A q&a about v.o.: talking tearooms, movies, Morrissey, and melancholy with filmmaker William E. Jones

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Parts of Peter Berlin's and Fred Halsted's bodies of work are now a part of William E. Jones's body of work, thanks to the recent 59-minute video quasi-mashup v.o.

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Still from v.o.

But the bodies in gay porn pioneers Berlin's and Fred Halsted's movies aren't what interests Jones. More than bodies, he scouts cities -- through the eyes of those directors and others (and the voices of countless other filmed and taped sources) v.o. cruises spaces now gone or under surveillance, often doing so with a prophetic sense of doom. It's one of many Jones works which reveal that the most fascinating aspects of movies, and of life, often dwell on the outer edges.
Born in Ohio and now residing in L.A., Jones currently has two handsome websites, one devoted to his films, and the other, Shiftless Body, focusing on his photographs. In conjunction with an upcoming screening and a feature in this week's paper, I recently interviewed him via email:

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Still from v.o.

Guardian: After some years of sporadic output, 2006 seems like a watershed year for you, with the release of a handful of long and short works. Can you tell me a bit about the ebb and flow of your creativity, and why you're producing more work at the moment?
William E. Jones: After I finished Is It Really So Strange?, I wanted to produce videos that were less complex from the point of view of production. The obvious choice was to appropriate material. I had a number of ideas for videos derived from gay porn footage, and I completed them all during two periods in residence at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. I discovered how quickly one can make work when there is no need to shoot anything!

G: v.o. uses lengthy sequences from gay porn classics such as the Peter Berlin vehicle Nights in Black Leather (including a sequence shot at SF Art Institute), and Fred Halsted's L.A. Plays Itself. One thing noteworthy about these films is their exploration of urban space and how it connects to gay sexuality and identity. Another example source-wise would be the subway passages from the movie Subway in v.o. Can you tell me a bit about your interest in this area?
WEJ: As the technology for making images has become more accessible, the range of public space available to filmmakers seems to have closed down. More of the world is owned – privatized, filled with advertising and other proprietary images, secured by the state – than ever before. What I find absolutely astonishing in old gay porn at its best is the freedom with which filmmakers negotiate urban space, as well as the trust and good will of the people they represent. Though they did not intend to make documentaries, the pioneering directors in the genre documented the forms of gay life in ways that become more fascinating with every passing year.

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Still from v.o.

G: I've read that you and Thom Andersen know one another, and especially having seen v.o.. I'm curious whether you've discussed Fred Halsted's L.A. Plays Itself, and to what degree you think you and Andersen might inspire or inform one another in terms of making your films.
WEJ: The simple answer to that question is that I lent Thom Andersen my tape of L. A. Plays Itself so he could include scenes from it in Los Angeles Plays Itself. (Somewhat later, he allowed me to shoot his record player for sequences of Is It Really So Strange?)
L. A. Plays Itself suggested the possibility of sexually explicit, experimental gay filmmaking at an historical moment when this liberty was not only possible but necessary. I believe that the distinction between experimental film and porn had not yet become entrenched at that time, but since I wasn’t around then, I cannot be certain. The union or confusion of gay porn with “higher” art to serve ends more substantial than puerile shock value still gives many pause. (Thom’s use of L. A. Plays Itself in such a respectable context provoked more than one disapproving note.) This claim of aesthetic merit for gay porn films, as well as an interest in the “documentary effect” that I mentioned earlier, were the inspirations for the visual component of v. o.

G: In relation to the soundtrack of v.o. -- could you tell me a bit about the cinematic sources and your relationship to them? I've read that many things came from your VHS collection. As someone who also has a strange library of tapes, I'm curious what you specifically chose to focus on, and what motivated you to use them as source material.
WEJ: Like many people serious about movies, I have accumulated a large number of VHS bootlegs, and I am reluctant to part with these supposedly obsolete artifacts. I love the films in v. o., and the fact that they are almost impossible to see makes them all the more precious. The sources for v. o. fall into a number of different categories: films that had few screenings in this country and are unavailable in any consumer format (Doomed Love, The Holy Bunch); films available at one time on VHS, but not yet on DVD (Los Olvidados, Heatstroke); and films in some kind of legal limbo that prevents their distribution on DVD (Sleaze, the full version of L. A. Plays Itself). These gaps in the corpus of cinema are absolutely deplorable, and the complacent assertion that the market eventually makes everything worthwhile available is just a symptom of the fatuous provincialism of American film culture.
When I went into the studio with my source tapes, I had no idea if the “mash-ups” I had planned would work. Several did not; most often the sound of a segment was too different in tone from surrounding scenes, the picture was too “busy” to accommodate subtitles, or the dialogue was too fast or complex to be understood out of context. On the other hand, there were sequences that fit together so well that I wondered if the filmmakers had somehow had each other’s work in mind. For instance, a full seven minutes of Nights in Black Leather’s picture lined up perfectly with a chunk of The Death of Maria Malibran’s soundtrack.
A certain morbid glamour hangs over v. o., a work that serves as an act of mourning for many departed men, a lost gay culture, and orphan films from the archive. I didn’t impose this mood on the material I used; it was already there. An apparently arbitrary intervention – lifting the non-sexual scenes and pairing them with dialogue in foreign languages – reveals how obsessive and dark these movies really were. Years before the AIDS crisis, porn films embodied tendencies contrary to the affirmation and sexual arousal that were their stated aims. They were the harbingers of a sensibility that speaks to these rather grim times.

