INTERVIEWS AND CONVERSATIONS WITH WILLIAM E. JONES
Bruce Hainley and William E. Jones, “This Necrophilic Strategy Entails Some Risk,” Bidoun, Winter 2008, pp. 109-111.
Artist William E. Jones has made films about a pornstar (Finished), the Southern Californian Latino fans of Morrissey (Is It Really So Strange?) and the unlikely documentary and/or narrative moments within sex films (v. o.), among other hypnotic and subtle works. Through vivid photography, film and video, as well as considered and considerable prose (see his website: www.williamejones.com), Jones brings to attention modes of being and behaving almost on the brink of obsolescence. No small part of his study is the labor involved in the production of the erotic (i. e., what it means to be “working,” or, as a favorite working boy’s t-shirt put it, “Porn Stars Work Hard”). He carries on a tradition of experimental filmmaking in no small part about and within the noir heart of that intersection of bodies, industry, failure, and desire called Hollywoodland. What follows is an excerpt of our on-going conversation that weaves around the narrative of porn, the myth of Roman emperor Heliogabalus, the impact of the internet on documentary filmmaking, the whims of the censor, and beyond.
BRUCE HAINLEY: Before we discuss method and processes of research, perhaps it would be good for you to introduce Fred Halsted, the subject of your next, biographical project. When and how did you first hear about Halsted and his films?
WILLIAM E. JONES: My current project is a biography of Fred Halsted. I am tempted to say that I’ve always known about him, though clearly that’s impossible. Halsted’s film L. A. Plays Itself was neither the first gay porn feature shown in theaters, nor the first porno tape I bought. Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand has both distinctions. There is something quaintly artistic about Boys in the Sand, an idyll shot on Fire Island. By contrast, L. A. Plays Itself has a hard edge of aggression played out under the California sun. Halsted captures the brutal irony of the “good life” in Los Angeles, which is a tough town, as any hustler quickly discovers.
As soon as I had the opportunity to teach an experimental film course, I showed Fred Halsted’s work, but I chose Sex Garage, a short film Fred shot around 1972, because the version of L. A. Plays Itself then in circulation had been mutilated. The final scene, the first instance of man-on-man fist fucking shown in a theatrical film, was removed by the film’s video distributors, who considered it likely to attract the attention of law enforcement. In the present legal climate, there is little hope that it will be restored.
Fred Halsted invented himself as an artist and as a persona. He was the son of a mother who was an agricultural worker and a father who was a construction worker. He grew up in various places in California, and spent nearly his entire adult life in Los Angeles. He studied botany, not filmmaking, and became a gardener for clients such as Joey Heatherton and Vincent Price. He was a successful businessman, owning a chain of plant nurseries.
In 1969, the year that all-male sex scenes, or “loops,” were first shown publicly in East Los Angeles, Fred decided to get in on the action. The U. S. Supreme Court had not yet established a legal standard for obscenity, so it was a wide open field, still too risky to be industrialized on a large scale. Fred devised his debut film as an “autobiographical homosexual story” directed by and starring himself. Later that same year, he met the love of his life, Joseph Yale, whom he roughed up and fisted for the film’s climax. (Joseph had been led to believe Fred was making a nature film, an assertion that did have an element of truth.) This situation – not the sex scene, but the filming of it – scared Joseph off, and the two didn’t meet again until after L. A. Plays Itself was released in 1972. Over the next twelve years of their relationship, Fred and Joseph made a number of films together, operated a mail order business, published a magazine called Package, and ran a sex club in Silverlake called Halsted’s. Yale died of AIDS in 1986, and Fred never recovered from the grief. In his final year, Fred wrote an autobiography entitled Why I Did It, the manuscript of which has probably been lost. Halsted committed suicide in 1989. He died without a will, and his estate is in the hands of a family that has shown no interest in attending to his legacy.
L. A. Plays Itself has an interesting relation to history. It is an unintentional documentary of the circumstances of its filming, and this “documentary effect” only gets stronger with passing years. In the first half of L. A. Plays Itself, a scene between two young men in Malibu Canyon gets interrupted by bulldozers advancing on the wilderness that shelters them. At the time of the film’s release, Fred expressed concern about the real estate development destroying the wild areas of the Santa Monica Mountains. In his former career as the owner of wholesale nurseries, he depended upon construction and development for his livelihood. Filmmaking allowed him to have another point of view on the matter. It is ironic that there is still significant wilderness in the canyons that Fred thought would be utterly destroyed; what vanished was the Hollywood street life that Fred extensively filmed and probably thought would last forever. Hustlers no longer ply their trade along Selma Avenue by the YMCA. They now hang out in internet cafés to make their dates online. Various websites have replaced the meat racks, but this virtual space, while safe from the physical aggression of the LAPD, is distinctly un-photogenic.
BH: Your film Finished used porn star Alan Lambert as its centrifugal force, the absent center your thinking about and shots of Los Angeles moved around. Lambert also took his own life, and we could talk a lot about our mutual fascination with, um, dead beauties, but perhaps it would be more to the point to ask how the process of research has changed for you. Finished was your last film shot on celluloid and you wrote and researched it before, well, Google was incorporated. Has any of this changed how the gumshoe in you operates?
