothing to alter this silent footage, except move the original’s final reel, which establishes the location and the dimensions of the bathroom, to the beginning. As men of various ages, classes, races, and sizes joylessly suck, butt-fuck, and wank—eyes always fixed on the door—you realize that court evidence that led to jail sentences for everyone onscreen can now be appreciated as an extraordinary historical document. The cognitive dissonance could not be more extreme.
Stuart Comer, “Film: The best motion pictures and moving images of 2009,” Frieze, issue 128 (January/February 2010) p. 28-29.
Veneklasen/Werner’s new space in Berlin will house the first major gallery exhibition of work by filmmaker William E. Jones. Building on a career that has rigorously explored the conjunctions of bodies, capital and control, his recent projects seek out more radical possibilities for images, archives and immateriality and offer so much more than the lazy appropriations of appropriation that seem to saturate most contemporary practice.
Nikki Columbus, “Past Imperfect: Home Works IV in Beirut,” Artforum, vol. XLVI, no. 10 (Summer 2008) pp. 179-180, 462, 464.
Given the preponderance of works dealing with regional history and politics, one segment of the forum—also organized by Akram Zaatari—stood out from the rest. At the end of the week, he presented three evenings of video and film screenings, titled “Let It Be,” which consisted almost entirely of work by artists from outside the Middle East; the third—and by far the strongest—section featured only videos by Los Angeles–based artist William E. Jones. Although this series of events was billed as looking at “sex practices,” the program turned out to focus nearly exclusively on those of gay men. Beirut may be one of the most tolerant cities in the Middle East, but the second night of screenings in particular would have raised eyebrows anywhere, except at a gay film festival. Yet in the panel discussion after the last night of the series, Zaatari provocatively claimed, “The purpose of this program was not to be provocative.” His further statement “I was trying to avoid metaphors” made a great deal of sense, however: In the Middle East, he explained, sex in films is only alluded to poetically—with a shot of, say, water going down a drain. Much of “Let It Be,” on the other hand, was an in-your-face documentation of homosexuality. If the program seemed far from the concerns of the rest of the work shown during the forum, in opening up an archive and making visible the invisible, it was perhaps not as distant as it seemed at first sight.
Bruce Hainley, “This Charming Man,” Artforum, vol. XLV, no. 5 (January 2007) pp. 67-68, 276.
William E. Jones’s métier is homosexuality; his vernaculars, gay pornography and experimental documentary film; his landscapes, Southern California (where he lives and works) and suburban Ohio (where he was raised); his mode, dandyism. In eleven remarkable films and videos and countless photographs produced over the last fifteen years, building upon the cinematic inventions of both Californian and foreign artists—from Morgan Fisher, Fred Halsted, Joe Gage, and Thom Andersen to Werner Schroeter, Luis Buñuel, Jean-Daniel Cadinot, and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet—Jones has rethought hackneyed categories of, as well as boundaries between, art and pornography, fandom and critique, Hollywood and other kinds of filmmaking. Focusing his lens on the intersection of Labor and Eros, Jones offers a study of the economy and legislation of the aesthetic as it is discombobulated by the erotic. Unlike so many artists and others of the moment who deploy porn images for moribund notions of “titillation” or “shock,” using imagery to reify or reiterate rather than to question dominant sexual and relational practices, Jones thwarts such unthinking, often by a moving renewal of what escaped or was lost, deemed beneath consideration.
Austerely but sinuously structured—not unlike his voice, used to hypnotic effect in all his films with narration—Jones’s work borrows part of its compositional finesse, often slyly, from what some would be sad to call recherché sources, not all of them cinematic. He learned his methodology as much from A. J. A. Symons’s queer biographical pursuit, The Quest for Corvo (1934), as from experimental documentary film. Abjuring documentary’s ubiquitous talking-head interviews, Jones shoots landscapes and buildings more frequently than people; when people do appear it is generally via appropriated still or moving imagery. But whereas the usual technique of appropriation today makes use of sources that are almost immediately accessible and recognizable, Jones inverts (with all the sexual consequence of that term) this process, incorporating the unlikely and syncopating, recontextualizing, and slowing down to the point of estranging the popular; this strategy creates a space for thinking about identity as well as about community. He acknowledges pornography and experimental film’s differences (despite their simultaneity), but he relishes the potential of their becoming each other, pancinematically—pornography turns into a kind of experimental cinema and experimental cinema into pleasure, recalling a moment when terms like foreign film and artistic purposes meant nudity and sex (as Anonymous, a. k. a. Mike Kelley, so eloquently put it in the title of one of his best books, Why I Got into Art). While many contemporary artists channel the visual so that it mimics mainstream entertainment, Jones mines film from a time, pre-AIDS, when experimentation and liberation were mirrored by cultural production—a heyday of American cinephilia coterminous with sexual freedom.
