A shadowy figure climbs into the backseat of a taxicab. As the driver speeds through the neon-stained boulevards and seamy back alleys of 1960s Chicago, the silhouetted passenger unveils an unsettling alternate history of American political and cultural life: Chicago mobsters dictated U.S. foreign policy to President Kennedy; pornographic blackmail footage paralyzed top American officials; Frank Sinatra sold himself as a Mafia pawn in return for his next heroin fix.
Welcome to the world of director J.X. Williams’s “Peep Show,” the centerpiece of “Underworld Cinema: The Life and Work of J.X. Williams,” presented Monday at the Goldsmith Family Cinema. The event, co-sponsored by the Russian and Film Studies departments, offered a glimpse into Williams’s dark view of American mythos, and provided insight into the filmmakers’ somewhat controversial personal history.
Noel Lawrence ’93, curator of the J.X. Williams Archive, screened selected works from Williams’s oeuvre for the 55-person audience and discussed the filmmaker’s life. His love of Williams’s work radiated throughout the presentation.
“He handled the material with a certain panache, like an early DePalma or Scorsese” Lawrence said.
The gangland intrigue and stylistic verve associated with those two modern-day directors could be seen throughout “Peep Show.” A tale of corruption and greed in the upper echelons of the national power elite, the film connects the American government, the entertainment industry, and the Mafia in a vast conspiracy driven by sex, deceit, and lust for power. These theories, while clearly fictional, nevertheless possess a primal power that bewitches the viewer even as it repels them, an effect Lawrence knows well.
“The way J.X. Williams fans talk about ”Peep Show“ is the way normal people talk about sex,” Lawrence said.
The film is constructed almost entirely out of pieces of other films: most notably Otto Preminger’s “The Man with the Golden Arm,” starring Sinatra as a recovering heroin-addict fighting off relapse. This re-contextualization of found footage provides audiences with audacious new ways of looking at familiar images.
It was also, according to Lawrence, born in large part out of necessity. As he tells it, Williams was blacklisted in Hollywood during the Communist Red Scare and found an income shooting “art films” (read: porn) for the Chicago mob. Determined to jump start his career as a serious artist, he left the U.S. and moved to Copenhagen.
Williams found a job at a local movie theater, where he would stay all night and watch movies. Lacking in funding and resources to make his own films, he began splicing together left-over prints of older films.
Lawrence explained that this process, which produced “Peep Show” and other films, was not as easy as one might think.
“It was a lot harder for him because he didn’t have computers and tools like that to edit his work,” Lawrence said after the presentation. “He really had to take it, bit-by-bit, through pieces of film, which was an extraordinarily complex affair when making a film like [Peep Show]. There are so many different pieces of films and it’s such a complex plotline. You really have to be on the ball to do something like that.”
There has been outside speculation as to the validity of Williams’s history, even his very existence. A Wikipedia article claims the moniker “J.X. Williams” was a penname used by various erotic novelists in the 1960s and only more recently became associated with filmmaking.
During the event’s question-and-answer session, one audience member claimed she had some trouble finding additional films attributed to Williams on The Internet Movie Database. Lawrence explained that the site had not been properly updated.
Lawrence took an unconventional path that ended at Williams’s films. He graduated from the University in 1993 with a B.A. in Russian Literature, and went on to receive his Masters in the same field from Stanford University in California.
He dropped out of school before receiving his Ph. D and began hanging around Other Cinema, a DVD label and micro-cinema in San Francisco. It was here he developed a taste for obscure and forgotten cinema.
“I’ve always loved films, but I didn’t know that these things were out there,” Lawrence said after the presentation.
This passion would ultimately lead him to find Williams in the most unlikely of places: eBay. Browsing the popular site, he came across an old short film from the sixties, J.X. Williams’s “Psych-Burn.” Though he was outbid for the original print, a fellow enthusiast sent him a VHS copy. Lawrence watched the film, and immediately decided to track down more of Williams’s work.
A feverish search for other Williams’s films led to a slim result: after six months of searching, Lawrence had only found about 40 minutes of footage and failed to locate the legendary “Peep Show.” That is, until he began receiving a series of belligerent phone calls from a raspy-voiced elderly man, warning him to stop searching for Williams’s films.
Lawrence says the caller was Williams himself, worried that Lawrence would make an ironic mockery of his work. Lawrence assured him that his goal was to bring what he felt were important pieces of cinematic history to the public. Williams, convinced, mailed him a copy of “Peep Show” soon thereafter.
“A little flattery goes a long way,” Lawrence said.
“Psych-Burn,” a hallucinatory collage of writing female bodies, Technicolor backgrounds, and ominous death imagery, was one of three shorts screened before “Peep Show.” The other two contained equally bizarre and singular imagery: “The Virgin Sacrifice,” a disorienting descent into satanic worship; and “Satan Clause,” a perversely funny tale that imagines the Prince of Darkness attempting, and failing, to take over Christmas from Santa Claus.
“The Showdown,” which spliced together scenes from “Dirty Harry” and “Bullitt” to create a gunfight between the characters played by Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen, was screened after “Peep Show.”
The initial shorts seemed to make the largest audience impact.
“It was a truly epic experience,” said Andrew Price ’09. “I liked the acid, feverish pornography of the first three shorts.”
“Anytime you get Satan, naked women, and children celebrating Christmas, you end up with something pretty magical,” said Jeremy Marks ’07.
After the presentation, Lawrence expressed his commitment to screening and discussing Williams with as many people as possible.
“I want to help people see these works and recognize for their importance: social importance, cultural importance, historical importance, and their general relevance to cinematic history,” Lawrence said. “If [J.X.] didn’t exist, someone would have invented him. He’s just too good.”