16mm film, color, 70 minutes, 1991
William E. Jones returns to his hometown to construct an unconventional and moving autobiography. Challenging some of the most firmly entrenched notions of filmmaking, Massillon tells its story without a single human actor, by combining beautiful images with a seductive voice-over narration.
1993 Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Tomorrowland, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Pleasure Dome, Toronto; Filmforum, Los Angeles; Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley; Artists Space, New York; Cine-City, Getty Center, Los Angeles; P. S. 122, New York; Tate Modern, London; Film in the Cities, Saint Paul, Minnesota; Hallwalls, Buffalo, New York; Golden Horse Film Festival, Taipei, Taiwan; Scratch Projections, Paris; Aurora Picture Show, Houston; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; Anthology Film Archives, New York
Ioannis Mookas, “Postcards from the Edge: Unorthodox Queer Milestone Revived at MoMA,” Gay City News, vol. 5, no. 25 (June 22-28, 2006) p. 51.
Over Pride weekend MoMA includes in its CalArts film survey two screenings of William E. Jones’ nonfiction feature Massillon (1991). Unseen in New York since the 1993 Whitney Biennial, Massillon is a crucial, misprized landmark of the New Queer Cinema.
Looking back at that early ’90s groundswell, against the pluriform fantasia of Poison, the arch pastiche of Swoon, and the fulsome cabaret of Paris Is Burning among other American exemplars, Jones’ minimalism now seems the most dandified of all. Composed almost entirely from exterior shots and voiceover narration, Jones structures his semi-autobiographical essay in three movements entitled “Ohio,” “The Law,” and “California.”
Opening with pocked home-movie footage of Niagara Falls and the Washington D.C. mall shot by his father, Jones evokes his childhood in the rust belt Ohio city of Massillon through carefully framed still tableaux of charred factories, railroad trestles, gravel yards, mossy turnpikes, and faded commercial signage. The procession of painterly 16mm landscapes counterpoints Jones’ anecdotes voiced in his signature even cadence.
Concerned with governmentality, Jones lingers on his hometown’s indigenous institutions—the public library, the Thomas Edison Junior High School, and the Canton Baptist Temple. The Joneses brought young William to their mega-church, where tykes absorbed the gospel in Sunday school while grownups overflowed the nave. A Lebanese-American neighborhood kid gives Jones a postage stamp from his homeland as proof that “such an old place could actually exist,” which he saves in a stash of bibelots more precious to him than any scripture.
The irony sharpens as Jones’ episodes grow increasingly sexual, with a classroom sex-ed lesson hijacked by two wiseacres, and a former best friend, a football player who breaks into an anti-gay rant one day, then withdraws after Jones takes offense. He shares this with another pal, who asks him what he saw in the jock. “I really couldn’t say,” he bluffs. A gym class wrestling match turns brutal when Jones’ opponent has a ’phobic panic. While pinned, he dissociates, “all I could hear was the girls’ trampoline practice across the room,” but snaps back when the hun murmurs, “I’m gonna fucking kill you.”
Jones’ temperamental reserve could at first glance be misread as froideur, but his unhurried editing rhythms and near monotone have the effect of infusing the smallest modulations with drama. He rakes the embers by recalling a visit to a notorious highway rest stop, later demolished, where he forfeits his anal virginity. A friend tells him of the Supreme Court’s 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision recriminalizing sodomy, but the only local coverage Jones can find of the ruling is a radio preacher’s sermon preserved on audiotape. The end of part one is signaled by the film’s first traveling shot, a parkway seen from a moving car as an excerpt of the broadcast plays on the soundtrack.
“There has been a revolution in the executive branch and a revolution is going on in the judiciary,” the evangelist says of the late President Ronald Reagan’s arrogation of democratic institutions to the Christian neocon agenda. “We still need to pray mightily for the legislative branch.” This unnerving fossil incidentally resituates today’s Republican hegemony within the long arc of the post-Goldwater backlash.
