Underworld meets underground

William E. Jones uncovers hidden stories in porn's dark edges


A freeway is viewed from a distance in pitch-black night as oncoming white dots (the fronts of cars) and retreating red dots (their backs) hop like tiny Lite-Brites from one spot to another. It's a cinematic atmosphere as potent as a dream; this first shot from William E. Jones's Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) isn't the kind of image one might associate with porn. In fact, highly poetic urban documentary was commonplace in '70s and early '80s gay porn. Directors such as Fred Halsted, Christopher Rage, and Peter Berlin used film to creatively explore and express sexual identity before urban gay life was attacked by AIDS and vampirized by mainstream consumerism. For Jones, the works of these underworld auteurs contain an endless array of sidelines to rediscover and uncover. Instead of excavating the era's graphic, condom-free sex, he spotlights the erotically charged spaces around it.

With a feature doc about Latino Smiths fans (2004's Is It Really So Strange?) on his résumé, Jones knows about hidden subcultural histories, his own included. He might be considered the unsung talent associated with the new queer cinema of the early '90s. A few of the era's bigger names (Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki) have since moved deeper into Hollywood, while others (Jennie Livingston, Tom Kalin) seem trapped in creative lockdown. Jones's semiautobiographical 1991 feature, Massillon, was, along with Haynes's Superstar, the most experimental and exciting formal work when the movement was cresting; since then his output has been infrequent and varied. Whereas Massillon (a huge influence on Jenni Olson's recent San Francisco–set The Joy of Life) was shot, with oft-gorgeous results, on film, subsequent Jones works such as 1997's unconventional biography Finished and the self-explanatory 1998 short The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (which would make for a perfect mini–double bill with Phil Collins's 1999 How to Make a Refugee) primarily reframe preexistent video footage for new narrative purposes.

Last year, however, Jones experienced a renaissance in terms of output. Three of at least five works he completed during 2006 will be screened at the Pacific Film Archive this week; alas, Mansfield 1962, one of the best and a hot document of legally sanctioned homophobia, isn't among them. Its title notwithstanding, Film Montages is the one that favors sensory pleasure over discursive pursuits. A tribute to the editing of the late German experimental filmmaker Roehr, it magnifies the visual and sonic textures of pre-AIDS gay porn through a series of short shots, initially presented in times-four repetitions. Wonderfully chunky bass lines and sinister-cold keyboard stabs, images of hands grazing against each other and over black leather, close-ups of tape recorders with Maxell C-90 tapes, campy Germanic voice-overs discussing men "who shyly moved about without ehhhvvver exchanging a word" — they all go through four-step paces, establishing a rhythmic musicality. Then Jones's montage lands on an orgiastic still of four entwined male bodies, and he further emphasizes its languor — a quality now nonexistent, as Daniel Harris has noted, due to current porn's bored god–playing–with–hairless dolls couplings — by increasing the repetition. From there the masculine noise of boots scuffling on a floor and snippets of threatening dirty talk about making "a real man's man" lead to an ending that teases around the edges of climax with fetishistic fervor and skill.

In comparison, More British Sounds possesses an overtly argumentative politicism.

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