16mm film transferred to video, color, silent, 56 minutes, 1962/2007
Tearoom consists of footage shot by the police in the course of a crackdown on public sex in the American Midwest. In the summer of 1962, the Mansfield, Ohio Police Department photographed men in a restroom under the main square of the city. The cameramen hid in a closet and watched the clandestine activities through a two-way mirror. The film they shot was used in court as evidence against the defendants, all of whom were found guilty of sodomy, which at that time carried a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in the state penitentiary. The original surveillance footage shot by the police came into the possession of director William E. Jones while he was researching this case for a documentary project. The unedited scenes of ordinary men of various races and classes meeting to have sex were so powerful that the director decided to present the footage with a minimum of intervention. Tearoom is a radical example of film presented “as found” for the purpose of circulating historical images that have otherwise been suppressed.
The book Tearoom, published by 2nd Cannons, contains many historical texts relating to the Mansfield cases, as well as over 100 frame enlargements from the video. [Note: The first edition of the book has gone out of print; a second edition is now available.]
2008 Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente de Buenos Aires, Argentina; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; InDPanda International Short Film Festival, Hong Kong; Eyedrum, Atlanta; White Light Cinema, Chicago; Cinémathèque française, Paris; Filmforum, Los Angeles; Outfest, Los Angeles; Pornfilmfestival, Berlin; Mix Brasil, São Paulo; Smell It!, Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna, Austria; ar/ge kunst Galleria Museo, Bolzano, Italy; Anthology Film Archives, New York
At right: Whitney Museum warning label... only for me in the 2008 Biennial.
REVIEWS AND INTERVIEWS
Schwärzler, Dietmar, “More Than One Way to Watch a Movie!” in Smell It! (Vienna: Kunsthalle Exnergasse, 2009) pp. 74-79.
Dietmar Schwärzler: I would like to start with a general question. In most of your films, you are working with omissions, e. g., in FINISHED (1997), you made a portrait of the gay porn star Alan Lambert without using any pornographic images. In IS IT REALLY SO STRANGE? (2004) you decided to do a film about the Latino fan culture that idolizes the musician Morrissey, but you didn’t use any of his songs until the end. In V. O. (2006), you used found footage of gay porn, but focused on scenes where no sex happens. Could you say a little bit about your working technique of keeping things away?
William E. Jones: By avoiding the obvious, by withholding something that seems crucial, I open up a space. The films are a little bit more available for people to have their own ideas and their own fantasies. Of course, this method leaves some spectators dissatisfied, but others do enjoy filling things up with their own desires.
It also has the effect of making things more visible…
Generally, when you watch narrative films in a conventional style, everything you need to know is available in the film. If the spectator ever asks simple questions like “why I am seeing this?” or “where are we?” the film has failed in some way. I have always been interested in films that don’t have this sense of completeness, which I think is really a false sense. A spectator has to bring something to a film, and the more the spectator knows, the better the film gets. But it also means that a spectator has to be a bit more active in understanding what he or she has seen. I like having a different sort of relationship to the spectator. I am not one of those directors who likes to play the audience like an orchestra. I think the film going experience gets more interesting when the audience is divided; when multiple readings can take place. If people come to my film and everybody agrees, I am not satisfied with that.
Your current film TEAROOM (2008) is more or less a readymade. The footage, used as evidence supporting sodomy charges, shows sexual interactions between men in a public restroom in Ohio and was shot by a hidden camera as part of a 1962 police sting. You changed only very few things. Could you describe where you found it and how you changed it?
I was working on my video MANSFIELD 1962 at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio and at the same time I had been researching these cases in the archives. I had seen a bit of footage on the internet, and I thought there was more footage somewhere, but I was not sure. Someone at the Wexner Center gave me an email address for the filmmaker Bret Wood, who got the footage from a former Mansfield Chief of Police, who had been keeping it in his garage for many years. I wrote to Wood, and within a few days he sent me a copy of the footage. I watched it immediately, and it was really incredible. I knew in a general sense what the footage would be, but I had no idea what it would look like. First of all I saw it was in beautiful color. It also had a sort of eccentric quality to its filmmaking. There was all this stuttering, these little takes and repetitions. They looked almost like artistic gestures, but they were not. At least they were not intended as such. The images of all these men meeting and having sex had a great sense of pathos, because I knew that these men had been prosecuted and sent to jail. The whole experience was really overwhelming. I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to do much to the footage anyway, but I did attempt to put the footage into some form that looked like art. I made a version like that, and it was simply too much; the aesthetic decisions I made seemed arbitrary. I also thought about contextualizing the footage with titles, giving a little bit of extra information, but I never managed to do anything that was convincing, until the last version, in which I changed almost nothing. There are just opening and closing titles, and I moved the last reel – establishing footage that shows the space of the restroom – to the beginning.
Although – or because ? – it’s footage of the aggressor, it’s in a way sexy, also sexy for the eyes and the brain. What was your main approach towards the footage?
The authority figures who arranged this surveillance operation, who later sent the men to jail, and who controlled what this footage meant for society had an agenda, mainly the eradication of homosexuality from their fair city. My goal was to appropriate their film as something other than a pure instrument of domination, to make the film be about the men who are its subjects. I hope people can see more than oppression in TEAROOM.