Part two, “The Law,” forms a wry interlude as Jones wings from Massachusetts to Michigan to Montana, shooting the capitol buildings of states that kept sodomy statutes prior to their nullification by the Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision. Training his camera on the porticoes and cupolas in a way that would probably land you in a CIA black site today, Jones quotes from the states’ divergent definitions of sodomy. South Carolina forbade “buggery,” Rhode Island found it “detestable,” and the District of Columbia condemned “sexual psychopaths.”
“California,” the film’s concluding segment, broadens the conceptual ambit to nothing less than a philology of homosexuality—citing the term’s mid-19th century coinage in the junction between scientific positivism and revivalist moral crusades—and its prohibitions. Reverting to the static tableaux of “Ohio,” Jones frames half-built developments in cloudy arroyo landscapes, skeletal tract houses, snapping pennants, concrete viaducts, and blacktop ribbons tapering to desert as he limns Plato and the Catholic Inquisition.
Massillon finally loops back to Niagara, with Jones’ 16mm footage replicating his father’s Super-8 souvenirs. The camera traces the rim of the cataract, where the river’s dark mass splits sharply into turquoise foam. It’s as difficult not to imagine the vessel of our nation rushing heedlessly toward such a precipice under the current regime, as it’s impossible not to relish the wit, ferocity, and seductions of Jones’ major work to date.
Kathleen McHugh, “Irony and Dissembling: Queer Tactics for Experimental Documentary,” Between the Sheets, In the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary. Edited by Chris Holmlund and Cynthia Fuchs. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) pp. 224-240.
Appearances deceive. “Queer” cultural identity and the problematics of contemporary documentary converge on this (platonic) point. The phenomenon of heterosexual presumption (one is straight until proven otherwise) frequently places queer subjects in a position that mimics and inverts the structure of dramatic irony. Presumed straight, the queer subject becomes an actor in a scene staged by another, by another’s cultural imaginary. Yet in this scene, the actor knows more, is more than her or his audience, more than his or her culture imagines. A knowledge effect, which undermines the assumed coherence of identity as such, arises from the dynamics of this staging of who the subject is not.
This effect accrues to the queer subject, producing a necessarily ironized or metasubjectivity; consciousness of a self at odds with the self culturally perceived and sanctioned is a consciousness that exceeds and therefore knows the limits and inadequacies of the social contract, knows intimately its failure to represent all its subjects. Thus, queer subjectivity is in some sense founded upon the ruse of appearances, on structural misrecognitions. Gay theorists note a “gay sensibility,” associated with camp, “which stresses the absolute importance of mastering appearances and assuming identities in a gay life where passing for straight ... is so critical.” In this sensibility, knowledge effect often becomes ironic affect (a symptomatic transformation when knowledge is divorced from power?). Richard Dyer writes that “the ability to hold together intense devotion to something with a simultaneous irony or even derision towards it is characteristic of much gay culture.” The queer film and video makers I will discuss work back from affect to effect, using the incongruities of queer cultural identity to fashion visual texts that question the incongruities of perception, representation, and identity for everyone.
A similar irony also concerned with authenticity and representation informs the problematics of contemporary documentary film and video. Sergei Eisenstein presciently outlined the terms of this problematic in his condemnation of the nonfiction film. The cinema’s astonishing capacity to record appearances was precisely the attribute that rendered documentary films the most capable of dangerous mystification. The reality in front of the camera must be subjected to stylistic and conceptual interventions before the film could convey the historical truth that existed beyond appearances. Subsequent critiques of realism and of the presumptions of cinéma verité have led to complex reassessments of documentary stylistics. The task of the film or video maker who accepts these critiques is to structure the text such that its knowledge effects emerge from the ironic structure of the text’s assertions; in documenting the dissembling of appearances, the “not” of any assertion is staged.
