Bradford Nordeen, “William E. Jones on Finished,” slantmagazine.com, February 22, 2011.
Bradford Nordeen: You recently wrote in Artforum about the shift in your creative process, how you’ve come to embrace the momentary pleasures of spectatorship, as opposed to feature-length attention spans. What is your current attitude towards your older work, like Finished? Have you changed the presentation context of these films in recent retrospectives to better align with your gallery-based work?
William E. Jones: I made my feature length works to be presented in theaters then released on DVD (or formerly, on video). I haven’t adapted them for gallery presentation at all, nor do I encourage this tendency to show long works in a white box with benches. The transition from long films to short movies involved years of trial and error, and there were many false starts. I went from making linear essay films to concentrating on silent loops installed in galleries, and the challenge was to retain some critical dimension to the project. I am not satisfied with attractive “moving paintings,” nor do I think spectators should be. I should also mention that I prefer working on a number of projects at once, and the desire to make another long film has not entirely left me. It’s mainly a question of opportunities.
BN: Your distribution tactics have tended to reflect many of your subjects. Finished, a meditation on VHS porn was released on VHS and Is It Really So Strange?, on DVD—like many of the Morrissey titles collected by the fans that you film. With your recent videos, Tearoom, for instance, direct access to the work is limited, but your publications with 2nd Cannons provide detailed accounts. Was this dialogue between platform and project intentional or did it just come about through the ever-changing nature of media formats?
WJ: I see what I do as making the best of my circumstances, but in independent filmmaking these change all the time, often for the worse. It was crucial for Is It Really So Strange? to come out on DVD, because I wanted the film to be accessible to the people in the scene I documented. The Tearoom book was mainly a receptacle for all the information I gathered about the police surveillance film and the cases related to it. The book stands in for me doing a Q&A session at a screening. I have been very fortunate that the formats of distribution are usually appropriate to the works. I have my own ideas about where a work belongs, but usually the world gives me the final answer to that question.
BN: Can you tell me a little bit about how the Fred Halsted book came about and what we can expect from it?
WJ: Halsted Plays Himself begins with a biographical essay about Fred Halsted, inspired by research in the archives and correspondence with his friends and colleagues. Almost immediately after finishing this essay, I got an email out of the blue from a man who knew Fred intimately for years, and my interview with him led to me meeting, one by one, the most important of Fred’s living former lovers. I began to see a whole new dimension to the man. Instead of revising my first essay, I wrote a second one, more of an oral history containing many details I never expected to find. The book also includes material contemporary with the release of his best films, L. A. Plays Itself, Sex Garage, and Sextool: interviews with Fred, reviews and reports, and a small body of erotic writing that he published mostly in his own magazine, Package. I also discovered hundreds of photographs, and I hope to include as many of them as possible. The book is currently being designed, and will be published in fall of 2011 by Semiotext(e).
BN: In Finished, porn actor Alan Lambert became this perfect cipher through which to air all of these questions and findings that you had around the porn industry and culture at large. Do you see this book project as another open-ended investigation, similar to the one you had with Lambert? How is it different?
WJ: I have been interested in Fred Halsted’s films for many years and knew some of them before I started the film Finished. When I began talking about the Halsted book project, a cynical acquaintance said, “Oh, another work about a suicidal gay porn star.” Halsted Plays Himself will be quite different, if only because of the sheer volume of material I found. Fred was a famous person, and he touched the lives of many people. Through him, I have been able to form an image of a fascinating (and sometimes lurid) moment in gay history, a subculture within a subculture in Los Angeles.
BN: You have an academic approach when discussing your work, but you hover over your subjects very closely. There’s an obsessive quality there, working at length in archives, writing a monograph about Halsted, joining fan cultures and, of course, your one-sided relationship with Lambert. Would you say that your process is, in part, an attempt to break down and rationalize these obsessions for the viewer? Or even an attempt to deconstruct obsession itself?