The camera wasn’t installed unmanned. There were two cameramen, Bill Spognardi and Dick Burton, names that sound to me like names of porn stars. Do you know something about these two men?
I know very little, except that Spognardi was the main cameraman, and Burton was his assistant. From the way the camera moves, one can surmise certain things, e. g., that some subjects interested the police more than others. “Interest” is a funny word. The police are interested in a person suspected of a crime; a cameraman is interested in men having sex. There is no photography without desire. This may be simply a desire to know, but rarely is this desire innocent. TEAROOM’s spectators understand this immediately. During screenings, there are many laughs when an attractive man enters the restroom, and the camera begins to move frenetically. Were the police cameramen gay? Not in any sense we would relate to. As I mention in my essay on the cases, I think that in the Mansfield, Ohio of 1962, only a straight man could allow himself to be involved in the outrageously perverse scenario of waiting in a closet unseen in the hope of seeing other men masturbate and have sex.
How long did they shoot?
They shot over three weeks during July and August, 1962.
In TEAROOM it’s also possible to see the old idea about cruising as form of connection and communication and how sex happens between different classes, ages and races, which I thought is amazing. In 1962, The March on Washington was just in preparation and it was only eight years after desegregation. It was far from common to see a black man fucking a white man. The porn movie BOYS IN THE SAND (1971) by Wakefield Poole, which features one sex scene between a black and a white man, started a huge discussion around that topic 10 years later…
Michel Foucault was writing in his book about friendship that it’s not the sex between men which is confusing or dangerous for the society, it’s the things which might come out of it: networks, friendships, groups for action... Can you relate TEAROOM in any way to these thoughts?
From the tone of the articles I get the sense that what really disturbed people was the mixing of different social classes and races, the notion that men could form bonds outside the models of marriage and conventional home life, the ideological state apparatus, if you will. It’s important not to assume too much about the footage, though, because most of the men we see in the film would probably not consider themselves gay. Many of them were married, some of them had children.
That seems to be an unimportant part of it. It doesn’t matter if they are gay or not…
I know, but people bring assumptions to the footage. One of the reasons the footage is presented in its entirety and silent is that people can in some small way empty their minds of their assumptions. You know, the footage had previously been presented in public: in court and in a movie that was used to instruct police forces. In these contexts the audience was told at every moment what to think of the footage. A prosecutor or a narrator told them who these people were and what acts they engaged in. I thought it would be really interesting to see how the footage worked without any commentary. In screenings I provide minimal context and then answer questions afterwards. I do not impose a reading upon the material in advance. That in itself is potentially liberating. Conceptually or philosophically this is an interesting position. How little can I do to the material to make it into something that provokes people, gives occasion for thought or gives pleasure.
You also made a book of TEAROOM, which accompanies the film when it is exhibited. What’s in the book?
I wrote a couple of essays for the book. I deal with the original footage, and I included the email correspondence with the man who gave me the footage. I have collected all the contemporary articles dealing with these cases I could find. Everything I knew about the cases I put into the book. My original intention was to show TEAROOM only when I was present to talk about it, so the people could ask me questions afterwards. But then TEAROOM was chosen for the Whitney Biennial in 2008, and it showed every day for three months at the Whitney Museum in New York. I live in Los Angeles, so I couldn’t be in New York every day to talk about the footage. I wondered what could be a surrogate for me, and I decided to do a book. Actually it was a great experience. I had never done a book before. I did everything – the editing of the texts, the design – and in two months I put a book together.
What were the reactions at the screenings? On your homepage, where you have described some of them, I got the impression that the discussions mainly arose around singular cases. Hardly anybody was talking about the aesthetics of the material or the socio-political and cultural aspects.
Some audiences are very angry when they see the footage, and I try to deal with these situations as calmly as possible. They are angry at having to confront such blunt images of oppression. Other audiences are very polite and seem to appreciate the footage. It’s really a broad spectrum of reactions. Recently I had two screenings in Los Angeles. The first one was a shouting match. One person was extremely angry and was shouting people down. He was blaming me, saying how horrible it is expose the public to this footage and to invade the privacy of these men who had been under surveillance. Unfortunately, he was just shouting and left no space for discussion.
So it doesn’t make a difference if the screenings take place in a big city or a small town?
I don’t know. The second screening in Los Angeles at Outfest was completely different. Many people in the audience knew the historical dimension of showing this footage; let’s say they knew the value of gay history. Of course, the controversial screenings are more memorable.
I have been to two screenings at the Whitney Museum, and I had the feeling the audience really enjoyed the footage. There was some laughter, and actually I had to laugh myself…
I can’t tell where the laughter comes from sometimes, and it disturbs me a little bit. Maybe some people are feeling discomfort.
I don’t know, although that’s probably part of it. For me the footage has some really funny and, as I mentioned, very sexy parts as well. Sometimes the sex reminds me of a dance. For me that’s also a special quality, to see “performances” of sex like that…
When you say “performing sex,” it brings up a very important point. After screenings of TEAROOM – and sometimes people get angry about this – I say that this is what gay sex looked like before porn. Now men look at porn and figure out how to fuck. In many cases, though obviously not in every case, they see porn before they actually start fucking. The way they talk, the way they look – it’s all affected by what they see in porn. These model images that we take for granted were not available to many men in 1962! TEAROOM is a representation of pre-porn gay sex, and in Mansfield, pre-gay bar sex, and for me that’s completely fascinating.