In lesbian and gay experimental documentary, these ironies — subjective, affective, and representational — converge. Queer filmmakers perhaps have an edge in experimental, reflexive nonfiction because of their experience living in reflexive and rhetorical subjectivities. Thus this work presents a particularly rich field for investigating effective tactics in experimental non-fiction film and video production in general, because it interrogates representation both in relation to the medium and in relation to the subjects of the work. In this essay, I would like to examine the films and videos of three artists — John Goss, Joyan Saunders, and William Jones — for the very diverse ways they approach and fabricate a “queer” nonfiction. Rather than defining what queer identity is and offering evidence for the incontrovertible historical reality of a monolithic, unilateral queerness, they are more true to their subject. They respect the representational and subjective “nets” that subtend queer experience and identity. Each artist presents the extreme complexities and contradictions involved in any construction of identity; taken together, they indicate the myriad possibilities of representational tactics available to apprehend, while not crudely defining or limiting, very elusive subjectivities.
Insofar as each deals with queer/gay iconography or subject material and eschews an unambiguous realism in presenting that material, the work of Goss, Saunders, and Jones loosely falls within the lineage of queer experimental documentary inaugurated by pioneers Kenneth Anger, George Kuchar, and Jack Smith. However, the connection would not be evident in the appearance of their videos and films; the very diverse and complex trajectory of experimental documentary and the disparate influences on each of these artists distinguish them both from the originators of the genre and from each other. While actively using and subverting the codes of an array of other documentary traditions (which I will discuss specifically later), Saunders and Goss weave biography, created biography, and autobiography into formats derived from postmodern art tapes, conceptual art, and experimental documentary (see Chris Marker’s work as an example of these genres). Goss’s career as a Los Angeles performance artist and an AIDS activist inflects his work both aesthetically and affectively, while Saunders’s work in photography influences her treatment of video images. The work of William Jones emerges from diary films of the sixties and seventies, feminist experimental fiimmakers, and work with poetic documentary, home movies, and deconstructed camp (Jonas Mekas, Robert Frank, the punk Super-8 movement of the seventies and early eighties).
Goss, Saunders, and Jones all, in very different ways, cleverly misdirect the audience’s trust in the image, soliciting the emotions that would attend the telling of a true story, while pointedly subverting the conventions of its telling. Rather than using the concreteness and immediacy of the filmic image to present an argument or thesis, their work employs tactics to deconstruct the truth value of various modes of documentary representation. Thus theoretical and ethical issues standard to documentary film criticism, such as those concerning evidence and proof of a discernable thesis, no longer hold. The standard these artists establish and by which they should be measured is a paradoxical (an ironic?) one. It involves a process whereby meaning effects are produced, but always in a context where their veracity is simultaneously called into question. These tactics serve an array of approaches to queerness, gay and lesbian sexuality, and identity. My essay will investigate the permutations of this interaction between deconstructive tactics and queer subjects in John Goss’s Wild Life and He’s Like, Joyan Saunders’s Here in the Southwest and Brains on Toast, and William Jones’s Massillon.
Of the three artists I discuss here, William Jones addresses the question of queer identity most directly and least ironically. In ways very different from Saunders’s, he rakes on and depersonalizes the genre of autobiography in his film Massillon (1991). Jones wants to reframe the inception of a queer identity; to do so, he divides his film into three sections, each of which addresses different aspects of that identity formation. The first section, titled “Ohio,” recounts the narrator’s personal experiences and dawning awareness of his sexuality as a child and adolescent. The second, entitled “The Law,” neatly encapsulates the first, by recounting the history, evolution, and current status of sodomy laws in the United States. The third, “California,” uses images of planned communities to explore issues pertaining to heritage, tradition, history, memory, and, finally, justice and the limitations of the social contract. Massillon begins at the level of the personal, but the film’s perspective telescopes out, placing its personal narrative in legal, religious, and historical contexts that illustrate their adverse effects of these on individual subjects.
Jones has said that his primary interest as an artist and filmmaker is in ideas, and the paradox of his work is that he works in a medium ill suited for conceptual expression. He wants to visually represent what cannot be depicted or shown. Massillon, an essay in images, approaches the paradox that motivates it in several ways. Jones emphasizes the semantic importance of the sound track, inverting the traditional hierarchy of image over sound in film. There are no people depicted in Massillon, save for a few isolated figures in long shot, captured in the home movies that the narrator/Jones watched as a child and that he uses here to commence and end his film. This tactic effectively generalizes the import of specific images, as Saunders’s very different strategies do, but Jones is less interested in undercutting or deconstructing the voice of his film than he is in working with conceptual generalities about queer identity and the forces involved in its construction and containment. Finally, the documentation that Jones performs eschews the veracity of images altogether. He tells us what the images do not or cannot show. The words are the thing.