WJ: What artistic practice doesn’t begin with obsession? I suppose that I am a bit more analytical in my approach than most, but I don’t consider myself an academic at all. I studied theory as an undergraduate, but I don’t read it now, and over the years, its direct usefulness for my practice has diminished to nothing, more or less. As an artist, I am something of an anomaly in that I enjoy talking about my work, and lately, I have received many invitations to do so. Perhaps I’m just a vulgar American who sees an element of “show biz” even in the rarefied domain of art. I have the privilege of making presentations of my movies to audiences, and I work hard not to disappoint. As far as I’m concerned, it’s part of the job.
Natalie Zimmerman and William Jones, “out there where nothing is,” Camerawork, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2006) pp. 8-15.
Natalie Zimmerman and William Jones are filmmakers and photographers living and working in Los Angeles. Camerawork introduced them and commissioned a piece for publication. This conversation took place between the artists via e-mail in May 2006. Jones’s book Is it Really So Strange? was published in 2006 by David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles. Zimmerman’s film Islands will be exhibited in Camerawork’s San Francisco gallery in January 2007.
William Jones: I have no car, and I have discovered that being a “pedestrian filmmaker” is a serious challenge in Los Angeles. It occurs to me that Islands could almost have been made without a car, since many of its exteriors are fairly accessible and most of the piece was shot in one room.
Natalie Zimmerman: Since the “locations” to which I traveled were purely psychological, a consistent, neutral physical space was crucial. The exteriors were ancillary.
Islands was conceived shortly after seeing the exhibition The Passions by Bill Viola at the Getty. The emotional content of the work seemed to have been emptied—leaving only artifice and the rote execution of acting exercises.
I started thinking about what happens when the narrative basis of gestural language is removed. I began wondering if it was possible to identify any de-contextualized emotional expression as authentic. This led me to consider two conflicting views of what it means to act well: Can a good actor be an effective mimic, or must a truly convincing actor draw on lived experience?
This goes right to the popular view of actors as shallow vessels in pursuit of the temporary meaning conferred by fame or (more positively) a satisfying role—and because I live in LA, the industrial center (without a center) of this pursuit, this notion of a people and a place both defined by dislocation (psychological in one instance and geographical in the other) began to emerge...
Jones: I was struck by two references to Hollywood, one in Islands and one in an earlier piece of yours: Therapeutic Space. A psychiatrist in the latter piece refers to the zip code in which he has his office, 10021, as the most desirable in America, after Hollywood. It is obvious that the closest he has ever gotten to 90028 is seeing it on television. Islands includes a shot of the loveable but much-maligned Hollywood sign, looming over the mythological “center” of the film industry—Culver City and Burbank actually have more movie studios—because a crumbling advertisement for the Hollywoodland real estate development was saved from demolition. These references suggest the vast gap between received wisdom about Los Angeles, especially its image in the mass media, and a real experience of living here.
Zimmerman: I think it’s clear from our vantage point that the mythic LA and the Los Angeles of lived experience are fairly incongruent—the NY psychiatrist’s comparison of his upper Park Avenue zip code to that of Hollywood, the other “most desirable zip code in America,” demonstrates this naïveté.
But regarding Los Angeles and Hollywood, I’m actually more interested in the constant erasure that takes place. So much of the city's history gets recycled into myth. The Hollywood sign is an example of this. This also seems to happen to those who are drawn here. There is this notion, popularized by the city's early boosters, that people could come here and find whatever they were looking for—sever ties with their past in favor of a reinvented or reconstructed self. This may be why I always have a sense of transience—every geographical point in LA is peripheral. The sense of emptiness that comes with a de-centered urban space can sometimes be quite palpable. When I moved to Los Angeles from New York, I found this to be psychologically debilitating—but I now find a creative freedom in it. You can still find things and places that are undefined, oftentimes left in a state of transition because of the city's “inefficiency” and geographical expansiveness—and the geological instability mirrors these social and cultural landscapes.
I was working with these ideas in Islands, and it is why I was interested in your film Finished and your investigation into the “true” identity of Alan Lambert. Perhaps your stated frustration at failing to find the "true" Alan/Alain was due to his own confusion and transitional state. His messianic dreams stand in stark contrast to his instrumentalized role in the porn industry. His life seems to serve as an extreme metaphor for the many "actor/dreamers" who hope to find redemption/fame/transformation in LA.