AIDS shadows nearly all of Jones’s work, symbolically underlying his second film, Finished, 1997, which is almost entirely made up of appropriated images, mixed with his own radiant footage of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and Montreal (resonant architecture, distant freeway views, ocean and cloud studies). The filmmaker narrates how he became “infatuated with someone I could never know”: Quebecois porn star Alan Lambert, who at age twenty-five—just after he came to glimmer in Jones’s consciousness via a phone-sex ad—killed himself in the middle of Montreal’s Square Saint-Louis, leaving behind appearances in twenty-some gay adult movies, a radical and obscure epistolary manifesto, and Jones fingering the puzzle pieces of his own desire. In the course of putting together the facts of Lambert’s porn star–cum–Marxist messiah existence, Jones discovers an unlikely film allegory in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), which he happens to catch on television after his final day of sleuthing in Lambert’s hometown winds up coldly inconclusive. Playing an off-camera Barbara Stanwyck to Lambert’s Gary Cooper, Jones strategically deploys Capra’s film to consider the joint and schism between person and persona; suicide as an inconclusive protest of social ills; and the possibility of political action in the face of corporate manipulation. Cooper’s beauty echoes Lambert’s, as Finished observes the toll of the virility of youth and its representations on a gay imaginary haunted by morbidity.
With Finished Jones bares a trenchant philosophical essay on beauty’s give-and-take with the economic and the legislative: Desire is embedded, coaxed, and performed at exactly the sites government would place its limits and injunctions. These loci become evident not only as the beauty of the pictures of Lambert’s body and of Los Angeles bewilder the narration’s stern inquiry into the commodification of the body in pornography but also in a climax early in the film, when Jones shows a photocopy of Lambert’s California identification card, revealing the porn star’s real name. This official ID, issued by the government, itself becomes a site of subversion against authority—Lambert’s name hints at the card’s true usage, as proof that he was over the age of eighteen and thus legally allowed to participate in porn films; the young man’s beauty is, quite literally, his very identity: Alain Lebeau.
This is the kind of strangely naked revelation of Jones’s Corvo-like quests. Although constructed almost entirely from parts of the porn movies in which Lambert performed, Finished, tellingly, does not feature any actual pornographic segments, instead seducing into use porn’s often superfluous interstitial narratives and setups, including resonant title frames, and relegating hard-core “action” to description in sonorous voice-over. Jones’s decision to absent the straightforward depiction of gay sex acts complicates what pornography is “for” or “about.” He reeroticizes sexual imagery, as omnipresent as it is corporatized, by analyzing a mortal narrative paradoxically hidden within a pornography that bares all.
Jones’s next full-length film, Is It Really So Strange?, 2004, also focuses on an object of infatuation: Morrissey, and the singer’s fans in Southern California. As Jones states in the narration, the idea for the work arose when he noticed an ad “for a club in Los Angeles called London Is Dead, which exclusively played Morrissey and Smiths music, and I thought to myself, I’ve got to see this.” To his surprise, the club’s “atmosphere was quite joyous and belied the popular perception of Morrissey as a poet of doom and gloom. Another surprise was that most of the crowd was Latino.” Jones began a black-and-white photographic project, taking pictures of the young, Latino fans in all their glory, the complexity of their punk-Mexicali style intensified by a seemingly incongruous British working-class flair (National Health–like spectacles, sturdy black Doc Martens). He had recently completed a series in vivid Kodachrome color titled The Golden State, 2001, a study of cities in Southern California with recent Latino majorities. Photographs from both series find acute purpose in the movie.