TEAROOM is also your first film where the spectator sees sex, although you have been working a lot with historical gay porn footage.
It was important that I did a work in which one actually sees sex, but I also feel something has come to an end. It’s now time to do other things.
But you are now working on the porn legend Fred Halsted...
That will be a book and not a movie, which is something quite different. The movies after TEAROOM are not the same. I just finished two of them, and we’ll see...
What can we expect?
No sex ... (laughter)!
That would not be that different from the other ones.
One of the things that interests me now is trying to make work that is not specifically gay. When I began my career, the gay and lesbian film festival circuit was an important venue for showing works of aesthetic merit that had no distribution in the U. S. This circuit has become about something else, and in the United States, it’s now a question of exposing the public to a movie before it gets released on DVD. The movie is often a social issue documentary or a fiction film, in many cases a romantic comedy. This is of no particular interest to me. It has become more a question of the market than of the community, and cinephilia rarely enters into it. When I say that I am gay or I make works that “look gay,” people get ideas about me, and I find I can function in one context and maybe not in others. I refuse to accept this, and I don’t want to be limited by it. I am much more interested in the boundaries between scenes or between institutions than I am in fulfilling institutional requirements. Of course, there are some programmers who are doing a very good job, and there are some festivals like MIX that are really unconventional, so I can’t really condemn everyone. It’s very important not to be stuck in one set of conventions, but to try to reach other people and to try to insinuate oneself into other contexts. I have also changed my working method. It has become more of an art practice than a film practice, because I am making shorter works, and I am making them at shorter intervals.
Does TEAROOM work for you more as an installation in a gallery, where you can also display your book, or is it a film for a movie theater?
The answer to that question is given to me by the world. I can’t impose too much upon the work…
You can have a preference.
I could, but I don’t know if it matters. You know, I am not that kind of artist. My priority is reaching an audience, so TEAROOM can be either an installation or a theatrical screening. Theatrical screenings are exciting, because I have contact with the audience, but on the other hand, installations are very good because the spectators are more free.
As far as I know, you only work with historical material in your films, looking for unexamined historical content. Is there any current porn that you find interesting?
Not really, to be honest. There is a big transition that’s going on. At the beginning of commercial gay porno, there were gay directors who wanted to make movies, and they couldn’t make them in the mainstream film industry. One possibility was to make an avant-garde film, but if a filmmaker was interested in sex, he’d make a porno. Fred Halsted is special because he attempted to do both at once. Today there is a whole different set of questions. Porno has become professionalized, and people get into the industry with the sole intention making pornos. Another more important change has occurred. Pornography doesn’t look like movies anymore. Pay-per-view on the internet has taken over. The visual qualities of this material are relatively uninteresting, and there are rarely narratives of any substance. The actors also give very different kinds of performances. Internet porn is interesting from a sociological point of view, maybe also as a passage in the history of capitalism. As art, it doesn’t do that much for me. But then, all of this may change. There may be great internet porn in the making. I can say with certainty that the era of porn as a film embodied in a discrete object like a DVD is coming to an end, just as porn as a theatrical experience did.
In an abstract way TEAROOM reminded me of the aesthetic wise of home-sex-movies. You can find thousands of them on the internet. A lot of them pretend to use “hidden cameras,” but often the focus is on the genitalia. In TEAROOM that’s not the case at all. The cameramen never zoom!
They can’t. If they had made close ups, they would have to revealed their identities and the whole operation would have been spoiled. (laughter) It was also before zoom lenses were available.
In your biography you write that you work in the adult video industry under the name Hudson Wilcox. What idea lies behind that alias?
There is no biography of Hudson Wilcox (laughs). The hustler strip or “meat rack” represented in L. A. PLAYS ITSELF by Fred Halsted was along Selma Avenue in Hollywood. In Los Angeles in the early 1970s, if you wanted to pick up a male hustler, you went to Selma between Hudson Avenue and Wilcox Street. The name is a reminder of something from the past, and it also relates to Rock Hudson.
What is your job in the industry?
Actually I just lost my job a couple of days ago. I produced budget DVD compilations of old gay porno from the archives, separate scenes combined in a four-hour DVDs sold for 10 dollars in adult video stores. When DVDs became less profitable, Larry Flynt, my boss, discontinued the line I was producing. The label was called Tool Factory, and I produced 180 titles for it. Now I am an unemployed porn producer.
Jim Supanick, “Last Year at Mansfield: William E. Jones’s Tearoom,” Film International, issue 37, pp. 12-15.
“In this sealed, stifling world, men and things alike seem victims of some spell, as in the kind of dreams where one feels guided by some fatal inevitability, where it would be as futile as to try to change the slightest detail as to run away”; so wrote Alain Robbe-Grillet in the introduction to Last Year at Marienbad’s published script.
Shortly after that film’s U.S. release, another tale of “fatal inevitability” was committed to film, one to which Robbe-Grillet’s statement just as readily applied, and it achieved—if wholly by accident—similarly disorienting effects. For filmmaker William E. Jones, the chance discovery of that film was a revelation. Produced by the Mansfield Police Department and later premiering in an Ohio courtroom, it was the result of a three-week stakeout of a public restroom there during the summer of 1962, leading to the conviction of some 38 men (many others were filmed, but eluded positive identification) arrested on charges of sodomy. After its first run as trial evidence, the footage found second life as an instructional film that circulated within the law enforcement community under the title of Camera Surveillance.