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Still from Film Montages (for Peter Roehr)

G: Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) seems more attuned to sensory pleasure rather than discursive threads -- did it feel different in this regard while you were assembling it? Can you tell me a bit about your methods and inspirations in terms of what you've put in the film and what you've emphasized? I'm thinking specifically of the soundtrack and its use of "real" sound and what I would assume are snippets of electronic porn scores. Visually, I'm interested in the increase in repetition when the camera grazes over languid orgiastic shots that would be out of place in current doll-manipulation gay porn. Also the way you dance around the fringe of the final, highly fetishistic interaction.
WEJ: Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) pleases me on every viewing, because it is the least personal of my works. I do not appear in the video, nor do I narrate it; the footage and the formal strategies are appropriated. From the source material, I chose short fragments that I thought would make interesting loops. The sound was used as found, and the repetitions function as visual and aural rhythms without any adjustments in the sync. I didn’t “cheat,” and neither did Peter Roehr. He used multiple 16mm prints of advertising films cut and spliced by hand, while I enjoyed the luxury of non-linear digital editing. In collaboration with the Wexner Center’s editor Paul Hill, I made a sort of musical composition from the material. Strict, mechanical repetition might seem dull beyond endurance, yet I found exhilarating possibilities in it. The strategy lends a hypnotic power to marginal fragments while emphasizing the concreteness of the cinematic image. The result is not campy or ironic, but rather reveals a beauty that one could almost call objective.

G: Many of your films reframe or rework preexisting material from porn to explore aspects of sexuality, fantasy, and identity within society. I'm curious -- if you were to direct a porn film, what would it be like, and would it in any way mirror some of the counter-conventional strategies you've used in your movies or that are present in movies by directors (Halsted, Christopher Rage, etc.) you've borrowed from? Would you work to complicate typical porn star worship, such as in Finished? Or are you turned off by the prospect of such a venture because of what it connotes in consumerist gay culture (such as gay culture exists) today?
WEJ: Opportunities to direct gay porn have presented themselves, but I have not taken advantage of them. My main objection is that I do not want to exploit my friends. A tight shooting schedule with a small budget is an unappetizing combination. I make work on tiny budgets, but I usually take my time. Circumstances may change, so I cannot say I would never do it.

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Still from Film Montages (for Peter Roehr)

G: Your Bay Area visit almost coincides with the GayVN awards, which are taking place at the Castro Theatre this year. Are you going to attend? I'm curious partly because the DVD reissue of at least one Peter Berlin movie is up for an award, so he might be there. Do you think anyone working within current gay porn is stepping outside of the rote mechanics that have come to define the movies?
WEJ: The production of gay porn films for public exhibition began in the late 1960s as an artisanal, experimental, haphazard enterprise. Over the course of three decades, it became industrialized, a process that demanded efficiency and standardization. Clearly, some directors can make competent and even inspired work in the context of industrial production. It happens in the film industry, and there is no reason it cannot happen in the porn industry. I must admit, though, that I know very little about contemporary gay porn. I have seen nothing produced in the 21st Century. Perhaps one day, I will have a pleasant surprise.