Massillon begins with a black screen and Jones’s voice telling us about his early memories of family vacations. His father took home movies of the places they traveled — Washington, D.C., and Niagara Falls — and Jones reflects that his memories of these places are memories of home movies. The sound track falls silent as the home movies play on the screen: images of Niagara Falls and then shots from an array of historic locations in D.C. The significations attached to Niagara Falls — honeymoons, romance, sexuality, marriage, conception — together with the legal, political, and historical significance of the U.S. Capitol articulate a visual coupling that subtly but concisely invokes the conceptual coupling that Jones will address in his film: the state, government, and the laws and their interaction with sexuality, “nature,” sanctioned romance, and procreative bias. As the home movies give way to contemporary shots of Massillon, the silent sound track faintly registers the sound of church bells, of a truck going over a bridge. Jones’s voice intones, “I grew up in Massillon, Ohio.”
The film’s first section is filled with visually lush sequences that contemplate landscapes and landmarks in Jones’s hometown and its environs. Jones’s camera does not move, but rather holds images, in long takes, sometimes in complete silence. We hear him recount anecdotes from his childhood and adolescence that slowly become more and more focused on a sexual identity at odds with the pastoral images and small-town values that shape his existence there. The stunning beauty of the images provides an increasingly ironic backdrop for the tales that Jones tells. A boyhood friend discreetly but firmly distances himself after Jones tentatively reveals his growing awareness of his sexual preference. A wrestling match at school becomes sexually and emotionally charged for Jones and a wrestling partner, who whispers to Jones, “I’m going to fucking kill you” as he tries to pin him. Jones, never succumbing to melodrama, succeeds both in capturing the obscurity and confusion of the emotions and desires that shape these situations and in documenting the repressive forces that render them potentially destructive or dangerous, and certainly discriminatory and unjust. The final anecdotes in the “Ohio” section graphically recount Jones’s first experience with anal sex, then tell of his inability to find any news account in Massillon of the Supreme Court’s Bowers v. Hardwick decision affirming the constitutionality of antisodomy laws.
Camera movement signals the transition from this section to the next. Visually recording cars and landscape passing by on a highway, this sequence contains an entire broadcast of a religious fundamentalist radio show that reveals chilling facts about President Reagan’s reorganization of the judicial system (“Reagan has appointed half of all 575 federal judges and 168 appeals court judges”). The speaker links this reorganization to the religious right’s agenda to criminalize abortion and all alternative sexualities.
In parts two and three of the film — “The Law” and “California” — Jones uses an array of theoretical and historical sources to recontextualize the “Ohio” section. “The Law” describes the nuances of sodomy laws in various states, as we see images of each state’s capitol building. Jones points out the peculiarities and biases of language that haunt these laws and continues, in “California,” to analyze the historical movements that have linked church and state, then the state and the medical establishment, in defining and regulating sexuality. His complex argument unearths a wealth of material that indicates how arbitrary our idea of “normative” sexuality is. We hear this argument as we look at examples of planned communities in California. The state, the domicile, tradition, memory, history and exclusion, repression and discrimination. Jones’s film ends as it begins, with footage from home movies. We cannot watch it in the same way, nor can we ignore the links he has insisted upon between the state and sexuality. The representational “nets” that Jones makes manifest are precisely these links. A quote from Diderot follows the credits, to the effect that the connections between church and state are “one more thread that binds us hand and foot.”