After obtaining a visually degraded black-and-white version of the footage, Jones produced a video called Mansfield 1962, reedited from that material and stripped of its voiceover; dissatisfied with reception of this initial work, he sought out the 16mm color camera original to craft a new video more in keeping with his vision. Just as fortuitously, found a high quality digital transfer from extant material first shown in the courtroom, and from that came Tearoom.
Not so much made as reclaimed, Tearoom has been referred to by Jones himself as a “found object”; based on the reticence of townspeople he tried to interview, we might assume that many there would prefer it remain lost. Mansfield is just an hour’s drive from Jones’s hometown of Massillon, and the fact that the sting operation occurred so close to home just months before he was born has led him to wonder whether it “left a mark on my upbringing and cast a pall on what there was of gay life in the region.” Having grown up at the same time in a town quite close to Massillon, I would go a step further and say that the arrests were just a portent, the first in a series of shockwaves to shake an area whose bedrock values of the straight and narrow were conflated with health, happiness, and prosperity. Nowhere did homosexuality factor into the equation, so is it any wonder then that the restroom in question was located below a public park, literally underground?
In his first and best-known film, Massillon, Jones recounted with explicit detail his own sexual initiation in the men’s room of a highway rest stop, along with the pain of growing up gay in an Ohio town where denial—if not outright silence—ruled the day. While its citizens lived the devastating consequences of its collapsing industrial base throughout the 70s and 80s, many immersed themselves in the comforting distraction offered by the perennial championship contention of their beloved high school football team. From the very start, Massillon launched a deadpan counteroffensive that defined the work to follow. With his exhaustive research into sodomy laws’ historical origins, Jones would return again to a concern for the ways in which state and institutional powers police sexuality. Were that his only concern, the work would have been unremittingly grim; striking out against hopelessness, he developed a poetics of the scorned and discarded, discovering moments of redemption within the cultural interstices of forgotten porn stars, Smiths tribute bands, and architecture and signage of the southern California vernacular.
With Tearoom, Jones assembled a publication to accompany the video’s inclusion in the 2008 Whitney Biennial in which, along with his own essays, he has drawn on law enforcement journals, local newspapers, and the writings of others connected to the case. While providing an exhaustive social and legal context and much-needed backstory to the work, Jones made a bold gesture by keeping the materials separate, implicitly questioning whether such highly charged images might be looked at (if only for a moment) without further explanation, without so much as a soundtrack. Eschewing the more conventional strategies of treating footage as subordinate visual evidence within a standard voiced-over form, he also, by extension, asks more fundamental questions about how seeing and knowing might exist independent of one another.
Jones also avoids a simple tit-for-tat with Camera Surveillance, which he described to be, “as illiterate and hateful a text as I have ever heard committed to film…”, and which insisted on a direct causal link between these restroom liaisons and the horrible sex murders of two young girls earlier that year. The teenage boy who was later apprehended mentioned the restroom action while confessing to his crimes, so law enforcement officials, untroubled by their faulty assumptions, sought ready scapegoats amidst the sexual adventurers below Mansfield’s Central Park. Video surveillance, however ubiquitous now, was still technically several years away, and the cost of film prohibitive. Stepping in as “concerned citizens”, a Mansfield-based organization named the Highway Safety Foundation (whose shadowy history is documented in Bret Wood’s Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films) lent a 16mm camera and donated film stock to the Police Department’s sting operation.
As in any other film, “blocking” and “art direction” had to be taken into account. Some measures were simple, like installing brighter bulbs and painting walls a lighter grey to heighten visibility of potential subjects within the dank, windowless interior. More complex, though, was the question of the material’s admissibility as legal evidence, and for this, the camera positioning had to capture activity in the “common area” but still obscure the “private” zones within the doorless toilet stalls. Above all else, camera concealment was crucial; this was made possible through a tricked-out paper towel dispenser complete with two-way mirror, mounted on a door behind which a policeman with camera could hide (repeatedly, under certain lighting conditions, a faint reflection can be detected of the cameraman himself superimposed upon the action being filmed.) All this is neatly demonstrated in Tearoom’s opening sequence (the scene originally appeared at the end of Camera Surveillance, and is the only resequencing made to that film), clearly intended in both instances as visual explication, but also doubling in Jones’s video as a conscious link to other self-reflexive moments of “full disclosure” throughout the history of film, seen in Man with a Movie Camera, Koko the Clown, Hellzapoppin’, Tout va bien.
Even with the Highway Safety Foundation’s assistance, police were parsimonious, shooting just a single 100-foot roll per day; the sheer expense of 16mm stock and processing was apparently a greater cost factor than having policemen stationed there full time to monitor activity and film incriminating behavior. Consequently, the shots themselves are fleeting, and bear the constant mark of human facture. Unlike contemporary motion-activated or time-lapse surveillance systems, choices had to be made to shoot at certain times and to stop at others. Movement itself is idiosyncratic, perhaps revealing of unconscious desires; this is most apparent when, in the midst of one encounter, a rapid head-to-toe camera tilt is repeated that, while surely involuntary, suggests an erotic identification with the scene unfolding before us.
