A section devoted to OM's body of writings about my work
Olaf Möller, “The Unmarginal Love: Pornopotsherdology”
Note: The following text is an earlier, more extensive draft of this essay. For the published version, see “Olaf’s World: The Maximal Minimalist,” Film Comment, March/April 2006, pp. 19-21.
How would Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet react if they discovered that one of their most rigorous works, the 1982 Too Early, Too Late, served as a major inspiration for a treatise on the cultural implications of sodomy and its legal definitions? And what would Manoel de Oliveira say when faced with a raw video that juxtaposes sound quotes from his 1979 film Doomed Love with images lifted from contemporaneous gay porn? It’s a safe bet that the French couple and the solitary Portuguese master would be a little bewildered and none too happy, but so what? They should be grateful for being saved from the living death of useless and unproductive veneration—by a gay, pornophile intellectual who’s taken up and contemplated their aesthetic and political considerations and drop-kicked Modernism into the 21st century. After all, Diderot launched his Enlightenment project with a porno novel, Les Bijoux indiscrets, a thoroughly moral work that William E. Jones—maker of the aforementioned works, titled Massillon (1991) and v.o. (2006) respectively—would probably love to adapt, by any means possible.
Like several other remarkable U.S. avant-garde documentarians who came to the fore in the 90s —Travis Wilkerson and Lee Anne Schmitt come to mind—Jones studied at Cal Arts. Before film school, he stayed for a while in Paris trying to study film theory but always ending up in cinema instead – he didn’t finish his studies but saw a lot of films (quite a few of which ended up in v.o.); some rumours have it that Jones studied law at Harvard which he says is not true – he only had a major interest in law but no interest in practicing it. Not finishing his studies didn’t bother Jones too much, as didn’t want to toil in that particular field called theory anyway. Returning home to figure out what to do, he came to the realization that the last place he wanted to spend the rest of his life was in the Ohio town where he grew up. In a certain way, Massillon, which takes its name from his hometown, is the culmination of his life up to that point. It’s a meditation on everything that made him who he is, i.e., a gay, radical artist.
Massillon is divided into three chapters: “Ohio,” “The Law,” and “California, ” with “The Law” functioning as a fulcrum between Jones’s Midwestern past and his West Coast present. With its images of empty landscapes and city scenes accompanied by finely crafted voiceover narration, the aesthetic is lean and Straubian. The straight-on autobiographic approach of “Ohio” would be just as effective were it pure fiction, but it isn’t: It’s an account of Jones’s boyhood in a small industrial town amidst salt-of-the-earth-types who have little conception of change—a familiar story of discovering that one is gay and therefore socially ostracized. One guy distances himself after Jones drops hints that he’s queer, another tears into him during wrestling practice with a ferocity that perhaps masks desire. The core of the next section, “The Law,” focuses on anal-sex statutes. Back in the early Nineties, when Jones made the film, sodomy (under terms ranging from “buggery” to “unnatural act”) was still illegal in most of the U.S., although the majority of states that prohibited it did so without directly linking it with homosexuality. (The 2003 Supreme Court overturn of one such statute renders the film, in Jones’s words, “a strictly historical curiosity” – but only to some extent.) “The Law” develops out of the end of “Ohio” as a long car ride through terrain so barren and desolate that it barely deserves to be called a landscape. With dark clouds rushing by and hard rain starting to fall, the voice of a “Christian” radio preacher (with fascist overtones) praises President Reagan, rants against gays, and drones on and on.
The cinematically soothing calm of “Ohio”—the emptiness of the hills and factories, the silence of unemployment and economic devastation, the unquestioned traditions, and the trains just passing through—is counterposed with the film’s final section, “California,” where Jones went to study, create, and become. Here he finds a setting to situate the problem within an historical perspective, uncovering the etymological roots of words like “buggery,” and contemplating the ways in which planned communities like Santa Clarita, with their self-styled and ever-up-gradable images of straight, moral sanitization, mirror the way American society has developed—pretending to be an ever-changing yet unchangeable home, but one to which you can never return.
Jones’s films have to be thought through carefully: they rarely disclose what they’re up to initially -- no hermeneutics here, at least overtly. Well, Massillon is actually structured as a kind of hermeneutic circle, but that only becomes apparent at the conclusion, which returns to images first seen at the start—Niagara Falls, Capitol Hill, Dad’s home movies, etc.—but which have now come to mean something different and therefore must be represented accordingly. If the Capitol dome—after which so many other official buildings in the U.S. have been modeled, as “The Law” demonstrates—is a worn-out cultural cliché in the beginning, by the end it’s loaded with connotations of oppression rather than freedom.