To gain access to fans and to try to understand more somatically the phenomenon of how one of Manchester’s favorite sons came to flourish with a fan group comprised not only of people not even born while the Smiths were still a band but also with Spanish surnames, Jones became a participant in the culture—contributing to Morrissey fan websites (and even winning an essay contest); attending Smiths and Morrissey conventions and other events; catching numerous concerts of a Los Angeles tribute band, Sweet and Tender Hooligans, notorious as much for an unerring sound as for their fans’ intensity, often duplicating the raucous camaraderie swooning around their British progenitors; and, crucially, sporting his own pompadour, one of the favorite coifs of SoCal fans. The do became his tonsorial open sesame. As Jones relates in voice-over: “It was great fun, though some of my friends referred to it as my midlife crisis expressed in a hairstyle.”
Jones deftly navigates the muter impasses of desire swirling around and within the Morrissey community, sexualities brushing up against sanctioned categories (gay, straight) and, at times, evading them, not the least because of Morrissey’s own savvy, charmeuse elusiveness and the complications of Latino machismo. By entering the lives of the fans, Jones reveals a tenderness subterranean in his earlier work. Here the meticulous acolyte of the European avant-garde lets drop a few crucial hairpins: that he was reared by wayward uncles (Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, George Kuchar) who continually used the pursuit of “making a movie” to get people to remove their clothes and let their inherent sexiness amaze; their experiments, simultaneous to that of the French New Wave, extended (returned?) art’s notion of the popular and “real” to include varietals of point-blank, wallflower, and even deliciously “sexploitative” conjugation in Flaming Creatures (1963), Couch (1964), My Hustler (1965), Bike Boy (1967), and Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966).
Engaging the vernacular of the behind-the-scenes music docudrama, Is It Really So Strange? is the first and only film in which Jones filmed and photographed living people, and it is the only work in which he himself appears. At least one critic has called Finished the antithesis of So Strange, and yet they operate prismatically to each other: A light beam of solitary, soliloquizing infatuation with someone Jones will never know splits into the rays of communal, multivocal fandom. Although Jones gets to talk to the man himself, when he “assists” artist Jeff Burton on a photo shoot of Morrissey for a Japanese music magazine, the meeting is shown only through a sequence of Burton’s still photos, with Jones narrating the tale.
Both Finished and So Strange consider the difficulty of documenting knowledge of anyone and the dependence on the inanimate and mute narratives of thingness—collections (albums, pictures, autographs), background mise-en-scène—as well as the anecdotal. Yet something eludes vision and documentation, which doesn’t mean the way its absence appears shouldn’t be looked at again and again. Jones traces this conundrum—how the seen suggests the unseeable, how pictures convey different meanings, contrary even to the narratives to which they are synched. Although Lambert’s facial expressions while being fucked galvanize a final sequence, neither he nor anyone else is actually seen fucking or sucking in Finished; neither Morrissey’s voice nor the Smiths’ music is ever actually heard in So Strange, until the last still photograph almost fades to black and “This Charming Man” jangles in. That photograph depicts a postperformance stage, mics, guitars, and Fender amp; it’s titled Aftermath, 2003, naming precisely what Jones pursues—bodies, their consequence, and the systems and ideologies in which they participate, consciously or not.
Never forgetting desire’s dependence on what is wanting, Jones, like some Kama Sutra master, keeps things in constant expectation, edging ever closer. It’s not that including the “money shot”—whether it be Lambert going at it or Morrissey’s voice—would overwhelm his examination; rather, by redistributing the currency of ideas, energy, and critique within his sources, Jones reveals a new center of attention: fandom, the totemic record sleeve or autograph, the tissue of looks cruised, things out of mainstream distribution.