As I hope my descriptions have indicated, the three video artists and filmmakers I have discussed here do not fit into a clearly defined school or movement; they are more alike for what they do not do than what they do. All refuse the certainty of visual documentation while working within a mode of filmmaking that once defined its truth as “documentary.” In each filmmaker’s work, the self-reflexive critique of the visual field is wedded to ethnographic, autobiographical, and scientific investigations of or meditations concerning queer subjectivity and sexuality. Yet again, these investigations and meditations distinguish themselves by what they cannot or will not say, and by how that failure or inability is demonstrated within these videos. By linking visual documentation with rhetorical fallacies, appearance with deception, visibility with demonstrations of what we do not or cannot know about the subjects depicted, all these filmmakers register a profound and crucial lesson about queer identity and documentary. The only truths that can be told about identity and truth are limited, and the truest statements, the most veracious documentation, can only document those limitations. Working with/in all these nets, all these impossibilities, these filmmakers gesture at what has been left out, not recounted, not seen, a very elusive and queer subject.
Chris Nutter, “Video Corner: Massillon,” HX Magazine, December 5, 1997, p. 54.
It’s always refreshing to hear a dispassionate and educated voice in the debate over gay rights, and William E. Jones’s Massillon gives you just that — and a bit more. The director takes from his own stunted sexual awakening in the small Ohio industrial town where he was raised (and for which the film is named) and unravels exactly how multitudes of unrelated ancient beliefs and archaic religious notions about sex found firm ground in America’s courts and in Jones’s middle school. The guy did his homework, and it shows.
Although his highly informed lesson in sexual ethics is extremely illuminating, Jones’s technique as a filmmaker is what really sets Massillon apart. He seamlessly pulls together this complex endeavor. His narration is accompanied by home films of his family’s vacations to such traditional spots as Niagara Falls, followed by current footage of his hometown, the planned community in California where he settled and shots of various state courthouses around the country. One segment of a conservative radio talk-show host taped during the Reagan years arguing for enforced sodomy laws is accompanied by footage of a dreary Midwestern highway taken from a moving car.
Massillon is the kind of film that will make you think about what you must have heard long ago on your own car radio coming home from school.
Lawrence Chua, “Whitney Biennial 1993: Unusually Moving Pictures,” Artforum, vol. 31, no. 9 (May 1993), p. 17.
In a Biennial finally (though sometimes clumsily) attending to cross-cultural inclusiveness, poetry looms truer than history in the handful of films projected on the museum’s postage-stamp screen. If the documentary form claims to show what has happened at a specific moment and site, the best works in this program of films from the last two years entwine home-movie approaches with historical narratives to demonstrate that the most effective stories not only imagine what might have been, but also articulate experience in unspecified times and geographies.
Compared to some of the splatter and homo-sex epics shown in art-houses last year, The Biennial’s choices seem almost demure. Many of them eschew conventional cinematic forms for a more subjective approach to violence and sexuality. William Jones’ Massillon is that rarity that eluded the “queer new wave” of 1992, a homo road movie in which gay icons are nowhere to be seen. Named after the small town where Jones grew up believing he “lived in the center of the world,” Massillon uses the quiet landscapes of the American Midwest to look at a history disfigured by myths of the family, patriotism, and religion.
With few but pungent exceptions, the Biennial’s film program affirms that artists can represent states long absent from the institution’s programming with verse that doesn’t boil down to mere correctness. Whatever the motivations for the presence of so much work authored by queers and people of color, for one of the first times in recent memory the film galleries at the Whitney are flickering with intersecting subjectivities, colliding stories, and sexy complications.
Edward Ball, “Candid Cameras,” Village Voice, December 29, 1992, p. 72.
Long before identity politics reared its personal head, a kind of self-analysis was all the rage in motion pictures. The medium was video, not film. In the 1970’s, portable cameras and decks became affordable, and every videomaker worth a pixel churned out self-portraits. It was the Me decade, when to make a video image seemed vaguely akin to scream therapy. But soon whole archives filled up with diary pieces, and the standard put-down of video art was “narcissistic.”
By contrast, the self of the filmmaker rarely surfaced in movies. High cost turned the most shameless mirror gazer into a ventriloquist speaking through hired puppets. In fairness, few in the film business felt like letting it all hang out for a million or two viewers (compared to one or two for video). So like demure analysands, producers remained prudent and avoided self-revelation. But in the last few years, ample movies about sexuality and the self have found venues, and the filmmaker-patient is now in full recline on the couch. In movies, too, the I’s seem to have it.