Expanding on the aesthetics of Massillon, Jones’s best known and most widely shown film is Finished (1997), a research project-cum-fantasy about the suicidal Quebecois gay porn star Alain Lebeau/Alan Lambert. Again it features text over images of empty landscapes, but this time their relationship is far more ambiguous: for one thing, the landscapes here are not just rural and urban but corporeal as well. After all, pornography is, in part, the crass art of the body, displayed as a landscape of desire. Because Finished is an essay on images and clichés rooted in porn, certain boundaries of taste and meaning are refused. What might look like kitsch from one perspective may appear sophisticated from another, just as porn can often make the ridiculous seem sublime. In Massillon, there’s a decisive move from a landscape haunted by memories to one disfigured by political oppression. In Finished, things are less clear-cut: in the end, one might say that Lambert – part Mishima Yukio, part Dorian Gray – fearing the inevitable fading of his physical beauty, killed himself at the age of 25 because his dual identities—messianic revolutionary without a cause and sex worker—were incompatible. Not knowing who he really was or wanted to be, incapable of conceiving of himself as being both at once, he opted for the surface reality of the body, and therefore death.
Insofar as it deals with the ways in which an identity can be several things at once, Jones’s subsequent long-form work, Is It Really So Strange? (2004), is almost the antithesis of Finished. Here, everyone is a vessel of plenty and a carrier of meaningful transformation. The video begins innocuously as an investigation into the cult following that has developed amongst Southern California Latino youth around the English singer-songwriter Morrissey. With infinite subtlety, it develops into a meditation on the construction of cultural and sexual identity. While Massillon and Finished call attention to themselves via their stark, modernist aesthetics, Is It Really So Strange? has been largely overlooked, probably because, in formal terms, it plays around with an amateur approach (although few of them would be able to set one perfect image after the other…). In one sequence Jones receives a Morrissey-style haircut, and in several others, his boyfriend, artist Mark Flores, draws his own rendition of the Jim French photo that appears on the sleeve of the Smiths single “Hand in Glove.” Both illustrate the way culture develops and evolves through the appropriation and personalization of its artifacts—just as Jones deantagonizes and deintellectualizes sound and image to turn cinema into a tool for communicating with others as opposed to contemplating the nature of others and otherness.
Jones himself makes his living in the sex industry, editing porn compilation tapes for the Larry Flynt empire. This insider access has enabled him to develop a whole corpus of found-footage video. The first manifestation of this is the 20-minute The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), which presents the rage, confusion, and despair-filled faces of Central and Eastern European porn performers and depicts the way the region’s new go-for-broke capitalism has inscribed itself onto their bodies. It’s a transitional work, located midway between the essayistic concerns and structures of the earlier films and the cinephile desire that imbues the mnemonic video bricolages Jones currently makes. What unifies these two strains of work is the artistic rigor he applies to their creation.
Jones’s most recent 59-minute video, v. o., appropriates images culled from Seventies and Eighties gay porn classics from directors like Tom De Simone, Fred Halsted, and Joe Gage (in particular the latter’s 1976-79 proletarian trilogy, Kansas City Trucking Co., El Paso Wrecking Corp., and L. A. Tool & Die) and combines them with excerpts from an interview with Jean Genet and sound quotes (and subtitles) lifted from European art films ranging from the canonised (Renoir, Buñuel, Kaurismäki, de Oliveira…) to the certainly should be canonised (Werner Schroeter, Heinz Emigholz, Guy Debord…). Jones makes no attempt to conceal the incongruity of these elements; the violence of these relentless sound and image collisions is accentuated by the subtitles: the one thing that holds it all together. These layers of signification don’t so much question each other as play off one another to produce an awesome evocation of love and passion that crosses all boundaries without ever pretending that those didn’t exist.
Even more minimalist, another new short, All Male Mash Up (2006), likewise employs scenes from Seventies and Eighties gay porn. A series of vignettes of men playing around with different forms of masculinity culminates in a happy ending with a couple by the sea. Here, porn is transformed into art by the glances of a loving man—or perhaps by the reality of love that can be found in porn. It’s a remembrance of realities past, of an era that was more willing (and able) to indulge in ambiguity. As ever with Jones, it’s everything at once.
The Ferroni Brigade, a. k. a. Christoph Huber and Olaf Möller, “The DVDs of 2010,” Sight and Sound, December 2010.
[12 Films by Raffaello Matarazzo]
Italy, 1933-62; unrated, Titanus / Ripley’s Home Video (Italy)
Ferdinand Khittl, Germany, 1962; unrated, Edition Filmmuseum (Austria)
McDull – Kung Fu Ding Ding Dong
Brian Tse Lap Man, China / Hong Kong, 2009; unrated, Panorama Distributions (Hong Kong)
Errol Flynn Adventures
Raoul Walsh / Lewis Milestone, USA, 1942-45; unrated, Warner / TCM (USA, Region 1)
Grzegorz Królikiewicz Box-Set
Poland, 1972-89; unrated, TiM Film Studio (Poland)
Tony Scott, GB, 1970; Cert 15, BFI
And a book:
Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration
William E. Jones, PPP Editions (New York, 2010)
When all is watched and done, the Ferroni Brigade certainly appreciates a good book. And what better choice this year than William E. Jones’s stunning selection of 157 images “killed” by the US Farm Security Administration’s director Roy Emerson Stryker? That these photographs (by Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein and others) show their sign of rejection — Stryker punched a hole in the negatives to render them unusable and they languished in the archives until recently — only stresses the vital question: what is in there that caused their cancellation from official historiography? It’s an amazing inventory of a secret history of America during the Great Depression and its aftermath.
