Urinal kinds of trouble

William E. Jones proves that in America, the mirror looks at you

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William E. Jones's documentary triptych Massillon came out in 1991 — a landmark year for queer film — yet it didn't receive near the popular attention given to Poison, another narrative three-way that is the arguable flagship of the new queer cinema. It's no real surprise, since Todd Haynes's impish and emotional experiment — as well as most other queer films associated with the early '90s — has a drama, not to mention a generous degree of hanky panky, that Massillon eschews.

In an article by Jenni Olson included on Jones's Web site, Jones likens his approach to that of new German cinema's Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in Too Early, Too Late, pointing to that 1982 film's materialist renunciation of "seduction or false spectacle." Even when detailing an abrupt advancement in his sexual education, courtesy of a public restroom, Jones speaks in a near-comical, and surely defiant, soporific tone as his camera lingers on the restroom's exterior. If not for the frank narration and the conspicuous level of attention evident in Jones's static townscapes, it would be hard to distinguish Massillon (though kitsch is nowhere in sight) from an old high school slide show of some prosaic industry. The film has nothing so attention grabbing as the theatricality of Derek Jarman's Edward II or Tom Kalin's Swoon, the literate romanticism of Christopher Munch's The Hours and Times, or the cuddly nihilism of Gregg Araki's The Living End. In fact, even though it's a balls-out investigation of sex in the margins, its distinguishing audaciousness lies in its presentational chastity.

Working its way from the personal to the legal to the historical, the film is divided into a trio of corresponding sections. The "Ohio" section overlays images of quiet roads and the architectural husks of the once-thriving industrial town of Massillon, where Jones grew up, with a narrative mapping his sexual development; "The Law" is a brief and perhaps overly dry summary of American sodomy laws, tied to obvious but compelling shots of various legislative buildings; and "California" attempts a genealogy of queer marginalization — making it a filmic cousin of Mike Davis's chapters on early Los Angeles boosterism in City of Quartz (Verso, 1990) — that examines the ways that nonnative values, traditions, and other guidelines for self-identification are bred into the framework of planned Southern California communities.

Much of Jones's work has an air of intended distance — it can range in effect from the warm, generous irony of 1997's Finished to the sensual parsimony of 2004's too-tentative Is It Really So Strange? — but his new film, also screening this week, is so detached that he didn't even make it. (His Web site bills the project as "a document presented by William E. Jones.")

In his research for a planned documentary about the 1962 convictions under state sodomy laws of men engaged in public sex in a Mansfield, Ohio, restroom, Jones came into possession of 16mm surveillance footage captured from behind a two-way mirror. This footage is being presented with minimal editing as Tearoom. What is on offer here is a fascinating and important historical document of societal and particularly sexual repression and the stone-faced, eyes-on-the-door gay subculture it created.

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