THE DYNAMIC OF WILLIAM E. JONES’S work lies in the tensions produced between, on the one hand, deep-running vortices of emotion and longing and, on the other, the angular severities of social control, unearthed and drawn out from the otherwise obscured historical matter of gay men’s subjective lives and shared fantasies. Among the source materials for his five long-form pieces, numerous short films, and printed publications are 1970s pornography, legal data, pop music, and personal memories: Extraordinary and unexpected facets emerge from the obsessive jewel-cutting that Jones performs on this raw ore.
Massillon (1991), Jones’s first feature-length film, revisits his hometown of Massillon, Ohio, represented in two dialectical registers: rigidly lensed shots of municipal buildings, tree-lined highways, and other local landscapes, and Jones’s voice-over, coolly measured and calculated, relating both autobiographical anecdotes and a history of antisodomy laws. Recalling a time when the distant glimmers of gay liberation made little impact on a boy coming of age in a declining Rust Belt city, Jones’s words evoke a process of sexual awakening that transpires within a thick cloud of unknowing, defined as a persistent search for information and enlightenment through subterranean clues, vague rumors, and covert networks. These range from lingering suspicions about two seemingly straight friends who openly joked about blowing each other to recountings of a furtive truck-stop fuck, for which the blunt odor of shit emerging from the hole-in-the-ground toilets bears a comparable weight to Proust’s madeleine—wafting through Jones’s memory not so much for any perverse pleasure but rather as a marker of our socially determined degradation.
These epistemological challenges become centered around a more specific object of desire in Finished (1997): Quebecois gay porn star Alan Lambert, who committed suicide in a public square in Montreal in 1992 at age twenty-five, a few years after Jones first encountered his photo in a phone-sex ad and became inexorably drawn to his image. In hunting down and piecing together a biography for Lambert, Jones reconstructs him less as a person than as an incommensurate collection of evidence: magazine photo shoots, the frozen title sequences of his video releases (arranged alphabetically: Bare Bottoms, Beach Dreamer, Boot Camp, Boot Camp II . . .), footage shot at sites in Canada and Los Angeles where Lambert lived and worked, information gleaned from interviews with former coworkers (identified only by initial letters, like the subjects of old diary entries or Freud’s clinical essays), and Lambert’s rambling, semicoherent suicide note, written in the form of a self-aggrandizing socialist manifesto. Finished becomes ultimately about the impossibility of moving beyond these surface ephemera, but occasional flashes occur: Jones notes that the Lambert video A Matter of Size was released in France under the title La Folie de grandeur—a pun that can be translated back as “delusions of grandeur.”
Though Finished notably abstains from using footage of Lambert in action, Jones recuts porn films and videos to compelling effect in a number of other works. In V.O. (2006), he selects non-sex scenes from precondom titles as a means of reviving their documentary value, rereading the source materials as collusions between indexical records and utopian aspirations; similar operations reveal, more darkly, the politico-economic underpinnings of Eastern European productions of the ’90s in The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998). However, Jones goes hardcore in Tearoom (2008), an hour-long found object of bizarre but significant provenance: silent, color 16-mm police surveillance footage shot from behind a two-way mirror in a men’s room in Mansfield, Ohio, in the early ’60s, explicitly capturing a heated trade in sexual favors between everyday men from a range of classes and races. Captivating for both its historical rarity and its proto-Warholian cinematography, Tearoom is a Jones film degree zero, paradoxically exploring repression as both a brutal historical injustice and an incomparable formal device.
“The Films of William E. Jones” runs February 26–March 4 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here. On Monday, May 24, William E. Jones will host Modern Monday at the Museum of Modern Art.
Juliette Garcias, Be Good, 2009, still from a color film, 90 minutes. Ève (Anaïs Demoustier) and Jean (Bruno Todeschini).