WEJ: Narrative films generally concern the struggles of living protagonists who move from place to place, solve their problems, and end up as part of a romantic couple. In the case of a dead protagonist, the narrative depends upon finding out what sort of character he or she was. The conclusion of such a story comes when the investigator – who is not only a stand-in for the spectator, but also a sort of ventriloquist throwing a voice into a dead person – achieves a satisfactory quality of knowledge. This necrophilic strategy entails some risk. The result is an art film. The most famous example in the classic Hollywood cinema is Citizen Kane, which is the beginning of narrative cinema’s great ambition, or great decadence, depending on who is constructing the pantheon.
During my investigation of Alan Lambert, I discovered very little about his life; I discovered much more about how to make a biographical film. When the people around Alan presented difficulties or entirely refused to cooperate, I was forced to fill the gaps with a testament to my desire, my curiosity, my moral scruples. I was in the position of making an argument for Alan that was really an argument for myself on the slimmest of evidence, and I found the challenge fascinating.
My Fred Halsted project initially provoked some weary skepticism (“oh, another film about a suicidal porn star…”) but Finished and the new movie, separated by more than a decade, have significant differences. For Finished, shot on film, I could not afford to conduct on-camera interviews, so the movie’s main dialectic posed shots of locations associated with Alan Lambert against found images of him. Switching to digital video has allowed me to introduce on-camera interviews to the compositional elements at my disposal. Since I am not abandoning still images or landscape shots, the interaction of these elements is potentially more complex.
Another shift with far-reaching consequences has occurred. Whereas I had to fill the void at the center of Finished with my speculations, I have recently found another preoccupation, at once more concrete and more banal: internet research. Like everyone else, I am astounded by the volume of information, often random and dubious, available to me in the internet. This new level of detail brings with it new frustrations. I now know what color eyes Fred Halsted’s stepfather had and that he had a tattoo on his right forearm, but I have little idea of what he was like as a person. I know exactly where Joseph Yale’s parents are buried, but I haven’t found a single living person who was a close friend.
BH: The problem is what to do with these almost random details — eye color, skin textures — how to turn data into thinking. If I were grandstanding, I’d say this is the burden of anyone who’s not fully Luddite in an age of the digital. Where does reading come into this? Your films often have a particular book as methodological inspiration. For Finished, it was A. J. A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, whose subtitle reveals its stake in your project: “An Experiment in Biography.” Symons puzzles together from almost chance encounters, from the texts of Corvo’s that remain (elusive published works, private letters), the subterranean, hand-to-mouth life of an eccentric homosexual littérateur. Some of your recent video works, the kids might call them “mash-ups,” borrow moves from Raymond Roussel. I wonder if there’s a particular book or author your Halsted project will, in some manner, become a gloss for or homage to? Is this, in part, how you find a form for your desires and materials?
WEJ: My work never develops in an efficient, linear fashion. The writer of a narrative film must know how a movie ends at an early stage of its script; to do anything else is to court disaster. I consistently make disasters, not knowing where the research or the writing will lead. In this respect, I have a lot in common with more conventional documentary filmmakers. Where my practice differs is in entertaining the kind of digressions that most other filmmakers would cut out. For me the digressions are the body of the film.
With the Halsted project as an excuse, I have read many of the historical sources on Heliogabalus. He was a pampered, flamboyant youth who became a Roman emperor through the machinations of his mother and grandmother. As high priest of a Syrian sun god, he attempted to impose his eastern religion upon Rome, and for his trouble, he was brutally murdered by soldiers in the army that had supported his rise to power.
Unless an emperor had something to gain politically from linking himself to the person he succeeded, he generally waged a propaganda war against his predecessor. Heliogabalus was a ludicrously easy target for this sort of posthumous punishment or damnatio memoriae. Tales of Middle Eastern effeminacy and luxury had furthered Roman political interests for hundreds of years. Many elements of Heliogabalus’ biography – his smothering dinner guests with a shower of rose petals, his masquerading as a palace whore, his offering a reward to whomever could perform a sex change operation on him – are likely exaggerations at the very least. Little is known with certainty about Heliogabalus; on the other hand, the apocryphal literature is extensive.
The chief source of this material is the Historia Augusta, a long text by six authors including Heliogabalus’ biographer Aelius Lampridius. That connoisseur of perversions Robert Burton and even the towering figure of Edward Gibbon took the text as authentic, but subsequent scholars have demonstrated that most aspects of the work are fictional or plagiarized, and have gone as far as questioning the very existence of Lampridius. One diligent classicist called Historia Augusta a “farrago of cheap pornography.”
Though I seem to have lost sight of the original object of my research, I submit that there is a one very specific link between Fred Halsted and Heliogabalus. Michel Foucault once remarked that fist fucking was the only sex act invented in the 20th Century. Many have repeated this statement without question, but I can’t imagine how it could be true. Fist fucking is possible in any group of people with considerable leisure and inventiveness, an obsession with power, and perhaps most importantly, an adequate plumbing system. The ancient Roman aristocracy had all of these things, and in the absence of religious proscriptions, some men of this class must have tried fisting, if not with their peers, then with their slaves.