Before hardening into a genre with mass distribution, episodes in film culture pop up as tendencies on alternative screens and at festivals. Last May, the Kitchen put on a series called “Flesh Histories” — two dozen short pieces about the body and sexual identity. Half were tape, half celluloid. Another augur appeared in October at the International Festival of New Cinema and Video, in Montreal, where at least a dozen works asked the question, Who, or what, am I? “Obviously, more people are making work about sexuality, because we didn’t go out looking for it,” says Claude Chamberlan, one of the organizers in Montreal. Like other programmers, Chamberlan singles out the virus that seems to create while it destroys: “I think in large part this kind of new media is one of the fallouts of AIDS.”
One of the better identity items on the Montreal program was Massillon, a movie that begins as an oneiric recollection of the filmmaker’s childhood in the Midwest, then turns into a reptile-cold diatribe on sodomy laws.
Like a dispatch from Main Street, Massillon opens with old home movies and banal shots of the small town of Massillon, Ohio. Fifteen second vignettes of high schools, factories, and depopulated malls flicker across the screen like Morse code Americana. Against them grates a voice-over that tells of a boyhood growing up gay in these dusky midlands. Confined to the soundtrack, filmmaker William Jones’s literary tales of early sexual rubbings seem only coincidentally engaged with his monotonous townscapes, a disphasure that intensifies the power of each. Then, just as the recollections begin to feel claustrophobic, Jones’ voice abandons the diary form and tears into the social history of queerness. The clinician’s camera travels to Washington, D. C., Los Angeles, and elsewhere, clicking off more static shots. Meanwhile, Jones describes fusty antisodomy legislation, recounts witch-hunt prosecutions, and recites the etymology of words like bugger. The film’s payoff is its seamless coitus of the personal with the political.
Randy Turoff, “Queer Reels at the Film Fest: Massillon” San Francisco Bay Times, April 23, 1992, p. 40.
This is a personally narrated film which has a hypnotic way of putting you under its spell as you sit and drift on the images moving across the screen. While the landscapes, bridges, highways and industrial pits move laconically in front of your eyes, the narrator speaks about Massillon, Ohio, and about his childhood as a budding sodomite. It’s a coming-out, growing-up, and becoming politically aware story which actually creates the effect of reading a novel. We hear the details in the narrator’s voice, and our minds reconstruct the visual images and feelings he is conveying, overlaying the mind pictures onto the rolling and changing landscapes on the screen.
It’s never boring, even when it’s slow, and the mind images feel so alive that if the filmmaker, William Jones, had put the picture directly on the screen, it wouldn’t have added anything significantly new. In fact, pictures or films or photos often sabotage the creative process of imaging. As Jones pointed out at the start of the film, memories are manipulated. He shows us some home movies his father shot on a family trip to Niagara Falls. These home movies have become the sole repository of memories elicited by that trip. The particular details have become gridlocked forever, obliterating all other possible channels of access to the experience of that time.
Early references to homosexuality are brought up in remembered bits and pieces, as when the narrator’s best friend in Junior High School told him that homosexuality caused the fall of the Roman Empire. When the narrator expressed some doubt (thus exhibiting possible homosexual sympathies), the friend dropped him like a hot potato. The narrator/author speaks in the voices of his past, using pre-teen phrases like “he told me he had tried everything” — and then he analyzes the phrases as he did then, “I wondered (but didn’t ask) what everything meant.”
His first same-sex experience in a rest stop on a highway is vividly and innocently narrated, and this key episode launches us directly into the mind of the film, which is a highly original and frightening look at American persecution of homosexuals, and the legal and scientific hypotheses which are still used as forms of punishment.
