William E. Jones’s Archaeological Americana

02/26/2010 11:01 AM |


Through March 4, Anthology spotlights the films of William E. Jones, beginning tonight at 8pm with Massillon, which screens again on Monday night.

Like other Jones films, Massillon, his debut doc-journal, plays as archaeological excavation and quintessential Americana. The images are mostly a series of Benning-like portraits of frontier suburbia, the skeletons of local life—swing sets, factories, and rows of houses—against mountains, forests, skies, matched by sounds of chirping birds and highway cars. The main soundtrack, as if exorcising the demons behind the repressive walls of the sunny visuals, is Jones recalling personal encounters growing up gay, not wanting to go to church, and middle-school wrestling matches, then discussing the etymology of gay legal terms: these are rendered in the guileless American vernacular of high school hallways and dairies and Paterson that is as clear in intent as it is beguiled by reason. Jones can sound like Encyclopedia Brown documenting his own sex life; his cold, protective pose, in image and voice, is always of a mock-scientist, trying to treat his material as dead because it’s not: the accumulation of snapshots has its own mystery in montage and its own weight in personal history as social history—and social history as personal history. A ground-level portrait of American infrastructure leading to and from John Gianvito and Matthew Porterfield—memories, images and words, play the essential architecture—the place it captures with precision is as much Massillon the city as the mindset; Massillon ends by restaging the beginning, many years later, but with a wealth of new connotations: nothing’s been exorcised, but Jones, like the film, ends with some comprehension of how he got to where he started.