Roman emperors engaging in fist fucking: as scholars say, it is not attested; no known history of ancient Rome describes the practice. Even fictional accounts neglect it. For instance, The Memoirs of Hadrian describes the emperor’s love for the beautiful youth Antinous with such daintiness that physical acts between them are almost impossible to contemplate. Samuel Delany’s Phallos, presented as a fragmentary text of dubious origin, can be understood as a corrective to Marguerite Yourcenar’s pudeur. On television, the Venture Brothers episode in which Caligula conceals the Hand of Osiris in his rectum reminds us that speculation on the intimate capacities of ancient Romans persists to the present day, even (or especially) in the realm of mass culture.
In the absence of evidence for or against fisting, it is tempting to fill the imperial void with plausible fabrication. If I had to nominate Rome’s most likely to be fist fucked, I would choose Heliogabalus, about whom the author formerly known as Lampridius wrote, “He invented certain new kinds of vice, even going beyond the perversions used by the debauchees of old, and he was well acquainted with all the arrangements of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero.”
In speculating about what lies beyond the excesses of Rome’s most decadent emperors, I am taking a license, but one that others have taken before me. Heliogabalus as a mythic figure has inspired many artists and writers, including Antonin Artaud, who expressed a serene indifference to questions of strict historical authenticity: “I have written this Life of Heliogabablus…to help those who read it to un-learn history a little; but all the same to find its thread.” New access to data, and with it, new forms of cheap pornography, admit new possibilities for finding the thread of history.
BH: It’s one thing to write a novel to flesh out historical situations and figures irretrievably lost or to reconsider the standard account of “what happened” in a new way. Certainly, some of Gore Vidal’s best novels concern American history. But how does the question of accuracy and of allegiance to the facts, however meager, compel a different issues, no less of the imagination? Part of your pursuit is biographical, and we both have come up against people who will not speak about what they know; people who will tell tales but only anonymously; subjects who are struck with the convenience of amnesia. Have you learned any tricks to woo revelation from the reluctant? And, if not, how do these silences and gaps become structural, paradoxically productive, in terms of changing your thinking as well as, potentially, the film's form?
WEJ: I once worked at the offices of National Geographic, and I read their manual dictating how to make a film. The production of a program always began with images shot at great expense in various far-flung locales. Writers then composed narration to accompany the footage; their job was to tell the audience what it was seeing. With few resources at my disposal, I begin a film with words and collect images to accompany them. The distinction – explaining what is seen versus hearing or writing then imagining something to see – is crucial.
In the U. S. images are routinely censored and controlled, but words circulate much more freely. It is very difficult to suppress completely any text with some claim on literary merit. This disparity favors films that may deal with sex but avoid sexually explicit images. The situation abroad is different. Australian censors refused to sanction a screening of my video The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography, simply because the title mentioned what they were supposed to be guarding against. This episode was a pointed reminder of the power of a single word.
The dictionary definition of aporia – a passage in speech or writing incorporating or presenting a difficulty or doubt – also describes a generating principle of my work. Sometimes the difficulties come from without; at other times I impose them on myself. This method strikes the conventional as perverse. For Is It Really So Strange?, I couldn’t afford to license a constant stream of songs, and spectators expecting the kind of music documentary that merely advertises the recording industry were disappointed. In some quarters I am known as the person who takes the sex out of pornography. I prefer to concentrate on other, clandestine (though paradoxically, more chaste) desires copresent with the obvious ones.
I may be obliged to complete my current project without the use of footage from Fred Halsted’s films. I will have to rely upon interviews with his friends and colleagues, an exceedingly small bunch of survivors, some of whom are reluctant to speak to me. The only promise I can make my subjects (and one that never works with young people) is that anything they offer me has some claim on posterity.
BH: The other night I was trying to explain to someone my investment in a particular history of faggotry that has been occluded, perhaps almost ended, by the first wave of AIDS. He accused me of being reactionary or, worse, nostalgic. I told him I was deeply interested in what the gay children were up to but that I wasn’t persuaded to believe that they organize their identities around the sexual; embrace the still potential radicalism of that history and culture; or spend much time lost in thought about what it meant to advertise, even publish, one’s non-normative desires. Would you say something about your work’s involvement or response to that history? Halsted would seem to stand for, even embody, powerful resonances and artesian energies now waning, if not lost.
WEJ: The 1970s hold a strong fascination for me, and my chief source of impressions of that time is After Dark. Originally as a dance magazine, then under the general rubric of entertainment, After Dark provided a record of a sensibility. It served as arbiter and instruction manual for those gay men who flocked to New York as the center of the world, and who took high culture seriously even when they didn’t understand it. After Dark addressed a relatively affluent reader aspiring to piss elegance. I suppose it has a contemporary, “straight acting” counterpart in Details. After Dark sought a national readership, so it didn’t engage with the activism of the early Advocate, nor was it as smart (or sexually explicit) as early Drummer. After Dark couldn’t fathom Warhol, though superstars made regular appearances in its pages; Halsted’s films were advertised but not reviewed. The magazine’s real strength lay in recognizing stars before they became famous in the mainstream, and whenever possible, showing them in a state of undress.
