Underworld meets underground

Pub date February 13, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

› johnny@sfbg.com

A freeway is viewed from a distance in pitch-black night as oncoming white dots (the fronts of cars) and retreating red dots (their backs) hop like tiny Lite-Brites from one spot to another. It’s a cinematic atmosphere as potent as a dream; this first shot from William E. Jones’s Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) isn’t the kind of image one might associate with porn. In fact, highly poetic urban documentary was commonplace in ’70s and early ’80s gay porn. Directors such as Fred Halsted, Christopher Rage, and Peter Berlin used film to creatively explore and express sexual identity before urban gay life was attacked by AIDS and vampirized by mainstream consumerism. For Jones, the works of these underworld auteurs contain an endless array of sidelines to rediscover and uncover. Instead of excavating the era’s graphic, condom-free sex, he spotlights the erotically charged spaces around it.

With a feature doc about Latino Smiths fans (2004’s Is It Really So Strange?) on his résumé, Jones knows about hidden subcultural histories, his own included. He might be considered the unsung talent associated with the new queer cinema of the early ’90s. A few of the era’s bigger names (Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki) have since moved deeper into Hollywood, while others (Jennie Livingston, Tom Kalin) seem trapped in creative lockdown. Jones’s semiautobiographical 1991 feature, Massillon, was, along with Haynes’s Superstar, the most experimental and exciting formal work when the movement was cresting; since then his output has been infrequent and varied. Whereas Massillon (a huge influence on Jenni Olson’s recent San Francisco–set The Joy of Life) was shot, with oft-gorgeous results, on film, subsequent Jones works such as 1997’s unconventional biography Finished and the self-explanatory 1998 short The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (which would make for a perfect mini–double bill with Phil Collins’s 1999 How to Make a Refugee) primarily reframe preexistent video footage for new narrative purposes.

Last year, however, Jones experienced a renaissance in terms of output. Three of at least five works he completed during 2006 will be screened at the Pacific Film Archive this week; alas, Mansfield 1962, one of the best and a hot document of legally sanctioned homophobia, isn’t among them. Its title notwithstanding, Film Montages is the one that favors sensory pleasure over discursive pursuits. A tribute to the editing of the late German experimental filmmaker Roehr, it magnifies the visual and sonic textures of pre-AIDS gay porn through a series of short shots, initially presented in times-four repetitions. Wonderfully chunky bass lines and sinister-cold keyboard stabs, images of hands grazing against each other and over black leather, close-ups of tape recorders with Maxell C-90 tapes, campy Germanic voice-overs discussing men "who shyly moved about without ehhhvvver exchanging a word" — they all go through four-step paces, establishing a rhythmic musicality. Then Jones’s montage lands on an orgiastic still of four entwined male bodies, and he further emphasizes its languor — a quality now nonexistent, as Daniel Harris has noted, due to current porn’s bored god–playing–with–hairless dolls couplings — by increasing the repetition. From there the masculine noise of boots scuffling on a floor and snippets of threatening dirty talk about making "a real man’s man" lead to an ending that teases around the edges of climax with fetishistic fervor and skill.

In comparison, More British Sounds possesses an overtly argumentative politicism. There Jones matches images from the 1986 gay porn movie The British Are Coming with a soundtrack of uncannily current posh snob remarks from the Jean-Luc Godard–directed Dziga Vertov Group’s 1969 movie See You at Mao, a.k.a. British Sounds. Class warfare and sexual cannibalism are stripped bare, teased with a whip, tattooed, suckled, and showered in a mere eight minutes. To paraphrase Jones, More British Sounds counters the complete lack of homosexuality in Godard’s films, rephrasing the French auteur’s famous remark that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun — in this case all you need are some boys and a locker room.

The contents of the 59-minute v.o. aren’t so clearly delineated, and the frisson they produce might not be as intense — though for some viewers, that might be due to a familiarity with the source material, whether it be Halsted’s 1972 L.A. Plays Itself or tape recordings of Jean Genet and Rosa von Prauheim spouting off presciently about homosexual fatalism and conservatism. Not so much a mashup as a metamaze odyssey through the subways, nighttime ghetto alleys, and other spaces of pre-AIDS and pre-Internet gay cruising, v.o. doesn’t take its title from voice-over — even if the abbreviation does suggest that facet, which is dominant in many Jones films — so much as version originale, a French term used for films presented in their original language with subtitles. Subtitles over a bare bottom doesn’t make art, but in this case it makes for ripe nostalgia. Moving from a record needle into the dark hole of a Victrola like some dirty, dude-loving cousin of Inland Empire, v.o. might not end up anywhere in particular, but it finds a hell of a lot — Colonel Sanders’s face, gay-power graffiti, Halsted’s red Ranchero, a Peter Berlin S-M romp in the underground recesses of the SF Art Institute — along the way. *


Tues/20, 7:30 p.m., $4–$8

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-0808


For an extensive interview with Jones, go to our Pixel Vision blog at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.