As if to intensify or even thematize the experience of these discontinuities between picture and sound, montage and meaning, past and present, critique and love, one of his most recent works, v. o. (a title that refers both to voice-over and to version originale, the term for a film shown theatrically in its original language with subtitles), 2006, consists of splices of film set mostly to unrelated sound clips. Jones combines subtitled sound segments from foreign films—including Manoel de Oliveira’s Amor de Perdição (1978), Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950) and Susana (1951), and Werner Schroeter’s Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1971)—with “nonsexual” scenes from gay porn films produced no later than 1985, including William Higgins’s Delivery Boys (1985), Ignatio Rutkowski’s Nights in Black Leather (1973), Tom De Simone’s Confessions of a Male Groupie (1971), Ian McGraw’s Subway (1980), key works by Joe Gage and Fred Halsted, especially L. A. Plays Itself (1972), and Christopher Rage’s Sleaze (1982). How and what produces sex as well as the affects of sexuality may depend less on bodies commingling than on location, the decor and choice stuffs around them, not to mention the nonce narratives in which they perform. Pleasure, both sexual and aesthetic, may be foreign and, at base, untranslatable.
Jones’s queer juncture of things categorized as different nonetheless palpates their samenesses, the artistry as well as the melancholy archive that film can become: In his dandy’s connoisseurship of pre-condom (i.e., pre-AIDS) porn, Jones uses appropriation to document the texture and verismo of bodies, places, cityscapes gone—from unsteroided muscle, location shoots that capture “Gay Power” graffiti, and street hustlers to interior shots noting the little amber bottles of Locker Room poppers lined up in the freezer. v. o.’s foreign-film “sound track” to these images further comments on absence and obsolescence, both in its uncanny melodrama and in the fact that all its cinematic sources are now out of distribution in the United States.
In one of the few segments of v. o. in which the footage remains synched to its original sound track, a commanding naval officer in a brig puts a sailor through his paces. During most of the sequence voices speak in French (and, as throughout, subtitles appear over the images), derived from an excerpt of the notorious 1985 BBC interview with Jean Genet. While we see the sailor nervously slide his T-shirt over his head and the officer stare, we hear the interviewer pose a question to Genet (“Did love begin for you with a boy?”). The British interviewer’s French accent, however, is imprecise, and Genet responds, noticing questions his interviewer did not even consider he might be inflecting: “Did you say ‘love’ [l’amour]? I heard ‘death’ [la mort].” The interviewer laughs, “No, I wasn’t talking about death.” The sound track immediately switches to its original source, and the officer barks: “Lick my shoes, Jones.” When Jones hesitates, the officer barks again: “A court-martial’s a sticky business, Jones. Lick ’em!” As Jones licks the officer’s shoes, Genet continues talking, saying that his love began not with one boy “but with two hundred boys.” The other Jones, the filmmaker, is too deft a semiotician to have to point out how, in the aurora of AIDS, Genet is already attuned to something, the most recent inflection of une petite mort.
Jones, by the quasi-Rousselian device of his mash-up method, finds his work and himself interpolated between an earlier era of gay life and of cinema and the present moment. Jones’s art attempts to bridge connection. The last words we hear spoken (in Portuguese) and read (in English subtitles) suggest the challenge, the translation, inherent in this mourning work: “Remember me. Live, to explain to the world, with your loyalty to a shadow, the reason why you led me to this chasm.”
Stuart Comer, “Emerging Artists,” Frieze, issue 104 (January/February 2007) p. 136.
Los Angeles continues to add to its embarrassment of riches with artists Lisa Anne Auerbach, Dave Hullfish Bailey, Lecia Dole-Recio, William E. Jones, Mark Flores, Erika Vogt, Stephanie Taylor, and Fritz Haeg.
Bill Horrigan, “Center to Coast,” Is It Really So Strange? (Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2006) pp. 8-9.
One of the occupational secrets (is it a secret? does it matter?) of being a film programmer is that sometimes a title will be scheduled and booked before he or she has actually seen it. That’s not ideal, but the day in, day out pressure to fill the institution’s schedule, combined with calendar and press deadlines, combined with the overall job of assembling a program hoping to engage the various constituencies the programmer wants to reach, all but guarantee that research, intuition, and word of mouth sometimes have to stand-in for having arrived at a judgment via direct experience. That’s how we happened to have programmed William Jones’s Massillon, back in 1991, for our program at the Wexner Center for the Arts, in Columbus.
I’d learned about Massillon from reading the catalogue for that year’s Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and decided without hesitation that it had to be shown in Columbus principally due to its connections to Ohio: Massillon is the city in the northeast part of the state where the filmmaker grew up, and as Ohio remains then as now underrepresented as a film location, I believed that virtually any professionally or artistically-rendered representation of it ought to be given a place within the program we offer to our public.