Anyway, the film continues, and it becomes an important vehicle for examining the laws against homosexuality starting with the first conviction under state law in 1631 in England. Of course the Inquisition didn’t need anything but their own ecclesiastical “natural” laws to burn the witches and faggots, the buggers, before then. In America today, 25 states criminalize consenting same-sex between adults. In Idaho, for purely political reasons, as late as 1955, a man received a life-term prison sentence on moral charges of sodomy. Makes one shudder. From church to state to science — which has proven to be as much a tool of oppression as a tool of understanding “homosexuality” — the law has rarely been on our side. Jones takes us on a strangely absorbing trip through cultural history, his and our own gay history which has been used against us and seen as a crime against procreation, as the cardinal crime against nature.
Kevin Thomas, “Special Screenings: Massillon,” Los Angeles Times, November 25, 1991.
With his fiercely demanding yet ever-provocative and decidedly original 70-minute Massillon (1991), which Filmforum screens at LACE tonight at 8, experimentalist William Jones juxtaposes his bleak account of growing up gay in a small Ohio city with lyrical images of that community.
The personal gradually gives way to the political as Jones delves into how homophobia and the ignorance that goes with it are embedded in our very language; simultaneously, the images of Massillon yield eventually to shots of a raw Southern California tract where we’re led to assume that Jones, who will appear in person, now makes his home.
Jenni Olson, “Way to Go, Ohio,” Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages, October 2, 1991, pp. 19-21.
If you can’t go home again, you can at least make a movie about it. In his debut experimental feature, entitled simply Massillon, William Jones has cast his Ohio hometown in the starring role. “I lived in Massillon for 18 years of my life,” says Jones. “I returned for a while to find beauty in this place, but also to rid myself of its influence.”
Challenging some of the most firmly entrenched conventions of filmmaking, Massillon has no human actors and consists almost entirely of long, static landscape shots. “The main strategy of the film — the disembodied voice speaking over landscape shots,” explains Jones, “is also the main strategy of the Straubs’ film Too Early, Too Late.” Jean-Marie Straub and his wife Danièle Huillet were a revolutionary element in the New German Cinema of the ’60’s and ’70’s; their project, Jones continues, was “to devise a materialist cinema that doesn’t rely on tricks or seduction or false spectacle.”
Massillon’s contemplative pace, thoughtful compositions, and sensual concern with sound and image place it clearly within this particular tradition of filmmaking. Jones lists lesbian filmmakers Chantal Akerman, Su Friedrich, and Ulrike Ottinger as further influences, particularly Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, which, he says, “made it clear to me that you can make any film you want to.” Which doesn’t necessarily mean that people will like it — or get it. Jones says some people have called Massillon “an exercise in boring the spectator.” He then cites a favorite anecdote: Straub was told, after a screening of his film The Death of Empedocles, “You don’t care about the feelings of the audience.” Straub then replied, “Why don’t you work on your feelings for 10 years and then come talk to me.”
Jones is understandably pessimistic about his film’s reception at a time when Hollywood’s idea of the art of cinema dominates movie screens worldwide. Given that contemporary film is overwhelmingly based on the conventional presentation of generic narrative fiction, films like Massillon are faced with a daunting task — trying to expand the filmic vocabulary and pose new ways of experiencing the world through film.
Actually, Massillon is far more accessible than I’m letting on. “Massillon isn’t a typical experimental film,” Jones declares. “It’s all rather simple documentary images.” Wind blows, birds chirp, cars pass by, cows stand in a field — it’s remarkably sensual; you are there. The film’s gentle editing is complemented by the reassuring intonation of Jones’s voiceover, as he describes his childhood, his research into state sodomy laws, the etymology of the language of sexuality. Jones’s prose is literary, his images painterly, his timing ponderous, his humor dry.
Divided into three parts (Ohio, the Law, California), Massillon ranges through the personal to the political and back again. In the first part, road signs, construction sites, churches, and fields fill the screen as Jones relates stories of growing up gay in small-town Ohio. In one sequence, Jones plays a tape of a radio fundamentalist ranting about the wisdom of the Supreme Court’s upholding of Georgia’s sodomy law (the Hardwick decision); the accompanying images are shot out the window of a car — a storm gathers; it begins to rain.
