This Charming Man: Bruce Hainley on William E. Jones

Article excerpt

WILLIAM E. JONES'S METIER is homosexuality; his vernaculars, gay pornography and experimental documentary film; his landscapes, Southern California (where he lives and works) and suburban Ohio (where he was raised); his mode, dandyism. In eleven remarkable films and videos and countless photographs produced over the last fifteen years, building upon the cinematic inventions of both Californian and foreign artists--from Morgan Fisher, Fred Halsted, Joe Gage, and Thom Andersen to Werner Schroeter, Luis Bunuel, Jean-Daniel Cadinot, and Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet--Jones has rethought hackneyed categories of, as well as boundaries between, art and pornography, fandom and critique, Hollywood and other kinds of filmmaking. Focusing his lens on the intersection of Labor and Eros, Jones offers a study of the economy and legislation of the aesthetic as it is discombobulated by the erotic. Unlike so many artists and others of the moment who deploy porn images for moribund notions of "titillation" or "shock," using imagery to reify or reiterate rather than to question dominant sexual and relational practices, Jones thwarts such unthinking, often by a moving renewal of what escaped or was lost, deemed beneath consideration.

Austerely but sinuously structured--not unlike his voice, used to hypnotic effect in all his films with narration--Jones's work borrows part of its compositional finesse, often slyly, from what some would be sad to call recherche sources, not all of them cinematic. He learned his methodology as much from A. J. A. Symons's queer biographical pursuit, The Quest for Corvo (1934), as from experimental documentary film. Abjuring documentary's ubiquitous talking-head interviews, Jones shoots landscapes and buildings more frequently than people; when people do appear it is generally via appropriated still or moving imagery. But whereas the usual technique of appropriation today makes use of sources that are almost immediately accessible and recognizable, Jones inverts (with all the sexual consequence of that term) this process, incorporating the unlikely and syncopating, recontextualizing, and slowing down to the point of estranging the popular; this strategy creates a space for thinking about identity as well as about community. He acknowledges pornography and experimental film's differences (despite their simultaneity), but he relishes the potential of their becoming each other, pancinematically--pornography turns into a kind of experimental cinema and experimental cinema into pleasure, recalling a moment when terms like foreign film and artistic purposes meant nudity and sex (as Anonymous, aka Mike Kelley, so eloquently put it in the title of one of his best books, Why I Got into Art). While many contemporary artists channel the visual so that it mimics mainstream entertainment, Jones mines film from a time, pre-AIDS, when experimentation and liberation were mirrored by cultural production--a heyday of American cinephilia coterminous with sexual freedom.

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AIDS shadows nearly all of Jones's work, symbolically underlying his second film, Finished, 1997, which is almost entirely made up of appropriated images, mixed with his own radiant footage of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and Montreal (resonant architecture, distant freeway views, ocean and cloud studies). The filmmaker narrates how he became "infatuated with someone I could never know": Quebecois porn star Alan Lambert, who at age twenty-five--just after he came to glimmer in Jones's consciousness via a phone-sex ad--killed himself in the middle of Montreal's Square Saint-Louis, leaving behind appearances in twenty-some gay adult movies, a radical and obscure epistolary manifesto, and Jones fingering the puzzle pieces of his own desire. In the course of putting together the facts of Lambert's porn star-cum-Marxist messiah existence, Jones discovers an unlikely film allegory in Frank Capra's Meet John Doe (1941), which he happens to catch on television after his final day of sleuthing in Lambert's hometown winds up coldly inconclusive. …