From my point of view – and not just in the context of After Dark – the losers or failures are more significant than the stars. There is an inexhaustible wealth of inspiration in the work of a performer who was a bit too extreme for crossover success; in the off-kilter flash in the pan whose precise appeal eludes us today; in the hot spots, icons and sartorial trends that proved ephemeral. I don’t mean to trot out “camp as subversive strategy” yet again, though clearly some of the objects of fascination are the same. What interests me is more akin to the work of classical scholars piecing together fragments of texts from antiquity. For example, the history of gay porn – too massive to be written by any authority – poses this sort of challenge. Legal problems, shady business practices, pseudonymous authorship, and a general cultural disdain have prevented us from gaining anything more than a rudimentary understanding of what gay porn is and how it has evolved over time. The situation for “legitimate” gay culture (whatever that is) seems only slightly better. The deaths of so many of the participants have practically transformed researching gay life in the second half of the 20th Century into an archaeological endeavor.
From my research in the archives, I could site myriad examples of historical sources that deserve our attention. Some of them haven’t even been catalogued or indexed yet. A tradition of idiosyncratic manifestations of faggotry, along with the milieu that supported them, has almost completely vanished. Now to us falls the task of making sense of it all.
Michael Sicinski, “Original Pirate Material: Twelve Rounds with William E. Jones,” Cinema Scope, issue 31 (Summer 2007) pp. 29-35.
1. Tearoom, the most recent work by experimental media artist William E. Jones, is actually only a “work by William E. Jones” in the same respect that Perfect Film is “a film by Ken Jacobs,” or Poetry and Truth is “the latest film by Peter Kubelka.” These are all entirely accurate statements, but they are also statements ever so slightly undercut by the works themselves, found objects whose “makers” are essentially presenters of preexisting cinematic artifacts. In each of these cases, the work performed on the films by their second makers is a radical shift in political sensibility and possible reading strategy. Jacobs’ film gives us an unedited reel of news footage from the day Malcolm X was assassinated, and in its new form, shows us quite directly how the news industry immediately sets to work in making momentous historical events visually legible in ways which are politically advantageous for entrenched power. Kubelka’s film displays the micromanagement of the performing body inside the structure of a television commercial, the way a piece of chocolate penetrates a female mouth and that mouth is endlessly coached in order to elicit a market-researched flavor-reflex. One of Kubelka’s early masterworks, Schwechater (1958) was a modernist subversion of a beer-publicity assignment; Poetry and Truth demonstrates commerce’s capacity to subvert its own internal ironies. Tearoom stands proudly alongside these achievements; it is one of the most soberingly revelatory political films of recent years and represents a breakthrough in Jones’ career. The film unearths a cinematic document of vital importance to the history of gay culture in the United States, which would be enough to cement its significance. But it also represents a radical willingness on the part of a major artist to efface his own aesthetic identity in favor of a “gay history without names.”
2. CINEMA SCOPE: A look across your filmography so far really places your latest work in a very revealing light. The earliest works, Massillon (1991) and Finished (1997), are (among other things) personal essay films, in which your actual voice is very present and explicit. Is It Really So Strange? (2004), your documentary about Latino Morrissey fandom in L. A., features your own voice and image, but also cedes a great deal of space to interviewees. In v. o. (2006) and your recent video shorts, your commentary is predominantly conveyed through editing decisions and sound / image juxtapositions, and eventually we arrive at Tearoom, which is an artifact you present virtually untouched. What (if anything) do you make of this trajectory (if it makes sense to call it that), and what do you think accounts for it?
WILLIAM E. JONES: Massillon and Finished related to a certain avant-garde tradition, but their first-person narrations gave them sense of intimacy that some spectators found easy to identify with. This gave the films a currency among people who weren’t necessarily versed in film modernism. Writing in the first person imposed its limitations, though, and I admit that I got tired of the sound of my own voice. In recent years I have wanted to approach historical material, and I wasn’t convinced that talking about my search for it, or my reactions to it, was the best way of contextualizing it. In my first works, I imposed formal strategies upon my material, but in the later works, I am more open to what form the material suggests. The turning point for me in this respect was Is It Really So Strange? which I could have made into an experimental film. Instead, I edited it in a more conservative way, and the result was something more accessible to the people I represented.
Perhaps another way of thinking about my practice as a filmmaker is that my films have in a sense become more and more artless. I started by making films with an obvious sense of artistry, and my latest work is essentially a found object. I suppose “obvious” is the key word, since what I am doing with my material has become subtler, and perhaps also more difficult for spectators and programmers to place. One of my favorite reactions to the work came from a friend who had just seen v. o.: “It’s like your other films, but I can’t explain why, because you didn’t shoot it, write it or narrate it.” The idea of having a film style that cannot be located in specific formal strategies appeals to me.
I didn’t plan anything as definite as a career trajectory, but I have had a consistent ambition to disrupt not only habitual patterns of consumption, but also my own habits as a filmmaker. In the text above I am describing a pattern that may not (or cannot) continue. My latest project, a documentary on Fred Halsted, the director of L. A. Plays Itself (1972), could easily lend itself to a mode of filmmaking that I seem to have abandoned.