A HIGHLIGHT of the year’s “Film Comment Selects” series, Juliette Garcias’s first directorial feature, Be Good, is a tense thriller that gradually dispels suspicions of its affinities with the lovesick-teenager and demonic-babysitter genres to reveal its more unsettling subject as a study of the psychological effects of early sexual violation. Recalling vintage Chabrol in setting and tone, Garcias’s serenely composed images are both backdrop and foil to the quietly unnerving interactions between a disturbed young woman and the inhabitants of a provincial French village. It’s a sign of the film’s restrained approach to its subject that its most sensuous image is that of a delicate but insistent female hand plunging into a pail of live snails, probing and caressing the dark wet matter with erotic pleasure as the creatures slither into and out of their shells. The hand belongs to Nathalie, whose preference to be called Ève is the first sign of her displaced persona. As played by Anaïs Demoustier, her angelic prettiness, teary eyes, and desperately winning smile conceal a barely suppressed pathology. Everything about “Ève” and what she does denotes “stalker,” if not quite in the same league as the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction (1987), scary enough to make us cringe when an infant is placed in her care. We wonder why so young and pretty a creature has taken a job delivering bread to the locals until we see her spying on a married couple and learn that she had a relationship with the husband, Jean (Bruno Todeschini). Is Ève seeking revenge for having been seduced and abandoned by an older man? The more quietly she behaves, the creepier the prospects. We soon realize that Ève is after bigger game, and the closer she gets to her goal the more frightening—and the more pitiable—she becomes.
In one flashback, we see a low-angle shot of two pairs of hands playing piano, an older man’s and those of a very young girl. When the duet ends, the figures move offscreen. While the camera remains on the piano, we hear the man’s voice engaged in a very different lesson as he teaches his pupil how to gratify him sexually. Not until Ève confronts Jean directly, however, do we learn not only that he abused her as a child but that he is her father. Helpless against her fathomless intentions, Jean plays dumb even when Ève volunteers to babysit for him and his wife, Hélène (Nade Dieu), and decides to stay overnight. In the startling scene that ensues, Ève reenacts her childhood seduction, this time assuming the role of seducer. That it occurs in the parental bedroom in the presence of another oblivious mother suggests less the closing of a narrative circle than the irreparable corruption of Ève’s character. Afterward, before she leaves, she passes Hélène clinging to her baby as if to protect it and herself from the presence of evil. But if the long, silent stare between them implies that Ève is the destroyer of this false domestic paradise, the motherly protection Hélène embodies before she closes the door in Ève’s face is the very image of the paradise from which Ève herself was torn as a child. It is to Garcias’s credit that she allows these troubling, even contradictory connotations to resonate over the film’s final moments, including the final inscrutable image of Ève standing in the midst of a river facing the viewer.
Demoustier is a persuasive vessel of deranged innocence, recalling the young Isabelle Huppert in demeanor, looks (freckles and all), and the smile that hides a multitude of enigmatic feelings. It is because of these qualities that her scenes with the couple’s baby carry not only diabolical potential but hints of herself as a child before betrayal and corruption. Nothing is more heartrending and horrific than when she quietly asks her father whether little Ana, his new child, will also grow up to be destroyed as she was. In her directorial debut, Garcias demonstrates control and subtlety, sustaining a sense of muted horror that disturbs even as it sustains the surface of everyday reality. She even manages to evoke the biblical paradigm: Ève might well conjure the first woman driven from Paradise, while the serpent responsible for her fall survives to continue his devilry within the safe haven of the family nest.
Edward Yang, A Brighter Summer Day, 1991, still from a color film, 237 minutes.
“FILM COMMENT SELECTS,” now in its tenth year, seems conscious of its status as the New York Film Festival’s rebellious younger brother. This year, it opens with Jonathan Kaplan’s teens-gone-wild classic Over the Edge (1979) and includes a revival of another landmark film about adolescence, Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991).
Philippe Grandrieux’s Un Lac (2008) raises the use of shakycam to a high art (as if the technique needed the flattery): Rarely has handheld camerawork been so expressive. Shot in French with a cast of Russian actors, Un Lac depicts a close-knit family living in the middle of a snowy forest. One day, a mysterious stranger arrives and joins the household. Grandrieux’s first two films, Sombre (1998) and La Vie nouvelle (2002), weren’t exactly devoid of tenderness, but sexual violence was a constant threat. Here, love abides without such menace, although that doesn’t mean everyone lives happily ever after.
The slight narrative often seems like a pretext for exploring film’s capacity for depicting extremes of light and darkness. Un Lac alternates between blown-out whites and images so crepuscular they’re barely legible. It would probably be unwatchable on DVD. Grandrieux’s shots pulse with vitality. It’s a shame that the director has made only three films, all featured in this edition of “Film Comment Selects,” in twelve years.
Trailer for Soi Cheang’s Accident (2009).