What stands as editing was done in-camera, the only assembly being the joining of “daily rushes” to the preceding day’s in succession, separated by a second or two of clear leader. That, along with the subjects’ movements and partial concealment, created a whole range of peculiar effects resulting from the inevitable narrative gaps, and no way to track their duration. Are we witnessing feats of priapic endurance and nearly instant regeneration? Is it a few short minutes, or several days before certain men return again? It’s difficult (though not always impossible) to determine these things, but at times we’re just as lost—given such minimal cues—as we might be wandering Marienbad’s baroque corridors. The video alone raises more questions than it answers; the men are, to return to the words of Robbe-Grillet, “…characters who had no past, no links among themselves except those they created by their own gestures and voices, their own presence, their own imagination.”
It’s clear that these two works are different in ways too numerous to list here; what’s striking, though, is the way in which Robbe-Grillet’s insistence on “characters who had no past, no links among themselves…” aligns with the strategy taken in the gathering and assembly of footage that later became Tearoom. The spatial confinement not only served its singular purpose as criminal evidence, but it also prevented jurors from perceiving its subjects—one after the other—as anything else than deviant sexual beings.
Both works utilize radical form (whether consciously crafted or not) in depicting desire in a state of suspension; with Tearoom, this statement may seem absurd, but only if we identify the term “desire” with the sex act itself. Nothing “suspended” there; on the contrary, sex is had in all its varieties (unlike in other works of Jones’s, where the act is never shown.) Instead desire, at least as I see it, resides more truly in the longing to live the same life outside that restroom as the one lived inside.
The faces and body language of Tearoom spell danger, a desire overshadowed by fear; unable to lose themselves in the moment, their eyes are fixed on a door never shown, but whose presence we cannot help but feel. One would be hard-put to name another instance where offscreen space contains such unbearable tension, charged as it is with the constant threat of discovery. We are light-years away from later same-sex encounters described in Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, or the writings of David Wojnarowicz; while by no means free of danger, these later accounts of the piers, movie houses, and clubs these writers frequented begin to coalesce, by comparison, as spaces of community and relative safety.
Fashion’s claim to serious cultural significance—too often laughable—gains traction with Jones’s video, and if Scorpio Rising—shot by Kenneth Anger that very same summer—gave us “Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans”, Tearoom is striking for the handjobs, blowjobs, stand-up intercourse, and reacharounds performed awkwardly by men whose most remarkable quality is their plainness. A humble procession of Sears high-waisted slacks, BanLon shirts, summer hats, and cigarettes dangling from lips, there is no trace whatsoever of a familiar gay iconography—one older man, in fact, bears a striking resemblance to Woody Hayes. If particular details of dress within these respective tribes are of interest today, it is how they may or may not have (and to what degree) broadcast difference to the rest of society. What self does one present outside that door? Flaming creature, unafraid of consequences? Lost in self-hatred, fearful of discovery? Plumage, camouflage, or something in between? In Mansfield, as in most other places, the decade ahead would offer discretion as the only viable option.
The 38 men convicted of sodomy found themselves ensnared by the state’s Ascherman Act, which ordered all felons deemed a danger to society to be institutionalized for a potentially indefinite period; all were required to serve the minimum sentence, even those judged by medical professionals to be “cured” prior to that time. Treatment then involved a number of now-discredited methods, including electroshock and various other aversion therapy techniques, and drugs with known severe side effects. It wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association struck homosexuality from its list of mental disorders; until that moment, the psychiatric profession had essentially lent its tacit endorsement to these laws and practices.
After the arrests, the restroom below Mansfield’s Central Park was closed to the public and, in a gesture more superstitious than practical, filled in with dirt. Artist Robert Smithson, who himself was toying with homo-fantastical imagery in a series of drawings at this time (quite likely inspired by Anger’s films), might have appreciated this architectural interment for how it anticipated his own Partially Buried Woodshed (1970) at nearby Kent State University, as well as his proposal that same year for an underground screening room adjacent to his Spiral Jetty.
The Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, where a number of the those convicted were incarcerated, is now closed; in recent years it has served as both a museum and as a scenic location for projects like The Shawshank Redemption and a Marilyn Manson fashion spread for Details magazine. In fundraising efforts to restore the prison to its “original state”, there are also overnight “ghost hunts” held where, for a $50 fee, visitors go to witness and document evidence of the prison’s spirit inhabitants. It’s intriguing to imagine—in the spirit of Robert Smithson and in advancement of its Preservation Society’s educational mission—a screening of Tearoom inside the abandoned confines of the Reformatory as acknowledgment of an event that helped haunt it. For the moment, though, we’ll have to make do with ostensibly neutral venues like the Whitney.
To their curators’ credit, daily screenings were arranged there for each work, unlike in Biennials past; regardless, film and video too often suffer within gallery settings when treated as an installation but not intended as one. A constant annoyance in viewing work from beginning to end are the casual drifters-through; Tearoom, however, was an interesting exception to this, its lack of conventional narrative or formal development allowing one to consider in situ the doubling that takes place between, on the one hand, the voyeuristic nature inherent to its production, and the parallel (but by no means identical) dynamic there amongst the viewing audience. My own attention—echoing the men onscreen—was divided between onscreen action and the comings and goings of viewers at the room’s periphery. This effect was surely unintentional, but nevertheless intensified by the number of children accompanied by parents wandering in (despite signs at the entrance warning of explicit sexual content), and then startled by the images onscreen.