Olaf Möller, “(Outside) the Field of Vision,” 57th Oberhausen International Short Film Festival (2011), pp. 115-117.
Pretty well exactly five years ago, I wrote a first article on William E. Jones for Film Comment (March/April 2006), to be found, in case anyone’s interested, on his website. The time of writing was purely coincidental – I had been thinking about doing a portrait of Jones for some time – but looking back it turned out to be simply perfect, for: the article was written and published exactly at the moment when his work changed, and changed radically; this made it a kind of first interim assessment.
Up to 2005, Jones’s cinematic work was mainly focused on the realization of quite long works of a formalistic-essayistic kind, mostly on film – since 2006, his production has been dominated by short to extremely short videos or AV files that are mostly based on outside material; exceptions prove the rule in both directions: see on the one hand The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), and on the other In Mathew Brady’s Studio (2010), although the latter, as a primarily installative work, functions according to somewhat other rules anyway.
The reason for this radical re-orientation is relatively simple: even an artist needs to live from something, and if cinema barely offers opportunities for politically freethinking mavericks anymore, then other, more financially potent markets and spaces have to be exploited – what’s sauce for Farocki is sauce for Jones as well. The constantly growing concentration on the re-vision of outside materials has similar economic reasons: pulling public-domain ephemera from the back corners of state archives, if not straight from the rubbish bin, is cheap, and full of possibilities when you know in how many ways you can look at and adapt pictures – how many secret stories running counter to the official readings can be found when you just look closely and know how to bring them properly to light; in all of this is the expression, the intensification, of a tendency that is already inherent in the earlier works – Finished (1997), for example, based on the contemplation of the various media remains of a man of a very special kind: Alan Lambert/Alain Lebeau, gay porn actor/Messianic revolutionary manqué, who took his life at 25 in spectacular circumstances – as if he were a creation of Mishima. And finally: Jones after all had enough practice in working with images made by others, producing gay-porn compilations for the Larry Flynt empire.
This move towards gallery art (for that is what the works from 2006 primarily are) was accompanied by an extension of his work: Jones now makes not only films, but also (artist’s) books, curates exhibitions and art shows, teaches the history of experimental film and is also (para-) film-historically active as researcher and restorer; he has always taken photographs parallel to his work with the moving image: during the making of Is It Really So Strange? (2004), for example, a photo series of the same name was made in which, again, an earlier, related research-project-in-pictures, The Golden State (2001), was integrated.
Jones’s fields of works can’t be split up and divided; they are all connected with another naturally and meaningfully. Let’s take the books: Selections from The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (2008) arose from a screenplay that seems unrealizable these days – there are quite a few of these; Heliogabalus (2009) grew out of his research on Fred Halsted in general, the latter’s masterpiece L. A. Plays Itself (1972) in particular, and its final – now vanished from many copies – fisting scene very specifically – at the time this was considered a novelty in porn-film culture, a fact that set Jones searching for the origins of this practice, its – possible – mythical – cultural roots. Tearoom (2008), on the other hand, summarizes everything that he learned working on Mansfield 1962 (2005) and Tearoom (2007): here one can read about the backgrounds and consequences of the ’62 Mansfield tearoom busts; both the perpetrators and their victims are to be seen, but only the former in their own words; “We Are Not Amused” was published to accompany the exhibition Curt McDowell – an uneven dozen broken hearts at [2nd floor projects]; etc. Which all goes to say: the relationship between these diverse activities is strictly egalitarian, image and text are equally important, their relationship is not one of namer and named – they mirror one another.
Jones mentioned once that the central point of reference for his first big work, Massillon (1991), was a photo-text by the great, now little-read US modernist Wright Morris, The Home Place (1948). This is something one should always keep in mind with Jones: his work is at least as strongly influenced by literature and art history as it is by film history. While we’re on the subject of family trees of elective affinity: the détournement theorist-practitioners among the Lettristes and Situationists should be mentioned first and foremost – the Discrepancy project (2008-10), for example, is based partly on a text by Isidore Isou, the commentary (abridged for this purpose) on his avant-garde axiom Traité de bave et d’éternité (1951); Samuel R. Delany could also come to mind, perhaps the US intellectual of the last century, who thought and wrote more rigorously and cleverly than anyone else about the connections between high, para- and popular literature, and produced both of them himself as well – although only the toughest canon watchdogs can draw any borders there at the moment: how, if you please, can you categorize the highly existentialist porn film Hogg (1973/95)?, or Phallos (2004)?, a novel of excesses that Jones mentions in Heliogabalus in connection with Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951): as an excess to compensate for her inhibitions in dealing with Hadrian’s sexuality.
