One of the most unusual cinematic finds in my lifetime was during the making of Hell's Highway. For those who haven't seen the film, my quest for information on the people who made the notorious driver's ed films of the 1960s led me to investigate rumors about the Highway Safety Foundation's side projects.
At the core of one of these rumors was an investigation into homosexual activity in a public restroom in downtown Mansfield, Ohio in 1962. In order to obtain ironclad evidence, the Mansfield P.D. borrowed some of the 16mm equipment of the H.S.F. and filmed the bathroom sex through a one-way mirror.
To make a long story short, I located the actual 16mm footage. Much of it was warped and disintegrating, but almost an hour's worth was in good enough shape to transfer to video. Everyone who sees it is speechless, because it represents an uncensored actual window into anonymous sex in a small town bathroom in 1962. What's truly amazing is that you see men from all walks of life, from different races and economic groups, all ages, freely interacting in the (literally) underground restroom.
And, in this context, what does "gay" looks like? White collar husbands. Blue collar laborers. Hardly the stereotype that the world had in the 1960s. I think everyone involved in the investigation was stunned that so many "respectable, upstanding" men were caught, arrested, and sentenced to prison.
Ohio-born artist William E. Jones has created a series of fascinating works (in photography and video) exploring mass cultural perceptions of homosexuality. His 1991 film Massillon is a haunting diary of alienation in small town America. This weekend, William is debuting Tearoom at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Tearoom is comprised of the Mansfield footage, recontextualized as video art. The beauty of William's work is that he doesn't try to dazzle you with his own wit or craftsmanship. He has an impeccable eye for detail, and a gift for understatement. His films and photographs are as much about what you're not seeing, as what you're seeing. They're often made more poignant by what is missing, and engage you on a far more profound level that a more overbearing brand of art or cinema.
I own one of William's photographs, and you can look at it and get an idea of what I find so interesting in it.
I think William's Tearoom is the best way in which to view the notorious bathroom footage... because it makes you take it seriously and watch it silently and ponder the lives of the men who went underground for sexual release, and the consequences it had upon their lives.
So if anyone within eyeshot is in the San Francisco area, I encourage you to go to the YBCA this weekend. William himself will be present for a talk on Friday at 8:30, which I wish I could attend.
If you're on the east coast, stay tuned. I'm pretty sure the work is going to be shown at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh -- possibly in an expanded format that includes additional films/videos.
I wish William all the best with Tearoom and hope he finds the support and critical attention he deserves.
Incidentally, the original 16mm print of the bathroom footage was donated to the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction.