On Wednesday, February 23rd, at Participant Inc. (253 East Houston St.) the monthly queer film series Dirty Looks will screen Finished (1997), a documentary by indie filmmaker and video artist William E. Jones. Jones has made documentaries about Morrissey’s Latin fanbase (Is It Really So Strange?, 2004), anti-sodomy statutes (Massillon, 1993), a 1963 sex bust in an Ohio public toilet (Tearoom, 2008) and even a film called The Fall of Communism as Seen In Gay Pornography. His first film, Massillon, was made at CalArts, where Jones studied with Thomas Anderson and James Benning. This early work echoes the dry narration style of Anderson’s epic doc Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), while forging new ground in the film essay format. Finished is an experimental diary that traces Jones’s obsession with Québécois porn actor Alan Lambert. Lambert saw himself as a revolutionary, ultimately taking his own life in a misguided act of political transgression. Jones’s confessional confronts both public and private—from race politics in the home video market to the consumer appeal of porn—in his struggle to understand his troubled muse. Over the past decade, Jones’s work has drifted from theaters to galleries, and this transition has marked a distinct shift in his work. His newest video pieces are shorter and mostly made up of found footage and digital juxtapositions. I recently spoke with Jones about how this older feature film work fits in with his career as a visual artist and also about his forthcoming book on pornographer Fred Halsted.
You recently wrote in Artforum about the shift in your creative process, how you’ve come to embrace the momentary pleasures of spectatorship, as opposed to feature-length attention spans. What is your current attitude towards your older work, like Finished? Have you changed the presentation context of these films in recent retrospectives to better align with your gallery-based work?
I made my feature length works to be presented in theaters then released on DVD (or formerly, on video). I haven’t adapted them for gallery presentation at all, nor do I encourage this tendency to show long works in a white box with benches. The transition from long films to short movies involved years of trial and error, and there were many false starts. I went from making linear essay films to concentrating on silent loops installed in galleries, and the challenge was to retain some critical dimension to the project. I am not satisfied with attractive “moving paintings,” nor do I think spectators should be. I should also mention that I prefer working on a number of projects at once, and the desire to make another long film has not entirely left me. It’s mainly a question of opportunities.
Your distribution tactics have tended to reflect many of your subjects. Finished, a meditation on VHS porn was released on VHS and Is It Really So Strange?, on DVD—like many of the Morrissey titles collected by the fans that you film. With your recent videos, Tearoom, for instance, direct access to the work is limited, but your publications with 2nd Cannons provide detailed accounts. Was this dialogue between platform and project intentional or did it just come about through the ever-changing nature of media formats?
I see what I do as making the best of my circumstances, but in independent filmmaking these change all the time, often for the worse. It was crucial for Is It Really So Strange? to come out on DVD, because I wanted the film to be accessible to the people in the scene I documented. The Tearoom book was mainly a receptacle for all the information I gathered about the police surveillance film and the cases related to it. The book stands in for me doing a Q&A session at a screening. I have been very fortunate that the formats of distribution are usually appropriate to the works. I have my own ideas about where a work belongs, but usually the world gives me the final answer to that question.
Can you tell me a little bit about how the Fred Halsted book came about and what we can expect from it?
Halsted Plays Himself begins with a biographical essay about Fred Halsted, inspired by research in the archives and correspondence with his friends and colleagues. Almost immediately after finishing this essay, I got an email out of the blue from a man who knew Fred intimately for years, and my interview with him led to me meeting, one by one, the most important of Fred’s living former lovers. I began to see a whole new dimension to the man. Instead of revising my first essay, I wrote a second one, more of an oral history containing many details I never expected to find. The book also includes material contemporary with the release of his best films, L. A. Plays Itself, Sex Garage, and Sextool: interviews with Fred, reviews and reports, and a small body of erotic writing that he published mostly in his own magazine, Package. I also discovered hundreds of photographs, and I hope to include as many of them as possible. The book is currently being designed, and will be published in fall of 2011 by Semiotext(e).
In Finished, porn actor Alan Lambert became this perfect cipher through which to air all of these questions and findings that you had around the porn industry and culture at large. Do you see this book project as another open-ended investigation, similar to the one you had with Lambert? How is it different?
I have been interested in Fred Halsted’s films for many years and knew some of them before I started the film Finished. When I began talking about the Halsted book project, a cynical acquaintance said, “Oh, another work about a suicidal gay porn star.” Halsted Plays Himself will be quite different, if only because of the sheer volume of material I found. Fred was a famous person, and he touched the lives of many people. Through him, I have been able to form an image of a fascinating (and sometimes lurid) moment in gay history, a subculture within a subculture in Los Angeles.
You have an academic approach when discussing your work, but you hover over your subjects very closely. There’s an obsessive quality there, working at length in archives, writing a monograph about Halsted, joining fan cultures and, of course, your one-sided relationship with Lambert. Would you say that your process is, in part, an attempt to break down and rationalize these obsessions for the viewer? Or even an attempt to deconstruct obsession itself?
What artistic practice doesn’t begin with obsession? I suppose that I am a bit more analytical in my approach than most, but I don’t consider myself an academic at all. I studied theory as an undergraduate, but I don’t read it now, and over the years, its direct usefulness for my practice has diminished to nothing, more or less. As an artist, I am something of an anomaly in that I enjoy talking about my work, and lately, I have received many invitations to do so. Perhaps I’m just a vulgar American who sees an element of “show biz” even in the rarefied domain of art. I have the privilege of making presentations of my movies to audiences, and I work hard not to disappoint. As far as I’m concerned, it’s part of the job.