The series’s Asian selections are a mixed bag. In Like You Know It All (2009), director Hong Sang-soo’s reliance on bifurcated plots about the misadventures of male artists at last seems to arrive at formulaic complacency. On the other hand, Soi Cheang’s Accident (2009) is a modern noir gem. Following a group of assassins who stage murders that look like accidents, it could pass for a work by Johnnie To (who produced it). Decorated with plumes of cigarette smoke and a constant downpour, it pushes Hawksian professionalism into a maelstrom of paranoia and mistrust. While it includes several thrilling set pieces, the narrative’s connective tissue is equally compelling.
The sole Middle Eastern entry in this series, Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains (2009), brings the Palestinian-Israeli director’s characteristic wit to the everyday slights suffered by Arabs under Israeli domination. After a present-day introduction, in which a cabdriver talks to a mute Suleiman while roaming the streets of Nazareth—the director’s hometown—the film returns to the 1948 founding of Israel. Although The Time That Remains employs some Suleiman trademarks—repetition, static shots in which an unmoving camera directly faces its subjects—it aims for an epic quality foreign to his earlier work. But the mixture of humor and anger never really gels and instead leads to a sense of weary resignation. Suleiman suggests that Israeli occupation has reduced Palestinians to silent observers of their own lives. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite do justice to his own family’s story.
“Film Comment Selects” runs February 19–March 4 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York. For more details, click here.
Jessica Hausner, Lourdes, 2009, still from a color digital video, 99 minutes. Christine (Sylvie Testud).
AS BEFITS A FILM both set in and titled after a city where five million hopeful pilgrims journey every year, Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes revolves around an act that seemingly partakes of the miraculous. When Christine (Sylvie Testud)—a young woman with multiple sclerosis whose searching gaze contrasts pointedly with her completely immobilized body—tours the eponymous town as part of a group of pilgrims, the heady atmosphere appears to do its work. Halfway through the film, she arises from her bed, apparently cured. But unlike other contemporary “miracle films” like Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (2007), the alleged marvel is attended by a certain ambiguity—as a doctor explains, the result could be only temporary, a part of her disease’s normal fluctuations—and by placing it in the middle of the film, Hausner makes it a starting point for inquiry rather than the closed-off, Ordet-derived payoff of the Reygadas.
Still, Lourdes conjures a world in which the miraculous seems nearly ordinary. Fixing her characters in static, almost-too-exact compositions, Hausner gives her mise-en-scène a hushed, peaceful quality, often deliberately shutting out background activity—the gossiping of fellow pilgrims, the flirting of volunteers—by muting sound and focusing the camera’s gaze intensely on the shot’s subject. When such an approach is enlivened by a repeated eye-of-God establishing shot, a way of filming even drab halogen lights with a heavenly glow, and the musical accompaniment of Ave Maria and Bach’s Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (the latter not coincidentally the theme from Tarkovsky’s Solaris), the result is a world thrown open to otherworldly possibility.
After the miracle, the focus shifts. As Christine imagines a potential future for herself, Hausner turns her attention to the needs and dissatisfactions of the film’s other characters: a priest who views Christine principally as an instructive example, the superfluous woman who used to push her wheelchair with proprietary satisfaction, and two skeptics who wonder why a seemingly secular woman is healed while other more pious pilgrims remain unaffected. In a final tour-de-force sequence, as Christine enjoys a tenuous postmiracle dance, the camera visits the other characters in turn, foregrounding their longings and frustrations as they brush up against the viewer’s gaze. The mysteries of life (which some call God) may remain unknowable, but in Hausner’s remarkable film, the needs and doubts of mankind are made all too clear.
Lourdes has its US theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York, February 17–March 2. For more details, click here.
Frederick Wiseman, Meat, 1976, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 112 minutes.
IT’S ACTUALLY A FULL HALF HOUR into Meat (1976) before the camera even reaches the hacking-and-packing floor of the Monfort meatpacking plant in Colorado. But that’s only one surprise in what is sometimes mistaken for the most brutally simple of Frederick Wiseman’s institutional documentaries. In fact, the run-up to the assembly-line centerpieces demonstrates the filmmaker’s overlooked creativity and versatility with his material. Just witness the western-echoing shots of ranchers silhouetted against the flaring sun, the almost pointillist extreme long shot of cattle heads in a sprawling pen, or the bizarre, estranging interlude of a Japanese tour group questioning a company guide. And before any aproned butchers, we see the plant’s salesroom, full of guys on telephones cajoling and mollifying clients. (“Maybe you got a cold,” one deadpans to a complaint about flavor.)