The power of Tearoom, though, is not simply intrinsic to the material, the result of narrative intrigue, or in the radicality of how Jones (and the Mansfield police) had disrupted the basic terms of spectatorship and identification laid out by Metz, Baudry, Mulvey, et al, years before. It lies instead somewhere in the tensions between those elements, effected by a few simple gestures away from functioning as the weapon it was originally intended to be.
Stuart Comer, “Best of 2008: Film,” Artforum, December 2008, p. 63.
Tearoom (William E. Jones)
Jones’s study of community and control – included in this year’s Whitney Biennial – is an impressive act of appropriation, presenting found police footage from the early ’60s of sexual interactions between men in an Ohio public restroom.
Christy Lange, “Editors’ Blog: In the Tearoom … Not Really What I Expected,” frieze.com, October 27, 2008.
This weekend I attended a screening as part of a film festival I didn’t previously know existed: the 3rd PornfilmfestivalBerlin (that’s all one word, because, you know, the Germans). Encouraged by my friend Devin, I made my way with some trepidation into the darkened back entrance of the Eiszeit theatre to see William E. Jones’s Tearoom (1962/2007), a film that Devin matter-of-factly described as ‘surveillance camera footage of men having gay sex in a public bathroom.’ How could I resist.
But Tearoom makes for much more than a titillating anecdote. The film, recently included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, is disturbing and unsatisfying on multiple levels, even more so than the average porn. The 56-minute film consists only of scratchy, brief clips of found footage of men disappearing behind the bluish gray walls of toilet stalls in an underground public toilet in Mansfield, Ohio, to, presumably, engage in sexual acts. It’s comprised entirely of archival footage taken by the Mansfield Police Department in 1962 as part of a surveillance operation to collect evidence of men having homosexual sex in public in order to convict them of sodomy.
The men caught on film are uniformly dressed in short-sleeve white shirts, skinny ties and hats. Because they were only filmed a few seconds at a time, we rarely see them coming or going, but usually in mid-stream: zipping or unzipping their trousers, disappearing into the stalls, a brief shuffling of feet visible underneath. Only occasionally does the footage become explicit or actually capture two men ‘in action’. Usually we only see one side of the exchange. Particularly stuck in my memory is a gray haired balding man who pulls his trousers halfway down and then enters the stall backwards, wiggling a bit in order to find the right position, then backing up further, a look of concentration on his face that suggests he’s trying to insert a suppository, and he might as well be – as we never see who or what is behind him.
The men are of all ages, sizes and even races. Some of them wear sunglasses and several have cigarettes dangling from their mouths while they determinedly prepare themselves for intercourse. The film has no soundtrack, so the theatre remained uncomfortably quiet throughout. For the first ten minutes or so, I could hear the soundtrack of another film leaking from the theatre next door – so the deadpan footage was accompanied by the sounds of an incredibly dramatic and prolonged female orgasm. A few minutes later, the greasy-faced teenager sitting next to me, who was attending the sitting alone and had placed himself in the back row, pulled a jumbo-sized cardboard carton of juice from his backpack and proceeded to take long swigs from it, so that I could hear every detail of his lips sucking on the nozzle of the carton, and then the juice traveling through his digestive track. The audience seemed remarkably patient, though, even after it became clear after the first few minutes that there would be no money shots, not even so much as a glimpse at any specific mechanics of gay sex. In terms of the requirements of conventional porn, the film is about as sexually exciting as Catherine Millet’s excruciatingly detailed and mechanical descriptions of her sexual escapades in her 2002 ‘autobiography’ The Sexual Life of Catherine M. This is as unsexy and matter-of-fact as porn can be.
The footage in Tearoom, as the filmmaker revealed in a question-and-answer session after the screening, is the complete existing record of a sting operation in which the police installed a two-way mirror in the toilet and a small compartment behind it to hide the camera. But this was no robotic camera – as the first few seconds of the film reveal (which document the construction of the false wall) a member of the police department was operating the camera at all times, standing behind the fake mirror and deciding what to film and how, and for how long. He was, essentially, making a gay porn. Except that the footage was instrumental in putting more than 30 of the 70 men filmed in prison for up to one year each. Others were likely ‘institutionalized’. Jones’s conceptual project was to show the record of the surveillance in chronological order in its entirety – his only editorial decision was to reveal the details of the police’s sting set-up in the first few moments of the film, rather than at the end.
Though some audience members questioned whether this might be a violation of the privacy of those on the film, Jones maintained that it was more important to show the violations of privacy performed by the police themselves. He sees the toilet (which was later demolished) as a kind of underground utopia of 1960s Middle America: here was a place where gay men, black and white, could freely have contact – something which would have been impossible in any other place in Mansfield – a town which, 45 years later, still doesn’t have a single gay bar.
Chris Chang, “In Flagrante Delicto: William E. Jones collaborates with the police in Tearoom,” Film Comment, vol. 44, no. 4 (July/August 2008) p. 17.