3. Tearoom is comprised entirely of unaltered film footage shot in 1962 during a long-term sting operation by the Mansfield, Ohio police department. In the opening shots, the cops establish the scene (a pair of underground public bathrooms in the city square), an introductory passage detailing the number of steps down into the men’s room, the height and length of the compartment behind the mirror and sink, and a waving cameraman alerting us, the viewers, to his presence. After this, the remainder of Tearoom provides just under one hour of visual documentation (with slight camera movements and some thematic / category-based groupings, presumably edited by police personnel) of virtually everything that can possibly happen in a men’s bathroom. First, it’s just pissing and shitting, hand-washing and checking hair in the mirror. But before long, the footage shows various men, mostly middle-aged or older, having sex: handjobs, blowjobs, anal sex, the works.
Jones provides a great deal of historical data and specific context on his website, and this supplementary material is a crucial component of Tearoom. Like so much of the residue from “objective” surveillance practices over the centuries, from Galton’s police photos through the Rodney King video or camera footage from “smart bombs,” what we see is never really self-evident. Without an understanding of the juridical framework that determined the film’s hermeneutic purpose, certain other, more contemporary meanings threaten to eclipse Tearoom’s status as an archival document. As Jones makes clear, the sting was successful. Based on the evidence collected on film, these men were convicted of sodomy, an offense that carried a mandatory sentence of at least one year in the Ohio state pen. The material, then, is about as close as one can get to an absolute artifact of the Foucaultian state surveillance apparatus. These representations destroyed lives. To lose sight of this is not only to misinterpret Tearoom but to lapse into unwitting complicity with the institutional homophobia that produced it, in particular its uncanny ability to cover its own foul tracks.
And yet, to deny the fleeting beauty and fragility of this footage, its afterlife as a bulwark against the forced erasure of human lives, would be equally perverse. With his exposure and preservation of this footage, Jones has turned it into something almost redemptive. These men – men who look like and may well have been our fathers and grandfathers, uncles and family friends – are, for the most part, gone. And this footage not only captures (against their will) the sole evidence of their desires, for some of them maybe even of their entire existence. It documents their passage through a single time and place, their couplings with other men whose names they possibly didn’t even know. They are preserved at a series of instants, not utopian, and certainly not absolutely before shame. (Their personal emotional circumstances we cannot know.) But these instants are captured before the Law could circumscribe their meaning. These moments contain ecstasy too. The Mansfield police produced this film because they, and the culture that authorized them, hated gay men, and perhaps held a particular hatred for those “unmarked,” closeted gay men and bisexuals who walked among them, sat with them at O’Malley’s Bar or next to them at a baseball game. Years later, Jones allows us to remember the particular circumstances of their entrapment. But he also allows them to come back to life, to be safe and even beautiful in a future where they, at least, are no longer under siege. Jones’ Tearoom is a loving preservation of a kind of gay heaven.
4. SCOPE: Maybe you could say something about how you see your work as an extension of certain lineages (both separate and connected) of gay historical research and archival work and / or media excavation. This may speak to one of the things that makes your work so interesting, and often, as in a case like Tearoom, so hard to peg. You seem to work in “gray areas” or “between chairs,” partly because you’re looking at / for parts of history that have been either too suppressed or too quotidian to be seen. Do you find that this has made your work more legible to certain audiences, and less so to others? For instance, what would be your ideal screening situation for a work like Tearoom?
JONES: American culture at the present moment is so heavily censored that the only interesting place to be is on the margins. Distribution is spotty for unconventional work, and venues place me in a variety of ways. It is difficult to call what I do a career. Unfortunately, people hardly ever get to see my films more than once. Most fans of Is It Really So Strange? know nothing about my other work. Still, articles on Finished have appeared in both Adult Video News and Artforum. I don’t think any other filmmaker can claim that. The ideal screening situations for Tearoom are completely impractical: police department locker rooms, courthouse rest rooms, and under Central Park in Mansfield, Ohio. But I also think Tearoom would be appropriately out of place in a big theater, at a museum, or at an experimental film festival.
The historical amnesia and discontinuity that afflicts modern society in general is especially extreme across generations of gay men. I can best approach this question in the context of my current project. A number of obstacles present themselves right away. Fred Halsted and almost everyone who knew him intimately are dead; convincing the surviving relatives of a gay porn director to help commemorate his achievement is difficult to say the least; research in the archives requires poring over many sources that have not yet been indexed and have only recently been catalogued. I enjoy the research aspect of this project, since it has allowed me to get acquainted with the world of politically engaged, independent gay journalism. This range of publications has vanished, and I am not convinced that the internet can provide an adequate replacement for it. Halsted’s contempt for authority and his tendency to make outrageous, albeit sincere, statements to interviewers gained him a position in that world, but in a later period, these provocations would have fallen on deaf ears. Halsted invented himself at a very special cultural moment. He came out of nowhere and took advantage of unprecedented opportunities for sexually explicit gay filmmaking. He made and lost several small fortunes, and we can see in his experience a reflection of wider (and to a great extent, calamitous) trends in society.
