Unorthodox queer milestone revived at MoMA
Over Pride weekend MoMA includes in its CalArts film survey two screenings of William E. Jones’ nonfiction feature “Massillon” (1991). Unseen in New York since the 1993 Whitney Biennial, “Massillon” is a crucial, misprized landmark of the New Queer Cinema.
Looking back at that early ‘90s groundswell, against the pluriform fantasia of “Poison,” the arch pastiche of “Swoon,” and the fulsome cabaret of “Paris Is Burning” among other American exemplars, Jones’ minimalism now seems the most dandified of all. Composed almost entirely from exterior shots and voiceover narration, Jones structures his semi-autobiographical essay in three movements entitled “Ohio,” “The Law,” and “California.”
Opening with pocked home-movie footage of Niagara Falls and the Washington D.C. mall shot by his father, Jones evokes his childhood in the rust belt Ohio city of Massillon through carefully framed still tableaux of charred factories, railroad trestles, gravel yards, mossy turnpikes, and faded commercial signage. The procession of painterly 16mm landscapes counterpoints Jones’ anecdotes voiced in his signature even cadence.
Concerned with governmentality, Jones lingers on his hometown’s indigenous institutions—the public library, the Thomas Edison Junior High School, and the Canton Baptist Temple. The Joneses brought young William to their mega-church, where tykes absorbed the gospel in Sunday school while grownups overflowed the nave. A Lebanese-American neighborhood kid gives Jones a postage stamp from his homeland as proof that “such an old place could actually exist,” which he saves in a stash of bibelots more precious to him than any scripture.
The irony sharpens as Jones’ episodes grow increasingly sexual, with a classroom sex-ed lesson hijacked by two wiseacres, and a former best friend, a football player who breaks into an anti-gay rant one day, then withdraws after Jones takes offense. He shares this with another pal, who asks him what he saw in the jock. “I really couldn’t say,” he bluffs. A gym class wrestling match turns brutal when Jones’ opponent has a ’phobic panic. While pinned, he dissociates, “all I could hear was the girls’ trampoline practice across the room,” but snaps back when the hun murmurs, “I’m gonna fucking kill you.”
Jones’ temperamental reserve could at first glance be misread as froideur, but his unhurried editing rhythms and near monotone have the effect of infusing the smallest modulations with drama. He rakes the embers by recalling a visit to a notorious highway rest stop, later demolished, where he forfeits his anal virginity. A friend tells him of the Supreme Court’s 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision recriminalizing sodomy, but the only local coverage Jones can find of the ruling is a radio preacher’s sermon preserved on audiotape. The end of part one is signaled by the film’s first traveling shot, a parkway seen from a moving car as an excerpt of the broadcast plays on the soundtrack.
“There has been a revolution in the executive branch and a revolution is going on in the judiciary,” the evangelist says of the late President Ronald Reagan’s arrogation of democratic institutions to the Christian neocon agenda. “We still need to pray mightily for the legislative branch.” This unnerving fossil incidentally resituates today’s Republican hegemony within the long arc of the post-Goldwater backlash.
Part two, “The Law,” forms a wry interlude as Jones wings from Massachusetts to Michigan to Montana, shooting the capitol buildings of states that kept sodomy statutes prior to their nullification by the Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision. Training his camera on the porticoes and cupolas in a way that would probably land you in a CIA black site today, Jones quotes from the states’ divergent definitions of sodomy. South Carolina forbade “buggery,” Rhode Island found it “detestable,” and the District of Columbia condemned “sexual psychopaths.”
“California,” the film’s concluding segment, broadens the conceptual ambit to nothing less than a philology of homosexuality—citing the term’s mid-19th century coinage in the junction between scientific positivism and revivalist moral crusades—and its prohibitions. Reverting to the static tableaux of “Ohio,” Jones frames half-built developments in cloudy arroyo landscapes, skeletal tract houses, snapping pennants, concrete viaducts, and blacktop ribbons tapering to desert as he limns Plato and the Catholic Inquisition.
“Massillon” finally loops back to Niagara, with Jones’ 16mm footage replicating his father’s Super-8 souvenirs. The camera traces the rim of the cataract, where the river’s dark mass splits sharply into turquoise foam. It’s as difficult not to imagine the vessel of our nation rushing heedlessly toward such a precipice under the current regime, as it’s impossible not to relish the wit, ferocity, and seductions of Jones’ major work to date.