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Still from Mansfield 1962

G: I first saw some of the police surveillance footage within Mansfield 1962 in a presentation at a Frameline fest (in 2000 or 2001) and was both amazed and at the same time not exactly surprised by its audacity. There's so much at play within it: the unquestioning display of heterosexual legal power, and the way it conflates homophobia with actual, rather than typically imagined, visualisations of gay sex. Can you tell me about your interest in the source material? On another tangent, I can't help but notice that one youth whose mugshot you emphasize wouldn't be out of place in your Smiths' doc Is It Really So Strange?. Were you playing off of that consciously?
WEJ: The most emotionally intense sequence in my first film, Massillon, is a tearoom scene. It sets a tone and provides an introduction to the final third of the film, an analysis of laws proscribing sexual activity in the United States. At the time I made Massillon, I was not yet aware that another tearoom scene with catastrophic legal consequences had transpired just before I was born in a place an hour’s drive away from my hometown.
When I learned about the Mansfield, Ohio tearoom busts, I felt as though I had found, among other things, a confirmation of what I had written about in Massillon. I suspect that the case cast a pall on what there was of gay life in the region, and though no one talked about it while I was growing up, the witch-hunt must have had a profound effect on attitudes informing my upbringing. The case inspired me to do a substantial amount of research, which I have summarized on my website. In terms of my artistic practice, I chose not to make a Mansfield in the style of Massillon, but instead to reedit the material I found and present it silent, without commentary. It is powerful enough on its own.
The mug shot of the guy with the surly look and pomaded hair in Mansfield 1962 can indeed be seen as a sly reference to Is It Really So Strange? Had the subjects of my previous movie not schooled me in the fine points of greaser style, I would not have been quite so keen to use the Mansfield tearoom material. Both works represent murky, often misunderstood passions in an arena where words like “straight” and “gay” fail to signify. When the greaser guy first appears in Mansfield 1962, the camera tilts frantically up and down, as though the cameraman couldn’t get enough of him. Perhaps he just recognized him from church.

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Still from Massillon

G: As a Smiths fan, have you read all the books about Morrissey, seen all the movies, and taken in a lot or all of the Smiths- or Morrissey-inspired art that has emerged especially over the past five or ten years? If so, are there any projects aside from your own documentary that you've found revelatory? Has Morrissey seen Is It Really So Strange?
WEJ: During the production of Is It Really So Strange?, I often encountered Smiths-related art or writing that overlapped with my own project in some way. I responded by striking any redundant material from my script with a sigh of relief, “That work has already been done.” I ended up in the situation I didn’t quite expect (but which was entirely satisfactory) of making a movie more about the fans than their idol. The barrage of publicity accompanying Morrissey’s comeback provoked in me a growing distaste for celebrity culture. I have no wish to return to those noisy precincts any time soon.
Andrew Male, who writes for Mojo and is a fan of Is It Really So Strange?, asked Morrissey in an interview whether he has seen the movie. His answer was, appropriately enough, ambiguous.

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Still from Is It Really So Strange?

G: Your website contains a section devoted to harsh, angry, and sometimes fully clueless reviews. Has criticism of your work, positive or negative, ever given you any insight or altered the way you've thought about what you've made and are making, or has it always seemed to exist, perhaps uselessly, in a realm apart from it? Likewise, have you gotten feedback or responses from any of the filmmakers you've borrowed from or people depicted within your movies?
WEJ: Faced with current market trends toward anodyne product and relentless self-promotion, I decided to present my own ointment complete with flies. My body of work has received plenty of positive reviews, so I can include a bit of dissent. In fact, v. o. has met with a chorus of published praise. (Film critics respond favorably to a video that celebrates great films languishing in undeserved obscurity.) All of my other works have inspired minor controversies, and I thought it would be interesting to provide a sense of that. Bad reviews, seen from a proper distance, have their uses. They can reveal assumptions about what a film should be, according to an implied standard of taste. If one is going to offend people, it is best to know the target audience, or better yet, the target attitudes.
On the website, I also mention Guy Debord’s engagement with his reviews. By comparison, my own intentions are positively warm and fuzzy. I think that others, especially filmmakers and artists, can look at these bad reviews and take heart. In my case, the first reviews in a given publication or of a given work were often terrible. But over time, some critics came around, some hostile publications folded, my supporters managed to publish their writing (not an easy task these days), and the films found an audience. Tenacity has its rewards.

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Still from Is It Really So Strange?

G: What is inspiring you -- and/or what are you enjoying -- at the moment, musically and visually? Are there any current projects you're working on?
WEJ: In fits and starts I am working on a film based upon Robert Burton’s book The Anatomy of Melancholy. It is Burton’s attempt to collate every mention of melancholy, its causes and cures, in the extant literary corpus of his time. The first edition appeared in 1621, and Burton continued to revise and expand the book until his death in 1640. The Anatomy of Melancholy is the culmination of a sedentary, solitary life, as well as a compendium of classical learning and vividly imagined perversions. A connoisseur of vulgarity, Burton allegedly compiled lists of bargemen’s curses at Oxford. Historians now consider this story apocryphal, but it persists because it suggests a character to which modern readers can relate. The combination of refinement and degradation has obvious appeal.
The Anatomy of Melancholy is massive, 1,200 pages long, so I am adapting a mere 1% of the text. This leaves room for at least 99 other, entirely different films drawn from the same book. I find the prospect of one hundred adaptations of The Anatomy of Melancholy competing for our attention curiously attractive. Whether my Anatomy will one day become a movie depends, as always, upon money, and upon my own continuing interest. I devise many more projects than I have the energy or resources to realize.

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Still from Mansfield 1962

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