As may have already been noticed, Jones’s interests are many and various –although one thing connects the Roman emperor Elagabal, ostracized by abolitio nominis, with the highly commendable New Deal institution F. S. A., a police recruitment/training film, a pamphlet of the Mat Trân Giài Phóng Miên Nam Viêt Nam and the proletarian trilogy by the great Joe Gage: the prohibition of images or the shame about images.
Elagabal (born: Varius Avitus Bassianus; as emperor: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) was so hated by his conservative contemporaries for being different that people either smashed his statues, busts, etc., straight out or hacked off their noses and private parts and disfigured them, if they weren’t discreetly used for his – obviously facially similar – successor, Alexander Severus; we have some idea of his face mostly because of a few coins that escaped this iconoclastic fury. The head of the F. S. A. photo department, Roy E. Stryker, for his part had the habit of using a hole punch to render unusable those pictures that he found unsatisfactory or disagreeable; that is: if there was something in them that seemed not to fit socially – which ranged from naked racism to intimations of gay-lesbian worlds – they were destroyed; aesthetic criteria of course played a role as well, for instance if composition seemed too slapdash or the picture was a little blurred – America stood clear and firm; the F. S. A. archive can be examined on the Library of Congress website.
The above-mentioned police production is a very special case: Mansfield P. D. had made the film to show the blue brotherhood across the nation how to effectively hunt down gays: by filming them secretly in action in the appropriate scene locations and then confronting them with the pictures; Jones found this work, Camera Surveillance (1964; production: Highway Safety Films), on the Internet; he used images from it to make Mansfield 1962. Curious, he researched the story further and came upon the original material for Camera Surveillance, which he presents, barely adapted, raw and sad and very, very beautiful, as Tearoom – a kind of requiem for the victims of a form of social hysteria, along with the vision of a lost, no-tell Garden of Eden. The Vietnamese agit-pearl, on the other hand, came from the National Archives, which makes items from its collection of enemy films available via Amazon.com – the description there will be something like “North Korean Mass Gymnastics Documentary” or “Chinese Atom Bomb Test Propaganda Film” and nothing more, i. e., no filmographic details, no description of the state of the original copy, etc. – on the basis of these synopses, vague, yet full of promise, you have to decide whether you want this work sent to you for an administration fee or not – a lot of National Archives treasures were used in Discrepancy. Finally, you can now surely order (or simply leech) Gage’s classics – Kansas City Trucking Co. (1976), El Paso Wrecking Corp. (1978) and L. A. Tool & Die (1979) – just as easily on the Internet, there’s nothing that mysterious about them – except, of course, that you’d have to go into the over-18 section if you wanted to borrow these works from a video library, as is the case with porn films; although the Gages have another dimension of the socially repressed as well: they evoke a solidary, vulgar (in the original, noblest sense of the word) working-class Eros; Jones loves these films; moments from them are always cropping up in his works.
Jones also became known for his works at the interface of gay and porn-film culture: something becomes visible there, can be shown blatantly and clearly. This, although he really works only with porn images and scenes that are useless as far as the industry is concerned: the adjuncts of (urban) landscapes and seduction rituals; as a historian-curator, however, he renders a service to those masters whose works fascinate with their radically explicit, often hedonistic-transgressive elements.
Jones has the very rare gift of being able to talk about himself in a way that makes it clear that his person and history are only an example of something; that is: he can shrug off his own inner, secondary contradictions and idiosyncrasies and bring out the politically important, meaningful, productive aspects, allow them to be recognized and reflected upon. What becomes visible in the process is: the repressed, the suppressed. Elagabal in his historical perversion – between bene vasatorum lover and gendernaut – is as close to Jones as the somewhat undernourished and lower-class looking pleb lads who lasciviously imitate and carry out rituals of an almost mythical empire England in James Ryder’s The British Are Coming (1986); he sees the exploited worker in the nameless Russian post-perestroika porn protagonist, the cruising sex-seeker in a small US farmer of the Depression era; the ramshackle-dilapidated heavy-industry landscapes of Ohio tell similar stories to the vinegar-syndrome damage in the pictures of communist professions of faith – there are still lifes in both.
So it’s about: the yearning for change, transformations, playful becoming, the joy in putting up with paradoxes, pleasure, the diversity of the species. The Pursuit of Happiness.
Olaf Möller, geboren 1971. Autor und Kurator. Kölner.