5. This may as well be the point at which I temporarily halt the main objectives of this article, similar, I fear, to the way that a particularly obnoxious commercial interrupts a television show. This article has turned out to be the single most difficult piece of writing I’ve ever done, and I have no doubt that the final product with display the scars and pockmarks of its complicated entry into circulation. The story begins several months ago when I received some unauthorized VHS tapes of William Jones’ works from a mutual friend. This friend is one of a handful of generous souls who takes the time, for reasons I’ll never fully understand, to send me bootlegs of museum-circuit obscurities and second-hand critics’ screeners. I ended up watching and writing web reviews of Tearoom, and two short works, Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) and More British Sounds. These reviews caught Mr. Jones’ attention, in large part because the videos had not as yet screened publicly anywhere in the world. The jig was up. When all was said and done, Jones was quite cordial about this potentially embarrassing situation, despite the fact that amidst the other reviews was my singularly boneheaded first impression of v. o. Jones wasn’t shy about letting me know that he thought my take on that film (which I now consider one of his finest – more on that below) was really rather stupid. But perhaps because he intuited that my deep admiration for Tearoom would gradually create space in my thinking for the sly, covert maneuvers of his earlier pieces, and despite my detecting a hint of entirely justifiable wariness, Jones didn’t write me off.
6. The two short videos mentioned in the above paragraph, Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) and More British Sounds, premiered at L. A. Filmforum this past December. The pieces are linked by their reliance on appropriated and reconfigured material, but Jones’ compositional strategies for each piece diverge significantly. More British Sounds is the simpler of the two, a classic “mash-up” in true Freelance Hellraiser style. Jones conducts an uncivil union between two works which display surprisingly complementary fantasies of the political sphere while (on the surface, at least) emerging from very different modes of masculine address. The audio track is from British Sounds a. k. a. See You at Mao (1969), an out-of-circulation 16mm agitprop film by Godard’s Dziga Vertov Group collective. The film, and the group’s work in general, largely remains in ill-repute among critics and fans alike as a hectoring, virtually unwatchable screed. (It’s actually quite good, but hard to stomach, sort of what might have happened had the BFI commissioned Glauber Rocha to remake Weekend as a documentary.) The images are taken from the 1986 gay anglophile porn film The British Are Coming. As with the Godard, this is another inspired selection by Jones. Either directly or obliquely, in works like Finished and The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), Jones has commented on the relative lack of humor in most industrial gay porn, and he should know. (He edits the stuff for a living for Larry Flynt, which prompts me to think of Jones as an opposite number to Nathaniel Dorsky, both men having absorbed cinematic modernism to the core of their being but locating themselves quite differently with respect to that vocabulary.)
I’ve shown the Godard film to some of my classes, and Jones makes most extensive use of the sequence one of my students dubbed “the asshole speech,” a show-stopping right-wing rant that just goes on and on, getting more and more outrageous. Jones’ use of material from The British Are Coming emphasizes boot-licking and other labor-intensive acts of humiliation, and when combined with Godard’s Marxist discussion of class antagonism, a fascinating frisson emerges. Sex looks like work instead of pleasure, and the fact is these porno guys are hard at work. Meanwhile, the right-wing condemnation of freedom and perversion is undercut rather than illustrated by the porn sequences. With this small yet elegant gesture, Jones cracks both film-texts open and reveals their contradictions. Pornography is ambivalent, its industrialized sex-utopias providing undeniable pleasures in spite of what Adorno (just prior to clutching his chest and fainting) would have called their “total administration.” By the same token, we can now not only see the obvious joy that Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin and their collective took in crafting the “asshole speech” and its histrionics (which, as Jones points out, aren’t so funny today). Jones also allows us to witness the stern, impermeable masculinity of a certain stripe of ’60s radicalism (the rock and roll Maoists) as a kind of denial not just of femininity – this critique has been leveled before and rightly so; just watch Letter to Jane – but as a barely disguised circuit-breaker against homosexual desire. In their book Speaking about Godard, Harun Farocki and Kaja Silverman trace anality as a master trope in Godard’s cinema, but one that is always heterosexually inscribed. Against this, we could do well to consider Gorin’s later interview statements that, even more than documenting a particular mode of political discourse of cinematic modernism, the Dziga Vertov Group films are the record of a love affair between two men. You don’t need any of this to appreciate Jones’ mash-up. But perhaps there’s a reason why it fits together so perfectly.
7. SCOPE: Lots of contemporary works appropriate existing films, but v. o. and More British Sounds allude directly to video piracy, since these are works only available on the illegal tape trading circuit. Whether it’s sex or art, do you think at this stage of Christian capitalism that almost anything worth pursuing involves breaking some law?
JONES: Yesterday I presented More British Sounds, Film Montages (for Peter Roehr), and research about current projects to a seminar of grad students. The last topic we discussed was Boyd McDonald. He lived like a monk without concern for fame or career. He spent his time making anthologies of sex stories, if not actually having sex. Collecting and taxonomy and their transmutation into art are not mere sublimation. They are erotic activities. It’s only when the person in question collects porn – as opposed to dishes or records – that most people take notice of that. McDonald was exemplary. Forsaking contemporary consumer culture to become a connoisseur of filth is an ideal for living.
I take exception to the legal slant of your question. The notion of piracy has been conflated with private, critical and artistic uses of material under copyright. I don’t see how trading copies of works with no domestic distribution is illegal. Corporate America has wielded the notion of intellectual property like some sort of religious dogma. The owners of the mass media have claimed exclusive rights to our minds, and according to them, it is not within our power to respond or comment. We should be asking how their authority became legitimate.