In the August 22, 1962, edition of the Mansfield News-Journal, an unsettling headline appeared: HIDDEN MOVIE CAMERA USED BY POLICE TO TRAP SEXUAL DEVIATES AT PARK HANGOUT, 17 ARRESTS CLIMAX PROBE. According to the article, the bust came at the conclusion of “one of the most spectacular investigations of homosexual depravity ever undertaken.” The scene of the crime was a seemingly nondescript public lavatory in a Mansfield, Ohio, park. This particular location, however, distinguished itself in two ways: (1) it was a routine meeting place for anonymous gay sex, and (2) it had been modified by the addition of a peephole, a one-way mirror, and a 16mm camera manned by a police officer. As the News-Journal reporter phrased it, with breathless eyes-on-the-prize enthusiasm: “The things which some of these men did cannot be printed.” But the irony, of course, is that they could be filmed. When the subjects were confronted, arrested, and subsequently told they had been literally caught in the act, the news no doubt came as a shock. It would most likely be an even greater blow were they to learn that over four decades later, their so-called acts of depravity would once again be under scrutiny. This time around they were observed, not by officers of the law behind closed doors, but by the general public at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, courtesy of William E. Jones’s video Tearoom.
Unlike other Jones projects, Tearoom demonstrates a deliberate disregard for cinematic satisfaction, experimental or otherwise: there has been no creative restructuring of the “found” material. Aside from moving the last reel to the beginning, it appears as the police assembled it. The film could have been embellished with voiceover, music, or other sounds, but it’s presented silent-as it was shot. But the end credit is the kicker: after 56 interminable minutes of anonymous, mechanical, and utterly joyless acts of mutual masturbation, sodomy, and fellatio (lensed with absolute artlessness), the following words appear: FOOTAGE SHOT BY THE MANSFIELD, OHIO POLICE DEPARTMENT, JULY AND AUGUST, 1962.
In case any unsuspecting museum visitor was wondering, this was no anthropological curio from a kinder and simpler era. That particular summer the Mansfield police (and their candid camera) had staked out the venue in response to a gruesome double homicide. At an unrelated location, two girls, ages 7 and 9,were sexually assaulted and then murdered by an 18-year-old male. At the time, it was a given that there was a causal link between homosexual behavior and sex with minors (regardless of gender), hence the bathroom crackdown. Jones withholds this information just as he provides no explanation of the video’s title. (In a limited-edition book published in conjunction with the work, Jones suggests that the term “possibly derives from the British slang use of the word ‘tea to mean urine.” Go to www.williamejones.com.)
Tearoom becomes more vexing the more you learn about it – especially in the current climate of anti-terrorism paranoia and the corresponding erosion of civil liberties (hidden cameras being just the tip of the surveillance iceberg). Jones’s strategy also operates on an intriguingly conceptual level: in the long lineage of found-footage projects, there are few in which the artist has done little more than give the material a new title – and simply added his name.(Although not a film, a certain urinal, signed by Marcel Duchamp, immediately springs to mind.)
In Tearoom, an artifact of panoptic control has been revived, re-contextualized, and re-authorized by an artist who’s acutely aware of that object’s role in an act of judicial abuse. One imagines this might not sit well with the powers that be (or powers that were). The omnipotent all-seeing eyes never like to be told they are blind. One can imagine the voice of Big Brother: “Make sure this one stays locked up in the art world.”
Arthur C. Danto, “Unlovable,” The Nation, May 26, 2008, pp. 35-36.
Each of these scavenged pieces has some degree of craft, but there is also ready-made art worth considering. William E. Jones projects some found surveillance film, shot in 1962, of men fellating or masturbating one another in a public men's room. It is unedited or barely edited found footage. In this respect, it is not unlike the Rodney King video that was shown in an earlier Biennial. Still, as Marcel Duchamp wrote in mock defense of his 1917 urinal under the name “R. Mutt,” Jones has “given a new thought” to footage originally made in the spirit of entrapment. As viewers, we are to infer the thought while watching men of an earlier era engage in somber furtive sex.
Roberto Tejada, “Editor’s Choice: Tearoom,” Bomb, no. 104 (Summer 2008) pp. 14-15.
On June 23,1962, in Mansfield, Ohio, the brutal murder of two young girls led to the arrest of Jerrell R. Howell, who admitted to the killings after a struggle to force them “to perform oral sodomy.” Later found incompetent to stand trial, during interrogations Howell had pinned the blame on a specter already haunting law enforcement officers. The culprit insisted the source of the city’s moral decay was the men’s public bathroom below city’s main square. Social panic and police expediency could now isolate a scapegoat in sex between men: acts deemed deviant basis for child molestation.
Resultant police measures gave way to media spectacle – one documented by the found footage and media accounts– presented by artist and filmmaker William Jones. In a two-week sting procedure, Mansfield police department deployed men to film (in 16mm) the underground public bathroom from a two-way mirror. What the celluloid managed to entrap in these 56 minutes of abrupt camerawork betrays as much excitement as was possible commit to film.
Encounters both cautious and perfunctory are evidenced here in hands and mouths groping to unfasten, release, arouse, and quicken. Tearoom trade in Mansfield did not differentiate on the basis of age, appearance, or race, and such democracy extended to the lives forever disturbed by this particular lens. The film operator’s face looms dimly on this side of the two-way mirror, reminding us of what we already know: the subjects captured on film were eventually apprehended, charged with sodomy, and sentenced to time at the state penitentiary.