Jones: The supposed lack of history in Los Angeles does provide some with a sense of personal freedom. People still come to the edge of the continent to reinvent themselves. Geographical displacement leading to personal transformation is one of America’s most durable myths. In other ways, the boosters’ attempts to erase history—deeply and outrageously fraudulent—have had a strong impact on the people who must live in the spaces they have willed into existence. An urban landscape in flux creates waves of nostalgia. Even recent arrivals in Los Angeles find themselves asking what the area was like “before,” though when and if “before” took place rarely gets specified.
I am fascinated by changes in the landscape of Los Angeles, and I am not immune to nostalgia. I take many pictures of buildings, especially old ones put to new uses by their current owners. I seem to have the uncanny ability of finding buildings that are on the verge of being demolished or renovated. In fact, some of the still photographs in Is It Really So Strange? are of places that are no longer recognizable. These color cityscapes were originally part of a large photographic series called The Golden State. In 1999, I began scouting locations for a film of that title. Because a grant provided me with extra money for pre-production, I was able to shoot location photographs rather than relying on sketches and notes as I had done for previous projects. I enjoyed this mode of work and its results so much that eventually making the photographs became an end in itself, and I put the film project aside. During that period, I acquired an extensive knowledge of the geography of Southern California. Later, when I contacted people I wished to interview for Is It Really So Strange?, I discovered that I knew where most of them lived, because I had already photographed their neighborhoods. The coincidence led me to insert this previous body of work into a movie other than the one for which it was originally intended.Inez Parra, who appears in Is It Really So Strange?, asks why so many tourists from the heartland flock to Hollywood. Whatever they are looking for, they seem to have come to the wrong place. Those aspects of Los Angeles that make the city most daunting to tourists – its sprawl, its diversity, and what one might call its unknowability—are what make it an especially rich environment for artists. With an intimidating tradition of documentary photography coming immediately to mind, a photographer in New York might think that every interesting street photograph has already been taken, but the list of available subjects in Los Angeles seems inexhaustible. It is only a matter of finding them and ridding one’s self of some preconceived notions. What we see of Los Angeles on television and in movies is surprisingly limited, has been digitally altered beyond recognition, or is actually Vancouver.
From what I gathered, the concept of alienation was a regular theme of Alan Lambert’s conversations with friends in Montreal. He no doubt felt personal alienation when he came to Los Angeles, a city where he had few connections. But Alan was also talking about more general forms of alienation. His performances were instances of alienated labor: he received a small payment with no further financial stake in movies that circulated long after his death. These videos were also consumed in an alienated way: spectators had no access to Alan, except as an image, and he certainly had no way of knowing them. A latter-day radical of profoundly idiosyncratic convictions, Alan could not reconcile how others saw him, as a pretty and rather passive porn star, with how he saw himself, as a potential revolutionary leader. While making Finished, I came to understand that Alan’s messianic fantasy functioned as a compensation for his surrender to an industry that made use of him in ways he could not control.
Zimmerman: I’m interested in these concepts of surrender and control you mention with regard to Alan/Alain in your film Finished. There is an irony in the story of his parallel lives, and death, being revealed through the eyes of a complete stranger. In a way, you’ve asserted the ultimate control. By profiling a relatively unknown actor after his death, your voice-over—both literally and figuratively—becomes the last word.
I’m curious as to how you feel about this. I constantly struggle with issues of control and propriety. I want my work to initiate dialogue and communication rather than answer questions or make assertions. I want to learn throughout the process—which means relinquishing a certain level of control. Sometimes this means my voice is suppressed in order to allow unforeseen things to erupt or emerge.
One of my particular difficulties with Islands was in trying to find a balance between my subjectivity and a certain fidelity to the actors’ stories or performances. I felt somewhat responsible, as they were given certain freedoms during the filming; they were left alone with the camera and given control of both duration and content. My directives were simple and I was not present during their performance. Ultimately, each actor was free to interpret them as he or she liked.