What I am saying relates to sex as well. The sort of men who would have carved glory holes in public restrooms years ago are now patiently waiting to see if they can get married. As far as I am concerned, if you have to ask permission, it isn’t worth doing.
8. SCOPE: Your two recent short works, More British Sounds and Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) seem related to v. o. in terms of their construction from appropriated or pirated materials. But Film Montages is more in keeping with v. o.’s sense of remix-as-tribute. More British Sounds, in some ways, seems like a very direct critique of Godard. Could you elaborate on what you see as relationships and divergences between these two works?
JONES: For the body of work to which you refer, I decided to limit myself to films not distributed in the United States, with the exception of a couple gay porn films I found indispensable to the project. Like many people who care about movies, I have an extensive collection of VHS bootlegs. I wanted to put this collection to use before it becomes impossible for me to play the tapes. I also wanted to produce works that are unabashedly fetishistic, unauthorized or unofficial, even clandestine; these are attributes I find attractive in films I watch.
In the case of the Dziga Vertov Group films, I think it is extraordinary that anything by Godard, perhaps the most famous director in the world, would not be available in this country that prides itself on being the center of the world. As Jean-Marie Straub once said in another context, “This society isn’t worth a frog’s fart.”
I have a soft spot not only for British Sounds but also for The British Are Coming. I sometimes wonder which is the more radical film. I am amazed by Godard’s inability to imagine homosexuality, at least in his films. (I can’t speak about his personal life.) I don’t know if this deficit makes him a bad radical. I was happy to see Juan Goytisolo in Notre Musique; perhaps Godard is finally figuring some things out.
The collision of the soundtrack of British Sounds and the picture track of The British Are Coming has a curious effect. Scenes of class warfare get played out in a sexual arena, across different historical periods and cultures. Regrettably, the super-reactionary’s discourse has lost its shock value since 1969, because his speech sounds like the pronouncements of the U. S. administration since 2001. The phrase “magnificent sacrifice of men and money in defense of our freedom” suggests Iraq war apologia, and when I hear the line, “Let them starve, let them die,” I can’t help but think of global warming. More British Sounds is as much a comment on the unappetizing impasse of contemporary politics as it is a comment on Godard. It presents us with the pornographic imagination that capitalist development has bought us. In that sense, it is most closely related to The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography.
SCOPE: More British Sounds actually harks back to Finished in unexpected ways. Over the course of your investigation into the life and death of Alain Lebeau / Alan Lambert, you discover what appears to be a radical Marxist politics (which seems to make the pin-up boy all the more alluring), only to learn that Lambert’s worldview was crypto-apocalyptic and incoherent. In a way, you find the reverse in Godard – a somewhat more cogent political program but a disavowal of gay sexuality. Does More British Sounds in some way speak to the Godard you wish you had, or the one you’d like to make?
JONES: A flair for inventing provocative aphorisms shouldn’t be confused with a cogent political program. I find the explicitly stated politics in Debord’s films more convincing, but Godard’s films are more interesting to look at. Their films have at least two things in common: wonderful plagiarized texts and lots of images of breasts. Unpredictable things happen when political thought gets embodied in movies. Powerful critiques of American society are found in John Ford’s films of the ’30s and Samuel Fuller’s films of the ’50s. And they were a couple of right-wingers!
9. Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) is a subtler work than Sounds, which is not to say it is necessarily a better one, although I personally find it richer across repeat viewings. It also destabilizes to the point of near head-on collision the interplay between pornography and analytical formalism that thrums like an energy throughout so much of Jones’ work. This 11-minute video is initially coyer than other pieces in the filmography, but eventually goes much further in terms of giving up the goods. Jones adapts a compositional structure from minimalist music, wherein a basic repetitive structure expands by intervals; each single shot repeats four times at first, then eventually six times and finally eight. These looping passages could best be described as interstitial segments from gay porn cinema of the ’70s – some anonymous films, others better known, such as Joe Gage’s Handsome (1980) and J. Clinton West’s Dreamer (1975). Jones moves us from an opening sequence of absolute darkness, with only the piercing dance of freeway lights cutting into the night sky of the screen, through to an establishing shot of a Hess service station at night (a lonesome cousin to the glowing, almost metaphysical Sinclair station near the beginning of Kiss Me Deadly), into the most logical formal progression possible under the circumstances. We see the studded gleam of leather daddies in motion, moving against each other as desiring forms that consume both one another and all available light.
The repetitions allow us to observe small details of the comportment of a variety of gay bodies, the unique micro-gestures of forms of lust that, in their very recording, inscribe a kind of historical specificity. We see everything from pans up a lanky torso in bondage to a pair of nimble hands across leather enacting a kind of Bressonian exchange, along with moments excerpted from the sex scenes themselves. These segments, with kissing, groping, and slight repositioning, are the extractable dead time between the “real action,” but Jones allows these transitional phrases (if we’ll allow for a moment that cinema has a grammar) to exude awkwardness, tenderness, humor, and perhaps most importantly the momentary lapse in professional pornography’s disciplinary grip on the performing body. The men in this section are between tasks, and so they do, for a fleeting second, adopt the relaxed demeanor of Bresson’s models or Ozu’s actors intentionally distracted by a mundane task. Jones’ video pays explicit homage to Peter Roehr (1944-1968), a German experimental filmmaker and multimedia artist whose looping technique is adopted, from the sound of it, rather strictly here. (One of Roehr’s films, a loop of naked men wrestling, suggested a queer trajectory Jones wonders whether Roehr’s work might have taken had his career not been cut short by an untimely death.)
