Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Gay Outsider: films of William E. Jones screen at Anthology Film Archives

All gays are necessarily outsiders, but within this "outsider" status, the filmmaker under consideration here occupies a rather special place. What a strange -- at times bracing, at others boring -- experience it is to watch in relatively quick succession half a dozen works (roughly eight hours of viewing time spent) from gay experimental-though-never-inaccessible filmmaker William E. Jones, much (maybe all) of whose work is being given a week-long run at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.  The program is co-sponsored by MIX NYC (the folk who bring us the NY Queer Experimental Film Festival) and by the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at NYU.

From his first foray into more-of-less feature-length film, MASSILLON (70 minutes, 1991), the autobiographical account of growing up as a gay man in the mid-western U.S., Mr. Jones (shown at right) proves via both his narration and visuals a rather dry and stately guide to his own and to gay life in general.  His voice, flat and calm with a minimum of feeling expressed, is actually rather soothing to hear.  TrustMovies grew fond of it after awhile, and missed it in those documentaries in which it was not present. The filmmaker is highly selective about what he chooses to show and tell. From religious no-nos to the first stirring of rumors of the 'other' to wrestling, friends, and his "first time" (about as un-sexy as can be imagined), he leads us along a path both typical in its budding of homosexual urges and yet highly individualized.  Then suddenly Jones jolts us with a shift in tone and tenor to a radio rant from a fundamentalist religious speaker.

In Part 2, we get a tour of British and American law regarding sodomy, from centuries ago through the 1980s.  Part 3 sees our "hero" moving to California and into a sterile housing development accompanied by a too-lengthy run-down of the terms used for homosexual.  I found Jones less interesting when he gives us history -- perhaps because I already knew much of it, except for the story of the Catharis (Bulgarians in what is now Southern France), which I found fascinating.

All of Jones' visuals, by the way, use landscape, with, unless I missed something, no humans shown until nearly the very end of the film, and even then only at great distance.  When Jones mentions "hoping to return to the moment before I knew that desires had names," I think you'll understand how he feels. His narration is quite direct: the fellow uses no euphemisms, though his visuals are chaste.  Even when offering up men and skin, as in the photo, top, Jones stops well short of anything hard-core, or, for that matter, soft.) Filmed between 1987 and 1990, Massillon was remastered in 2007. It ends with a 1773 quote from Denis Diderot that remains as timely now as then.

In 1997, Jones made FINISHED, a very odd doc about Alan Lambert (above, whose real French-Canadian name was Alain Lebeau), a young man who made his fortune, such as it was, "acting" in gay porno films in Southern California and committed suicide at the young age of 25.  Jones gives us a quick take on So. Cal. gay porn, delves into the "philosophy" of Lambert (cult-like and very odd), speaks to a few of his friends, and ends up with little of note. He clearly had a crush on Lambert/Lebeau, but either due to the unwillingness of anyone close to the porn star to talk much, or to Jones' own penchant for reticence, not much manages to surface here.  Lambert appears to have been a self-deluded nut, and Jones' use of scenes/snippets from the classic film Meet Joe Doe does not really compute. Watch Adored: Diary of a Porn Star for more fun and even perhaps, in its campy way, more depth.

A Jones "shorts" program is also included in this retrospective: four films ranging from eight to 29 minutes and spanning 1986 through 2006.  The only one of the four that I was able to view was the very interesting, 19-minute THE FALL OF COMMUNISM AS SEEN IN GAY PORNOGRAPHY (Really: How can you resist that title?).  As usual, we have Jones' dulcet voice washing over us with comments about history, pornography, economics, Capitalism, Communism and more, while we watch probably the most beautiful group of young men seen in any of Jones' work.  Also as usual, even though this short deals with pornography, we get no full frontal, just a lot of nice skin and terrific faces.

The filmmaker notes that the porn actors of eastern Europe are paid 1/10th of what their counterparts elsewhere earn. And that they tend to stare at the camera with something approaching malice.  Indeed they do: the hostility of some of the faces is jarring.  We see a few of the boys auditioning for their new career, as an aging director interviews them about their preferences while feeling them up.  Interesting and full of pulchritude, as is the case with much of Jones' work, the film never goes anywhere and remains more of a tease and provocation than a fully thought-out work.

TEAROOM, on the other hand, delivers the goods -- even though these goods (above and below) come in quite ordinary wrapping.  Jones put together his creation in 2007, though it was actually filmed (by the Mansfield, Ohio, Police Department) in 1962. After installing a camera to shoot through a two-way mirror in a closet door, the police captured scene after scene of men of various classes and races engaging in sexual activity.  Though the film is grainy as hell, with a stationery camera that could not peek around corners, you can make out the occasional stiff member and see all sort of sexual positioning taking place.  The footage was later used by the Ohio courts as evidence, and all the men shown here were found guilty. At this time in Ohio, sodomy carried a mandatory sentence of at least one year in the state penitentiary, and so Jones' film, as is often the case with his work, becomes a kind of "found" object that offers up suppressed history, simultaneously making it into something new for our own time.  Sans narration, the only noticeable directorial touch here is a title card that reads 15 Steps -- the number that leads down into the men's room at hand.

For me, the biggest surprise in the lot -- as well as the most interesting and professionally handled -- is Jone's relatively standard, talking-heads documentary from 2004 entitled IS IT REALLY SO STRANGE?  If I have ever heard previously of the musician Morrissey, I evidently did not pay enough attention to know anything more about him than his name.  But Mr.Jones certainly did.  A kind of hero to the filmmaker and the subjects he interviews (due to lyrics that spoke directly to the needs and desires of, primarily it would seem, gays and Latinos), Morrissey never became mainstream, though he did achieve about as much fame as possible within the status of "cult."
With this documentary we're back to the witty, subdued Jones narration, as he interviews maybe six or eight subjects about their connection to Morrissey and his songs.  What distinguishes the work is its lovely combination of honesty and intelligent response from all the interviewees and the un-pushy but still probing questions and follow-through from Jones.  This is one of the best represetnations of Latinos in documentary film that I have ever seen.  At the same time it is one of the best fan movies of all time: genuine, sweet, sad, real, and neither judgmental nor fawning.  At one point Jones and his photographer take photos of the actual Morrissey and speak to him (and they interview others who have had their own "personal" experience with the musician).  What a treat -- and a change from the relatively empty Finished.

The work that perhaps most earns the name experimental, not to mention ambitious, might be v.o. from 2006, which, I am guessing, refers to "voice-over."  Here, the filmmaker combines occasional narrative with constant visuals of gay pornography (produced prior to 1985) then sets all this to music and soundtracks that have nothing to do with the original visuals that we are seeing. Instead, the sound often comes from famous foreign-language films (in Spanish, Portuguese, German and French). Film buff that I imagine myself to be, I still did not recognize a single sound track. (Let's hope this means I am simply more visually-oriented, rather than that I am losing my memory.)

In v.o. we see meetings, cruisings (one featuring the famous Peter Berlin), courtships, breakups, and the results of this visual/aural crush are sometimes amusing but more often work as a way to distance us from our usual reactions.  The lengthiest segment (below) is devoted to a film about sex in the New York subways (giving new meaning to TheTaking of Pelham 123), and one of the biggest surprises is the jolt these visuals offer as they bring back a subway system almost completely covered with graffiti.  Once again, this is porn-free porno, which may disappoint some but should give others entry into a distinctly different way to see,
hear and think about film.

The Films of William E. Jones series screens Friday, February 26, through Thursday, March 4, with the filmmaker appearing in person to introduce the first screening of each of his films.  You can find the complete AFA Jones' schedule here.

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