4 min

Interview with artist William E Jones

On making Finished, a landmark queer film that almost never happened

Filmmaker William E Jones. Credit: Natasha Garcia-Lomas photo

In the 1997 film Finished, recently screened at Montreal’s inaugural Sex, Labour and Smut Film & Video Festival, Los Angeles-based artist, writer and filmmaker William E Jones documents his obsession with the life and death of unknowable porn performer Alan Lambert, and in the process, slices into our own darkest thoughts.

Jones narrates how he first fell in love with the Quebecer — born Alain Lebeau — when he saw his face in a magazine phone sex ad, and retraced his steps to California film sets and then to Montreal’s Carré Saint-Louis park, where he shot and killed himself in 1992. Did Lebeau simply want to die while he was still beautiful, or did he have a delusional belief that a new world order was contingent on his suicide?

Answers are scarce, as are images of Lebeau; Jones instead resurrects him through a deeply personal reading into the commodification of beauty and the meaninglessness of closure.

Jones spoke to about making a documentary-style film with subjects who wouldn’t talk, with a suicide letter that made little sense, and in a production that was “cursed.”

Daniel Allen Cox: Is he Alan to you, or is he Alain? I noticed that you use both in the film.

William E Jones: The difference in the names signals my awareness that a performer had become a real person, not just an image to me. Perhaps this idea is illusory — after all, how can one understand a dead person based on such slender evidence? — but I do think I managed to humanize a member of a profession that gets treated quite poorly in a puritanical society.

DAC: Finished hit me in the gut. I’m curious about other audience reactions to it.

WEJ: All manner of baggage gets unpacked. One well-meaning spectator told me with complete certainty that all sex workers had been molested during their childhoods. (I wonder how she knew…) Another spectator revealed his conspiracy theory that gay porn stars who also hustled were generally killed off by the age of 25, because they knew too much about their rich and powerful clients. These reactions are indications of the allure of Alan Lambert (or indeed of any porn star) as a locus of fantasy, even when these fantasies are not obviously sexual.

DAC: Why do you suppose Alan had such extremist views, including his belief in the end of the world?

WEJ: After the film was first shown, a friend told me that she thought Alain was bipolar. (The extremity of his views and the likelihood that he was having a psychotic episode around the time he composed his suicide letter led her to this conclusion.) I have to say, though, that mental illness hadn’t appealed to me as a sufficient “explanation” when I was making the film.

One of the opportunistic aspects of Finished was my use of research I was already doing about the relationship between Marxist thought at its most messianic and religious movements dating back many hundreds of years. Karl Marx has been understood by some to have been a modern and articulate channel of millenarian revolutionary impulses that have erupted periodically throughout Western history. Alan Lambert’s biography became a means to put this thesis into a film. How else could I make a film about such abstractions with no money?

DAC: Tell me about the curse! I love ghost stories.

WEJ: I don’t believe in supernatural phenomena, but Finished seemed to have been cursed in post-production. It was a really traumatic process, and to this day I have not produced another work in 16mm film. Some of the problems had to do with the end of 16mm as a viable medium, and others had to do with the fact that I had very little institutional support for the project. I found out in messy detail how difficult it is to produce a feature-length film all alone. I sometimes thought I was going mad, but perhaps this madness and isolation informed Finished in an interesting way.

DAC: Since the film was released, have you heard from anyone who originally declined to be interviewed?

WEJ: D contacted me about 10 years ago, and I sent him a copy of the film. He felt that I had captured something like Alain’s true character in my writing, but he mentioned that even someone who was as intimate with Alain as he was remained a bit mystified by his personality. D had no idea why I had called the film Finished, though.

DAC: With the internet now a more powerful resource than in the 1990s, research into Alan Lambert in 2009 would turn up much different results, wouldn’t it?

WEJ: The internet makes searching for simple facts much easier, but then one is left with the question of what to do with the information, some of it random and apocryphal. The central problem — how to do justice to a person’s life — remains, and if anything, has become even more stubborn.

DAC: When I searched for Alan Lambert online, Google gave me the search cue “Alan Lambert” + “American Idol”, no doubt a misspelling of American Idol finalist “Adam Lambert.” What does this tell you?

WEJ: I love all the avenues of thought made possible by the internet when one can’t quite spell properly. When mass culture sets about manufacturing American idols, the archetypes get mashed up with frightening speed and arbitrariness in the pursuit of the marketable.

DAC: Are you still able to jerk off over Alan’s videos?

WEJ: These days, Daniel, I would be much more likely to jerk off to your erotic pictures, which I loved when I found them.

DAC: What are you working on now?

WEJ: I am currently editing a book of writing by and about Fred Halsted, the director and star of the pioneering gay porn film L. A. PLAYS ITSELF. It is scheduled for publication in about a year’s time by Semiotext(e).