William Jones had a screening and talk about his video "Tearoom" which is on it's way to the Whitney Biennial this week. I took my camera but in an effort to reduce weight I left the battery at home. So I have no pictures of the packed, somewhat giddy, crowd. But I did get the accompanying catalogue of beautiful grainy pictures, which was a relief because any video of striking imagery fills me with an urgency to photograph it and get it tacked down in a frozen state for better viewing. And so a dead camera was especially troubling as I watched the old faded, stark 16mm footage.
The video came about after Jones unearthed two months of video footage from a 1962-63 police bust of a "tearoom trade" in Mansfield, Ohio. Born and raised an hour from Mansfeild, Jones felt especially tied to the two month long operation and ensuing scandal surrounding a public men's bathroom located under the town's "Central Park."
The police had been tipped off, by a sociopath killer no less, of the hotspot for man on man action in the public restroom (i.e. "tearooms") and orchestrated a complicated sting involving a two-way mirror and a cop stationed behind it with a video camera.
The camera only had enough film for almost three minutes of footage per day and it was interesting to see what choices these cops made in who and what activities they chose to film and from what angles they did their filming. It seemed the younger and more handsome the guy was, the more likely the camera would frantically move up and down the length of the lad's figure. Guess it was all part of the "evidence gathering." It's a strange station to have, basically getting paid to loiter, hidden, in a public bathroom, watching, waiting, and hoping for a flash of peen.
Jones chose only to edit this footage, keeping the original quality, and did not add sound. Jones said he did this "to satisfy skeptics, only the clarity and artless instrumentality of unedited camera original would truly suffice."
Christopher suggested some nice background music wouldn't have hurt. The silence did add to the awkwardness of watching such a very awkward sort of mating game. It was simultaneously sad and funny to watch these nervous men who were always on edge, listening for the slightest sound of someone coming into the bathroom, never fully present or attentive to the matters at, ahem, hand.
It was a dangerous game, with Sodomy laws in Ohio at that time considering homosexuality "sexual deviance" and punishable by 1-10 years in the penitentiary. The film was a record of a time mostly past now, when gay men living in small towns were forced into public bathrooms as their only option to fulfill their desires, only to be rounded up, caught in a trap.
After the news broke of the bust, in an editorial in the Mansfeild News-Journal, Aug 22, 1962, some idiot wrote "Skilled police work of the first order has uncovered a nest of bestial depravity..."
John Butler, in his book The Best Suit in Town, 2001, wrote "The one place in the city where there was no discrimination, where both black and white, the elite and the derelict, came to meet with few words spoken was Central Park. From college professors and church organist to truck driver and prison parolee, all had one thing in common - they were going to jail."
Eventually the video footage was used as evidence to convict 30 men with Sodomy charges. A third of the men were married, many with children, one guy had even been a boyscout master. The 16mm footage was later used, with added sound narration, under the title "Camera Surveillance" by the Mansfeild Police Dept. for training purposes. The narrator warns, homosexual men are constantly seeking to recruit for their deviant cult, and "any deviant may be a potential killer."