Monday, February 21, 2011

Finished Symphony

It was one of life's uncanny moments. William E. Jones' experimental documentary Finished was and continues to be a key movie to my aesthetic development. One of those films that is at once shockingly new but so great a fit that it comes only naturally, like, some strangely reminiscent text. I was still laboring at an art career when Jones' film was recommended to me by a friend who had curated it into a series. He told me of its premise - a first-person account from a man who becomes enamored with an ill-fated porn star's image, obsessively mulling over the details of his short life, squinting into the dots of his print matrix and at the fuzzy analogue video image in an attempt to get closer to the "real" Alan Lambert, should such a thing exist. It was probably another year before I saw the movie, itself. And I saw it on video. I kind of can't imagine it in any other format. Released for home consumption by Facets, the tape, which combines source 16mm footage with carefully edited clips ripped from Lambert's porn titles, reminded me of the bootleg tapes I would dupe - New Queer Cinema titles, mostly - in my teenage basement in Missouri. The cassettes would be labeled with a piece of tape, or sometimes just black marker on black plastic. As Lucas Hilderbrand has beautifully observed in his book on the medium, there was feeling of "inherent vice" to the analogue format, something licentious and pirate, and Jones' Finished seemed to epitomize that furtive quality. Like the audio cassette, VHS felt far from finite. Not only does Jones rip Lambert's image from the films, but he takes them for a ride, building a personal narrative, a political investigation around market sex and the rhetoric of his images. Further, the VHS format, in Jones' case, made this cinematic diary feel more intimate, a direct address to the singular viewer. A confession on stolen hours.

I've since become very familiar with the whole of Jones' ouevre, but Finished maintains this wonderfully intimate quality, for me. Finished showcased how the personal essay format could open out to include a seemingly infinite number of topical issues, vital to both the filmmaker and viewer. In the film, Jones uses his obsession to address issues as diverse as a Southern ban on interracial sex sequences, theories of consumerism, the crippling physical expectations of porn actors and the power dynamics that these stagnant roles bolster. It's a touching movie, cause you can tell it was really love, but also one of loss and, ultimately, disappointment as Jones finds out that his fantasy creature is not just something of a wack job, but in a decidedly 90s dance around mediatized images, that the Alan Lambert that he fell for never really existed at all. It's the disappointment latent in pop consumerism, where that ecstatic face promises more than it could ever really yield. Lambert's eventual occult underpinnings only highlight more prolifically the divide between the figure and ideal.

The film was important to me as a text, since it embraces irrational obsession with an analytic mind. I was a video artist dallying in the essay format at the time and this visual approach towards information struck a chord. Jones' inquiry yields an abundance of information, presented in logical, but also haphazard ways. Jones' narrator is quick to find value in coincidence, as evinced by the counter-text of the film, Meet John Doe. Finished is a bittersweet movie totally of its time. It's unsturdy, too experimental for the indie film scene, but with a distribution pattern that distanced itself from the artworld of its period. I like to think of the film as emerging in that wonderful moment where subversive film titles were being released on home video and giving their avid consumers tastes of something thrilling, experimental and more expansive than the traditional capitalist products that were out there. It was this weird dissemination of a protest ethos, where charged titles could be picked up by isolated viewers the nation over, and transmit the thrill of their counter-narrative. As Jones did in Lambert, I found a counterpart in Jones who thought through his impulsive desires, yearning to discern the point or source of this fan frenzy. But unlike Jones' narrative, my subject has never disappointed.

Finished will screen with Fred Halsted's The Sex Garage at my screening series, Dirty Looks Wednesday, February 23rd at 8pm. Participant Inc. 253 E. Houston.


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