“William Jones is haute gay,” a critic/programmer friend said admiringly to me recently about the fiercely intelligent filmmaker being feted by Anthology with a weeklong retro. Jones is as drawn to the high (Euro-cinema worship, formal experimentation) as he is to the low (pornography, fandom), deftly mixing the two to create fascinating excavations of homosexual histories: pre– and post–gay lib, before and after AIDS.
Born in 1962, Jones starts the historical inquiry with himself in his first feature, Massillon (1991), the name of the small industrial town in Ohio where he grew up. Early memories—Sunday school, wrestling in gym class, sex at a rest stop—are conveyed through a series of mostly static shots of the Buckeye State and the filmmaker’s own dulcet narration (present in most of his features and featurettes). The autobiography soon expands both geographically and discursively, as Jones moves the setting to Southern California (where he now lives) and from the personal to the political and linguistic, recounting the history of sodomy laws and the etymology of buggery.
“There was a time when I hoped to return to the moment before desires had names,” Jones poignantly notes in Massillon. But Jones’s film-essays map out the precise contours of longing. In the fan study Finished (1997), about porn actor Alan Lambert, who committed suicide in 1992 at age 25, Jones’s infatuation with the star of Bare Bottoms—elucidated over shots of the San Fernando Valley (the world’s porn headquarters), Montreal (Lambert’s hometown), and non-fucking scenes from Lambert’s oeuvre—leads to a noir-ish investigation that reflects the plot of Frank Capra’s 1941 film Meet John Doe, and, ultimately, complete disillusionment. Another idol analysis, Is It Really So Strange? (2004), an exploration of Morrissey’s popularity among Latinos in SoCal, is Jones’s most “conventional” work—an assembly of rough-hewn talking-head interviews, which, through the thoughtful questions Jones poses to his subjects, still unearths nuggets about the masochistic pleasures of unrequited love.
The unearthing continues with the wry mash-up v.o. (2006)—the title refers both to “voiceover” and “version originale”—in which non-XXX scenes from mostly pre-AIDS gay porn (Nights in Black Leather, L.A. Tool & Die) are combined with audio from lofty productions by Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel, Guy Debord, and Manoel de Oliveira, and a BBC interview with Jean Genet. Jones’s most provocative and powerful act of archaeology returns him to his home state in Tearoom (1962/2007), a re-presentation of original footage shot clandestinely in a men’s public restroom by the Mansfield, Ohio, police in the summer of 1962 as part of a crackdown on gay sex in the Midwest. Not wanting to dilute the film’s potency, Jones did almost nothing to alter this silent footage, except move the original’s final reel, which establishes the location and the dimensions of the bathroom, to the beginning. As men of various ages, classes, races, and sizes joylessly suck, butt-fuck, and wank—eyes always fixed on the door—you realize that court evidence that led to jail sentences for everyone onscreen can now be appreciated as an extraordinary historical document. The cognitive dissonance could not be more extreme.