After watching many hours of these tapes I decided that the piece would be a single-channel video rather than a multi-channel installation. I felt strongly that I didn’t want the work to be over-determined or closed to interpretation. I wanted certain themes and questions to emerge, but without any definitive resolution. I wanted to allow the viewer to adopt the role of confidante.
Usually in my process, I try to set up parameters or situations conducive to revelatory moments for both my collaborators and myself. Perhaps this is the central tension in my work—I’m always asserting some form of control while my voyeuristic impulses threaten to compromise it. Sometimes the form fails because of this, but for me that risk is essential.
Jones: The question of control is a loaded one, especially when it comes to documentaries representing people’s lives. I maintain that a documentary filmmaker always exerts control over the material at some stage of the process, if not in the viewfinder, then in the editing room. It is his or her main job. Every reasonably informed spectator is aware of that. In an era of reality television’s extreme manipulations and a saturation of product placement, control over nonfiction images has been increasingly usurped by an array of producers, censors, advertisers, and lawyers. It is still possible for independent filmmakers to make personal statements that they own; indeed, this is one of their few real advantages over the mainstream.
My films employ a significant amount of first-person narration, and the main point of view they represent is mine. The limitations of my knowledge lead to problems and contradictions that in turn serve as devices propelling a narrative forward. In Finished, Alan Lambert becomes a character of my invention, as I realize that access to Alain, the real person who lived and died, has to a great extent been foreclosed. Spectators sometimes take exception to what they perceive as a heavy-handed approach to biography. I think their complaints arise from rather conventional expectations of documentary films, especially those that produce an “objectivity effect.”
To put it somewhat facetiously, I grew tired of making films about myself (or about someone who couldn’t talk back), so I opened up my process when I made Is It Really So Strange? I wanted to make a movie that included other voices and orchestrated them with my own understanding of the subject, in this case, the contemporary generation of Smiths and Morrissey fans. Is It Really So Strange? is more variegated than Finished in terms of its tone, but no less controlled. I draw a distinction between a filmmaker’s responsibility to control the form of a film and the abusive practice of taking away the voices of the people in it. For Is It Really So Strange? I resolved to delete from my voice-over any theme that was taken up at length in an interview, never to use a shot of someone speaking as a cutaway in the editing, and to give everyone in the movie at least two segments or speeches. I wanted to respect the intimate revelations my interviewees gave me. This approach has its risks, and some spectators have mistaken my sympathy for credulity. I deplore the mean-spirited approach of filmmakers who wish to do little more than prove themselves cleverer than their subjects, and if I err on the side of apparent naïveté, then so be it.
I haven’t worked with actors, as you did in Islands, so I can only guess that the actors you shot considered your “hands-off” approach a gift.
Zimmerman: Throughout filming and editing this piece, the most difficult issue for me was the question of structure. At the outset, I was determined to show each actor’s performance in its entirety. I gave them certain freedoms during filming and I thought that the best way to convey this freedom was by refusing to cut in at all. In theory, such a strict ethic was crucial to the integrity of the project. But as I started analyzing the material, I found this approach severely limiting. This forced me to confront the meaning and form of the piece as emergent quantities.
The initial framework I set up was straightforward. The actors were given two directives. The first was “to cry.” The second was “to talk about what you were crying about.” The actors were asked to turn off the camera upon completion of each segment—creating a break between performances and an actual break in the tape. Each actor was allowed to use as much time as he/she needed. These “auditions” took place in my home, while I waited outside. The actors were not given any information on their performance until moments before they were in front of the camera. Many of the actors were thankful for the freedom and others were overwhelmed, awkward, had difficulty starting and/or stopping. I think part of this happened because boundaries became blurred. Certainly I initiated this by inviting them into my home, and then leaving them alone to cry. Sometimes they would leave remaining sad. At other times they would linger in a state of awkward intimacy. Many of the actors expressed appreciation. I think it must have allowed some to reach a type of catharsis. This continuous cycle of auditions in my home created an emotionally and psychologically charged space. This made me feel a certain sense of responsibility, as it became clear in many instances that this space of constructed intimacy allowed them to become vulnerable in ways they wouldn’t have allowed themselves to in other acting situations.