At the same time, Film Montages finds Jones entering into a specific by-way of avant-garde film and video, the motion study, one which has had a particularly fruitful engagement with porn. One obvious antecedent is Scott Stark’s NOEMA (1998), although Stark’s work is quite different on several counts. For one, he uses only contemporary hetero porn, so not only are the sexual politics half a world away (allowing Stark to play his piece for laughs, despite the rigor and intellectual seriousness of the piece); the relationship to cinema as a form of light and texture, and its uneasy translation into the glassy harshness of video, comes to the fore in Jones’ work much more significantly. In regards to the particular ways in which transitions and interstitial material form themselves, and can become objects for contemplation when removed from their original context (“the prison-house of narrative,” at the risk of cheap modernist melodrama), Jones’ film has a true sibling in Morgan Fisher’s 2003 masterpiece ( ) a. k. a. “parentheses”. Like Film Montages, ( ) is composed of in-between snippets and passages, and as with the Jones film, Fisher’s approach unleashes high-modernist pocket-aces from a sea of surrounding story-noise. But Fisher only gives us one glimpse of each individual shot. This makes sense, since ( ) is more about creating new, stronger articulations between unrelated images through montage. But Jones’ repetitions, in this context, feel luxurious, seductive, like the hook of a slow jam that breaks the moment when the needle skips.
10. Aside from All Male Mash Up (2006), the last remaining Jones film I have yet to see, this move backwards arrives at v. o. As I stated above, I really didn’t get v. o. at all the first time around, so much so that even though I’ve formed a very different and altogether more favorable opinion of Jones’ gay porn / Euro-arthouse remix featurette, I remain hesitant to put all that much more stock in my current thoughts than in my initial ones. Upon first seeing v. o., it seemed to me that Jones was applying the soundtracks to a number of films by directors from the European canon and others who could safely be classified as criminally underrated masters to images from ’70s auteur porn (especially the films of Joe Gage and Fred Halsted) that in no way needed “elevation” by association with Renoir, Oliveira, or Buñuel. Jones’ closing credit sequence, which listed the porn titles low on the screen and the canonical ones high, threw me off. I missed the irony. Not only was Jones well aware of the critical rediscovery of the masters of classic gay porn; he was one of the artists spearheading it, much the same way Ken Jacobs and Ernie Gehr helped to rehabilitate the “primitive” cinema of the pre-Griffith era.
Upon second viewing, I realized I’d missed the boat. v. o. struck me as, above all else, a subjective record of a unique viewing sensibility, an omnivorous cinephilia that, of course, acknowledged the historical and material distinctions between Joe Gage and Manoel de Oliveira, but refused to allow those distinctions to calcify in terms of an aesthetic of reception. The fugitive street-modernism of Halsted had to find a place of some kind alongside Raul Ruiz and Aki Kaurismäki, on the video shelf and in our film-historical image bank. In fact, v. o. started to strike me as Jones’ approximation (intended or not) of a Rivette film. The middle section in particular, featuring the long subway cruising between “Sucker” and “Fuckface” in “Clonetown,” has all the secret-world atmospherics of the Rivettean universe, the frightening and liberating discovery of a hidden layer of life alongside or underneath the mundane. What’s more, Jones made this universe all by himself, out of “pirated” material. That is, the underground world of bootleg tape trading and gray-market rental allowed for the very existence of v. o., a film loosely chronicling the pleasures of the gay urban underworld. Conceptually, v. o. now seemed like the ideal object.
11. SCOPE: v. o. is, I think, your toughest work. It took me three viewings to really come around on it. But now it seems like a kind of passkey to your aesthetic. Sound / image relationships form, come together and fall apart, and it’s obvious that you put them together, that we’re not really getting the “version originale,” or the “voix originale.” But as with Massillon, Finished, and a number of your other works, a certain sense emerges that, if you really poke at it, always threatens to dissipate. The best way I can think you put this is, outwardly your work implies prose, but in structure tends to function more like poetry.
JONES: I probably wouldn’t have made this assertion myself – poetic is a word I rarely use – but I don’t disagree with it, and I have no objection if you expand on it.
12. Yes, poetic. Not in the grandiloquent manner of the Romantics (who themselves were, in a sense, recuperated, brought back down to earth, by the cinema of Stan Brakhage). Perhaps more in the sense of the para-academic semio-poets, people like Bruce Andrews or Robert Glück. “Poetry” meaning that in Jones’ newest work, pornography, which like most all mass culture abides by a mandate of frictionless transmission of a specific and somewhat predictable message (someone fucking someone else), is broken open. Its horizontal language is rearranged, revealing new possibilities for vertical meanings, compressed energies, interstitial and even illicit desires. Poetry, and poetry now, because right now, Jesus, consumption, heteronormativity, and war without end – these comprise the prose of the world.