Paired opportunistically with another documentary called American Fabulous (a portrait of a local, much-beloved and deeply eccentric gay man soon to die of H.I.V. complications), our screening of Massillon that night was the first time I’d seen it. Aside from being corrected by someone in the audience that I was, in my introductory comments, mispronouncing “Massillon” (I’d never before heard it said aloud), my most vivid memory of the film was in the set of complications it produced in my thinking about the issues it addresses, complications produced by the steady accumulation of confession, empirical data, and clear intellectual ambition Jones’s voice-over narration provided, set to a series of unpopulated still landscapes, first of Ohio, then of national destinations, and then of the reclaimed, resistant landscapes of Southern California.
Proceeding from autobiographical reflection on his emergent sexuality, into reflection on the then-recent Supreme Court decision upholding Georgia’s anti-sodomy laws, into a provocative connection made between the state-sanctioned regulation of sexual behavior and the implicitly repressive assumptions built into the oxymoronic “planned communities” continuing to occupy our republic’s landscape, Massillon remains a uniquely demanding viewing experience, the serenity and moderation of its pacing tied to what by any measure would qualify as a learned, hard-nosed critique in its narration, and narration, at that, wry, patient, and eminently companionable. Visually, “nothing happens” – all those landscapes, and where are the people? – and yet it delivers nothing less than the world as Jones saw it at that time.
As a filmmaker coming of age in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Jones was hardly alone in his interrogation of received assumptions about identity, whether that would lead him to view those assumptions in relation to sexuality, citizenship, or even consumerism and fandom. But what has distinguished him among other practitioners in the independent sector is his commitment to and mastery of the visual essay form, his inscription of first-person commentary on subjects both personal yet exterior to himself. While it’s true that his scripts can be read with pleasure on their own literary terms, it’s only when he marries written and spoken commentary to the sequential argument made by his imagery in its painstaking counterpoints that his achievement becomes as singular as it has become over the past fifteen years.
A key to Jones’s method comes in what he visually withholds. Massillon’s landscape without figures has its complement in Finished (1997), a personal detective story about Alan Lambert, a suicidal, messianic porn star, in which the central enigma’s claim to the filmmaker’s attention – that is, footage of him actually being a porn star; that is, porn footage – is never revealed; just as, in The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), what’s seen is not gay pornography (much less the epochal events of 1989 and 1990) but the gruesome recruitment and audition sessions of hapless Eastern European teenage boys as prelude to their entry into the global sex trade; just as, in Is It Really So Strange? (2005), young Southern Californian Latino fans of Morrissey profess rapturously-invested testimonies to his power without the viewer hearing the evidence of that musical allure.
Both Finished and Is It Really So Strange? begin in Jones’s acknowledged uncertainty as to where his pursuit – which through a circuitous route the final form of each comes to embody – will lead him, an avowal of his own bafflement: why do I care about this gay porn star? why do these kids worship Morrissey? His own ignorance hence forming the bedrock of his ensuing investigations, Jones is, from that minor-key paradox, a filmmaker of ideas, and one given to pondering them quite unlike anyone else. There are, naturally, resemblances and affinities: his work in landscape inevitably recalls the influence of Cal Arts in general and James Benning’s ongoing project in particular; the idiosyncrasy of his interests and the unexpected angle of approach often bring to mind Gus Van Sant; and Jones himself has invoked Chantal Akerman and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet as ongoing inspirations. These artists have nothing in common other than the conviction to find a filmic form appropriate to the ideas they are compelled to make tangible. As one is obliged to say of these filmmakers, and of others, and of Jones, this is personal filmmaking or it is nothing.
It’s a strange, strong effect Jones produces: out of fascination, he circles around the thing itself – American citizens, gay porn, Morrissey – and visually discloses it only in fragments, in refracted fashion, yet produces voice-over commentary of inimitable precision and nuance, letting the viewer in at every step he takes on his route to figuring out, aloud, how he’s come to be where he’s found himself and is taking us. You can’t ask much more from a guide.
For Olaf Möller, “The Unmarginal Love: Pornopotsherdology” and more, see “Olaf's Place.”
For contrary opinions, see “Refuse and Rubble.”