So to return to your question, I chose to use this actor to represent the difficult nature of the exercise and to call attention to the structure I imposed—at one point in his performance I enter the frame and we have a number of verbal exchanges. Ultimately, I chose to use his performance but without revealing its more explicit details.
While editing there were two tendencies between which I tried to maintain a consistent tension. The first was a very Brechtian impulse. Providing critical distance while calling attention to structure and context. These are moments when I tried to pull back and emphasize the structure—Brecht refers to this in terms of acting as an “Alienation” or “A-effect.” I could see how the viewer could receive these as uncomfortable or oddly comical in a way. The other impulse was to allow the structure to recede a bit, foregrounding what is being revealed in order to allow for viewer empathy. However, this structure introduces complications. One is never sure if the actors are using the method approach well to assume the identity of a fictionalized character, revealing some real-lived experience, or blending the two approaches. I imagine in some instances the actors aren’t even certain.
I chose to use Los Angeles landscapes as cutaway sequences throughout to mirror the sentiments that emerged from the performances. I also wanted to provide context and space for viewer reflection. These tended to be distant and flat, but subtly undulating. In order to find these I was drawing on my own lived experience and relationship to this landscape, and certainly informing this, if not only unconsciously, was my return to compelling images I’ve collected in memory over the years: New Topographic photographers like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, as well as Uta Barth and Hiroshi Sugimoto, who use the camera to experiment with time and space—also the social, political, and psychological cinematic “landscapes” of Chantal Akerman in On the Border and Andrey Tarkovsky in Nostalghia.
There is so much to discuss that lies beyond the scope of our exchange, but I was intrigued at the path your work has taken from the intensely personal Massillon to the more anthropological Is It Really So Strange? It is fascinating for me to notice our work moving in opposite directions. My last completed project, Between States—a book of my writing and photographs that explore isolation and psychological dislocation—is possibly the most personal, subjective project I’ve ever done. I’m curious to know which direction you think your work will go from here.
Jones: Because I depended on so many interviews in Is It Really So Strange?, my goal was to have a final product that was as accessible as possible to the people I represented. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could make a documentary in a conventional style. Wresting a coherent movie from the seventy hours of raw footage was hard work, but I found the process fascinating and exhilarating. Now that I’ve had that experience, I don’t think I will be returning to a traditional form any time soon, even though audiences appreciate the movie in an immediate and (for me) very gratifying way.
My new body of work was inspired by my parallel career as an archivist in the gay adult video industry. In the course of viewing hundreds of hours of porn, I have developed a fascination with its marginalia: establishing shots revealing urban landscapes of the recent past, charmingly inept dialogue scenes, and close-ups of performers, many now dead. This material, while of no particular commercial use, can be seen as an invaluable document of a lost world of eroticism and sociability.
In the editing room, I employ a variation on what DJs call a “mash-up,” combining segments of sound with segments of picture, and making decisions based upon the length of the segments rather than their content. All Male Mash Up, the primary video in my most recent solo exhibition, draws from the nonsexual scenes of gay porn films made before 1985, the last year that 16mm film was used as a production format. The somewhat arbitrary juxtaposition of diverse “found” materials often yields surprisingly appropriate results, suggesting a new narrative space, and paying tribute to a former era of gay life and cinephilia.
My latest videos, v. o. and All Male Mash Up, would seem to be an abrupt change from Is It Really So Strange?, but they involve a return to subject matter I have been dealing with for years. My work does not depend very much on the notion of a “signature” visual style. Each project should dictate the style in which it is realized. What unifies the body of work has more to do with a range of concerns or a narrating voice or even a general sense of circumspection. Nevertheless, I think a major shift has taken place. I came of age in the 1980s. I have recently become interested in assimilating the past, and in reckoning with what has changed since I was a young adult. Is It Really So Strange? and the new pieces have this ambition in common. I have been making films for about twenty years, long enough to have a sense of historical transformations, and I am now more interested in what has changed about the world than in what has changed about me during that time.