Part of MoMA’s yearlong Wiseman retrospective, Meat is programmed alongside his heartrending look at a battered-women’s shelter, Domestic Violence (2001), giving an astonishing summary of the director’s range. But when the cutting starts, Meat becomes the most linear of treatments—though it is no less rich for it. Once cows are bolt-gunned and hung on hooks, the process of flaying, slicing, and butchering unfolds in long, mesmerizing stretches. Thanks to the distanced stance, the transformation from cow to meat turns quickly from disturbing demo into a pure play of forms. The screen is populated with and emptied of bovine bodies; electric knives and clippers subtract skin, hooves, innards. The torsos, so uniform in black and white, glide by looking oddly like Venus de Milos, at one point even getting draped with classically contour-hugging coverings. In the flattening wash of the ambient industrial noise, it’s like some hybrid vision of the afterlife: heavenly floating bodies, hellishly disassembled, moving inexorably forward.
Though this all might suggest Nikolaus Geyrhalter (or Damien Hirst), Wiseman doesn’t press for an aesthetic; as for artistic dialogue, he’s very often his own interlocutor. Meat rhymes with his other animal films (Primate , Racetrack , Zoo ), his assembly-line narratives (Basic Training , Welfare ) and scenes (the fish factory of Belfast, Maine ), and even the desert long-shot photography in Sinai Field Mission (1978) and corporate-meeting eavesdropping in The Store (1983). And in perhaps the film’s greatest formal coup, Meat talks to Meat: After beef, the entire process is replayed—with sheep. Are we to be horrified, numbed, curiously comparative? For one thing, we meet one of Wiseman’s most notorious “characters”: the Judas goat, which leads sheep in orderly fashion into the plant (and which the filmmaker has described in interviews as looking rather pleased with himself . . .).
Wiseman allows for the expected dehumanization critique of factory labor, through iterative compositions of workers, the relentless movement of the line, and other echoes. But a union negotiation in a manager’s office is characteristically complex in its back and forth between craft and capital, and lecturing is banished by reserve and humor, as with a pitch meeting for a ludicrous “egg tube” reconstituted from at least a dozen yolks. For the final shot, one more western riff—instead of a rancher riding off into the final shot’s morning sun, it’s a big rig full of prime cuts.
Meat screens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Wednesday, February 17, and Sunday, February 21, as part of a complete Frederick Wiseman retrospective running through December 31. For more details, click here.
FREED FROM THE CONSTRAINTS of chronology—and emboldened by an enviable degree of access—October Country positions a real family squarely under the microscope and then ratchets up the magnification. Codirector Donal Mosher is the family member who long ago fled his rural suburban hometown in upstate New York, returning often to the ghosts of his past through his photography projects and nonfiction writing. Joining forces with filmmaker Michael Palmieri—best known for visuals in music videos for groups like the New Pornographers and the Strokes—Mosher heads home to reexamine his origins, on video. Recording the Mosher family over the span of a year, beginning and ending on Halloween night, October Country uses ghosts, curses, and hauntings as metaphors for a family trapped in a state of limbo, weighed down by the mistakes of the past.
Focusing less on the quotidian than on the emotional epiphanies of a year spent treading water, the directors capture the persistent anxiety of Mosher’s father, a cynical war veteran coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. In Mosher’s mother, we see a woman led astray by her misguided optimism, caught in a naive cycle of hope and disappointment. There is the estranged Wiccan aunt who spends her nights wandering cemeteries, looking for fulfillment in touching the supernatural, and a sister who jumps between abusive relationships, depressingly aware she is repeating her mistakes and putting her young children in danger.
Mosher has the access and the insight, but it is Palmieri’s visual flair that elevates October Country to an impressionistic, hypnotic spectacle. When Mosher’s sister says, “I’m still a kid, too; you can’t play Mommy if you’re not grown up yet,” it floats on the evening breeze; the filmmakers construct elaborate montages to suggest that the issues plaguing this family are poisoning the wider community. Talking-head interviews are sharply, didactically, juxtaposed with images of the family out and about: Mosher’s sister, who gripes about bad men, is subsequently shown on the job at a biker bar where she must flirt with the clientele. Mosher’s mom, who fears for her abused daughter, giggles at the sight of chipper teenage boys trick-or-treating as battered women. The directors see in this family a unit that’s been broken by its economic and social conditions, and Palmieri has helped his colleague make universal the specific miseries of one broken home.
October Country plays February 12–18 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.