Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Homecoming Queen

William E. Jones is proving to be one of Queer cinema’s most stalwart voices. But we've known that for some time, haven't we? In a period where gay narrative cinema has drifted to the on‐demand circuit and left lonely mainstream voices like Tom Ford to peddle conservative gay ideologies, an older student film like Jones' recently screened Massillon can sound a chord, reminding one of the potential for cinema to be (progressively) political. Perhaps, as Jones suggested when speaking at Anthology Film Archives last Friday, Massillon is a film trapped in its time (the film analyzes the 1986 upholding of an anti‐sodomy law overturned in 2003). But perhaps not.

Jones has recently fashioned a name for himself by appropriating archival gay pornography. In these films, the materials exhibit a sociological function; old porn scenes plumb the dearth of historical gay (self)representation, while more contemporary productions smuggle cultural trends in the most mundane details (most prolifically in The Fall of Communism as Seen Through Gay Pornography). Massillon emerges from an earlier, documentarian period in Jones' practice. To this day, I get goosebumps when I think of his follow‐up, Finished (1997), an unnerving and utterly flawless examination of fetishism and obsession. It served as an apt introduction to Jones' oeuvre. Massillon, very much a student film in its fascinating mixture of earnestness and breeziness, was made while Jones attended California Institute of the Arts. The prints of film professors James Benning, but more significantly, perhaps, Thomas Anderson are strongly pressed into this sumptuous work.

The film divides its first two parts, like those subjects of this statute’s persecution, into private and legal sectors, cleverly cordoning the personal from the political. The private segment, which recounts Jones’ childhood in Massillon, OH, tells of his burgeoning homosexual experiences ‐ from first inklings to a Genet‐worthy description of anonymous sex in a pit‐stop outhouse. The monotone vocal delivery, performed by the filmmaker himself, is less revealing as a performance of clinical psychodrama, than as a bitter and powerfully ironic challenge to the legal decisions illuminated in part two. The stoicism of this voice, as it recounts heartfelt tales of adolescence, echoes, retroactively, with the disheartened rage directed at this opinion that deems such innocent experiences a “crime against nature.” Jones takes the best parts of Anderson’s epic documentary narrations (most famously deployed in Los Angeles Plays Itself [2004]) and fashions them into something all his own. The static footage that Jones plays to his deadpan delivery has not yet reached the level of sophistication employed in his later works. At moments, the choice of visual tableau is seemingly arbitrary and too reminiscent of Benning’s meditative frames, at others, Jones' juxtapositions are cutting and purely wicked.

The filming of Massillon allows Jones to expound on the nostalgia that lurks in every ornament of small‐town suburbia. This outmodedness layers upon the attitudes the radio evangelists and supreme court judges bring to their understanding of and ruling over homosexual rights. Jones allows one such preacher a healthy stretch of time to make his opinion heard, then clicks off the radio as the sermon begins to stutter. Part two (“The Law”) traces each of the rhetorical implications and judicial precedents that contributed to the decision to uphold sodomy laws. This includes fascinatingly articulate definitions of the terms thus employed: bugger, sodomite, etc. and the (surprise!) influence of religion on the historical introduction of a an anti‐sodomy legislation by King Henry VIII . Jones then wittily trains his camera at the land development project located in Valencia, CA (where CalArts is located) in part three, and plays a potent visual metaphor for “crimes against nature” off the fabricated villages and their feigned promise of idyll and heritage. If the classification of homosexual did not exist before the 19th century, Jones demands, then how do the preservation of heritage and traditional values even factor in these proceedings? Jones engages in a carefully analytic form of pathos to write the personal as innately political and Massillon offers an exacting glance into a sharp and furious mind. A single man with a great deal more to say.

The Films of William E Jones continues through the week at Anthology.

I also have to admit any cleverness this title exhibits was thoughtlessly torn form the title of Martin Dines new book 'Gay Suburban Narrative in American and British Culture: Homecoming Queens' (phew!) which was just released on Pallgrave Macmillan Press.