Accompanying the footage – devoid of commentary or treatment – is a booklet with news items, other records, and two essays by William E. Jones. This discursive framing device brings us closer to questions enmeshed in the flagrant oppressions of the period, and the future alliance between city authorities and Mansfield’s elite sectors to produce an underground demand for this restroom film footage – one that linked an emerging market for pornography with police training and safety films. William E. Jones’s Tearoom is an anti-monument grounded in findings about such lives as arrested by lure – already framed, so to speak, prior to filming.
Bill Stamets, “Documentaries: Six Films Offer Glimpses of American Lives,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 16, 2009, pp. 2D, 9D.
White Light Cinema:
Tearoom, a documentary by the Los Angeles-based William E. Jones that presents 56 minutes of silent footage originally shot in 1962 by Ohio police officers through a two-way mirror, is a don’t-miss specimen of evidentiary voyeurism that invites all kinds of interpretation. (The movie’s title refers to the slang term for places where gay and straight men meet for sex.)
“The things which some of these men did cannot be printed. They break the laws of Ohio, of decency and of humanity,” wrote a Mansfield News-Journal reporter in a story headlined “Hidden Movie Camera Used by Police to Trap Sexual Deviates at Park Hangout, 17 Arrests Climax Probe.”
“Tearoom may be the truest documentary of public sex before the gay liberation movement,” suggests Jones, who earlier edited a found-footage video The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography.
Fred Camper, “Critic’s Choice: Tearoom,” Chicago Reader, May 15, 2008, p. 78.
“Tearoom” is slang for a men’s room used for sex, and this video by William E. Jones shows tearoom sex in abundance, albeit from the distanced perspective of a concealed camera. Joyless men of various ages and races cast furtive glances as they couple, and by the simple but brilliant tactic of presenting the footage silent, Jones intensifies one’s voyeuristic attention to these taboo but notably unerotic images. The closing title informs us that the footage was shot by the police department in Mansfield, Ohio, in 1962 – a revelation that equates the viewer with the police. Jones has suggested that this may be “the truest documentary of public sex before gay liberation.” Also on the program: Mansfield 1962 (2006), a nine-minute short Jones assembled from the same footage.
Richard Knight, Jr., “Queercentric: William E. Jones’ ‘Found Document’ Is Mesmerizing,” Windy City Times, May 14, 2008, p. 17.
Queer outsider filmmaker William E. Jones will be in town to preside over two screenings of his fascinating, disturbing and sexy Tearoom. The film consists of an assemblage of surveillance footage shot in July and August of 1962 by the Mansfield, Ohio police department of a men’s room on the public square. Jones has done minimal cutting to the footage – he has shifted the establishing shots from the end of the film to the beginning and otherwise left it pretty much intact.
The 56-minute result, shot in grainy color has the look of a graphic home movie and is enthralling. We see men of all ages and sizes, black and white, surreptitiously having sex in and around the two stalls in the cramped men’s room, unaware that a cameraman is shooting them through a two-way mirror. The culmination of the fast cutting between trysts along with the details focused on by the camera operator becomes as interesting as the footage itself. Naturally, a lot of the faces are the same – men returning repeatedly to get off – a black teenager is seen in multiple encounters as is an elderly white guy in a striped shirt and crew cut (he’s like the king cocksucker of the place). Every now and then a phone number is exchanged but there’s no real intimacy and certainly no kissing. Even the act of anal intercourse which several of the men engage in furtively doesn’t seem intimate and is engaged in quickly with one eye toward the entrance.
This fascinating artifact of gay culture is mesmerizing (the mind imagines all the different back stories for the different men), sexy (by way of its illicit nature) and finally, heartbreaking. Given the date of the footage and the reason for its existence Jones doesn’t even need to point out that it was used to put many of these men in prison.
Tearoom plays in Chicago as part of the White Light Cinema program, a new alternative film series, and screens on Sunday, May 18 at The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee) at 6:30 and 9:30pm. Mansfield 1962, a 9-minute experimental short made from the original footage by Jones will also be shown. Limited copies of a companion book, Tearoom, will also be available for sale at the screenings.
Nicholas Weist, “From Gulag to Gallery: How William E. Jones Made High Art from a ’60s Sex Sting,” Out, May 2008, p. 9.
In 1962 the police department of Mansfield, Ohio, set up a camera behind a two-way mirror in a local public restroom. The footage they took – lingering glances at men having sex with other men – later became evidence in a slew of sodomy trials.
Some 45 years later, artist William E. Jones reedited it into a film called Tearoom, currently on view at the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. “For a short while,” Jones says, “in that insalubrious place, these men had a freedom. But they paid dearly for their pleasures.”
The dreamlike film shows men of various physical types and races – an unusual grouping in the Midwest just eight years after desegregation – meeting for liaisons in the tight confines of the stalls. And while most spent their daily grind with wives and children, they don’t appear to enjoy themselves (or each other), which Jones attributes to turmoil from constrictive social pressures. Sen. Larry Craig may have something to teach us about this.
While it’s not exactly a review, I was tickled when a Pittsburgh blog called LeRoy’s Sugar Foot honored me, à la Warhol, with a William E. Jones shoe.