The second part focuses on a historical analysis of state sodomy laws. Jones says the Hardwick decision was a catalyst for the film. After graduating from Yale in 1985 (a year behind fellow grad and Paris Is Burning director Jennie Livingston), Jones had moved back to Massillon. “I got to experience again what it was like to be an isolated gay person living in the Midwest,” he relates. “I worked in a record store and plotted my escape to sunny California.”
In the film’s final segment, Jones discusses his “escape” to Santa Clarita, California. This arid “planned community” on the edge of the desert provides a stark contrast to the landscapes of Ohio. Power lines, flags in the wind, and dry land characterize the images here, as Jones incorporates a discussion of urban planning into an analysis of theories about homosexuality.
Jones is enthusiastic about the structure of his feature. “The film begins in a way that leads the spectator into a voyeuristic position,” he explains. “But that voyeurism isn’t indulged; it’s frustrated; one never gets to see the things that are described. This was a way of luring the spectator into a place where all sorts of things could be explained, and our assumptions about sexuality could be examined on the most fundamental level.”
Jones seems unconcerned about the semantic distinction between being a gay filmmaker and being a filmmaker who happens to be gay — an issue much discussed in relation to the current crop of popular gay filmmakers: Todd Haynes, Jennie Livingston, Gus Van Sant, et al. “I made the only film my conscience would let me make,” Jones comments. “I’d like to think that I could continue to make that kind of film, and it happens that gay subjects are the nearest and dearest to my heart. Being a filmmaker and being a gay person, I can’t separate them. I guess I’m taking a chance,” he quips, “taking the name of that dreaded creature, the ‘gay experimental filmmaker’.”
Henry Sheehan, “Mind Your Language,” L. A. Weekly, July 12-18, 1991, p. 43.
Like the gelatinous monster of the ’50’s sci-fi movie The Blob, popular culture has an uncanny ability to absorb anything in its path and turn it toward its own nutritional ends. Even as the mainstream eagerly tries to enlist minority characters and themes, gay and lesbian filmmakers are becoming increasingly preoccupied with pop packaging of their identities.
Of the dozen or so films press-screened for this year’s Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival, the most provocative deal with this issue. The documentaries, which range from personal and diaristic to agitprop, have an obvious interest in the mechanics of public language. But even the most experimental exercises in the dramatic films obliquely refer to the individual’s need to control language — in the larger sense of both words and images — rather than be controlled by it. Partly because of AIDS, partly because of the looming threat of the pop-culture Blob, gay and lesbian films often approach this problem with greater urgency than straight films.
The best of the documentaries screened, and a film that deserves wider dissemination, is William Jones’ Massillon, a slightly daunting three-part effort that moves from the personal to the historical, using shots of contemporary, unpopulated cityscapes to mark its passage. Part one, Ohio, features views of the rusty Ohio industrial town where Jones was raised, accompanied on the soundtrack by reminiscences of his youth and dawning sexuality (which culminate in a sickening encounter over a primitive public latrine). Ending with an oppressive traveling shot from a car — linking movement and confinement — that focuses on thunderclouds on the horizon while a right-wing radio preacher thunders on about keeping down homosexuals and how much he hates their co-optation of the word “gay,” the film moves into a brief second chapter, The Law, in which shots of various state capitols and Washington monuments support his discussion of the laws restricting sexual activity.
Part three, California, is the kicker. Filmed around the half-built “planned” community of Santa Clarita, the sequence contrasts the benignly neutral landscapes of playgrounds and aqueducts with Jones’ narration of the history of Western sexual persecution and legal regulation (including a piquant etymology of the word “bugger” that traces it to an old word for “Bulgaria”). Gradually the film throws into sharp relief how the manmade constructions of living space, devoid of people, now bear the mark of psychic blueprints laboriously sketched out over the years by authoritarian moral architects, pushing people like Jones off the scene and forcing him to individualize himself in dank, borrowed, semipublic places.
directed, written, narrated, photographed and edited by William E. Jones
sound mix by Craig Smith
additional cinematography by Steve Bachrach