in Profiles | 01 MAR 10
Featured in
Issue 129

Life in Film: William E. Jones

In an ongoing series, frieze asks artists and filmmakers to list the movies that have influenced their practice

in Profiles | 01 MAR 10

Oscar Micheaux, God's Stepchildren, 1938. Transforming John Stahl's Imitation of Life (1934) into a tragedy of extraordinary power, the film ends with a woman who has abandoned her child taking one last look at him before she drowns herself.

I first saw Ten Minutes to Live (1932), directed by Oscar Micheaux, about 50 years after it was made. At the time, the film gave me an overwhelming impression of strangeness that had nothing to do with camp or kitsch or any other aesthetic category that might diminish or limit such a unique experience. Every second was (and still is) riveting. Micheaux’s films are set in New York, Chicago or in the American hinterlands, but they also unfold in a dramatic space constructed by a man who, in terms of aesthetics, inhabited his own world. No written description can prepare a spectator for Micheaux’s films; they are too complex and too remote from the mainstream that issued from the innovations of D.W. Griffith to be summarized in that way. With the passing years, Griffith’s infantile politics have become apparent even to the most benighted viewers, while Micheaux’s blunt impertinence seems fresh and contemporary.

Ten Minutes to Live is a film in two halves announced by old-fashioned intertitles: ‘The Faker’ and ‘The Killer’. Much of ‘The Faker’ consists of scenes of nightclub performances, shot with a static camera in synchronous sound and in single takes. A jazz band plays and people dance brilliantly, with joy and abandon. One of these musical numbers lasts a mere 30 seconds.

Pursued by a murderer, the protagonist of the second half of Ten Minutes to Live, Letha Watkins, takes a taxi ride from New York’s Grand Central Station to Westchester County. This long sequence has only one soundtrack: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1804–8); each time a car horn honks, the music cuts out completely. Letha arrives at her home in Westchester and pauses to smoke a cigarette. Micheaux presents this simple action in six separate shots. While Letha is on screen, it is as though time expands to allow greater attention to her gestures and to the play of light through the smoke and on the fabric of her dressing gown.

In order to conserve film stock, Micheaux went to great lengths to avoid shooting expensive dialogue sequences with synchronous sound. Near the end of the film, the murderer, Morvis, observes his potential victim talking to her boyfriend at home. While the lovers speak, Morvis is on screen; during pauses in the dialogue, the lovers are seen caressing and mugging for the camera. Morvis stands in front of a painted backdrop that appears in no establishing shot, so it is unclear if he sees the lovers from his position. The lovers’ voices accompanying Morvis’ close-ups suggest that he hears them, yet this is impossible: Morvis is a deaf mute.

Later, Morvis carouses with a treacherous woman at her house, but they are interrupted by a telegram announcing that policemen have surrounded them. The telegram comes from Morvis’s mother, who calls him a fool and informs him that he has been betrayed. Morvis abruptly turns on his female companion and a chase ensues. The chase goes in a circle, up and down the same staircase, as in a cartoon.

These scenes bring to mind moments of rupture in a Jean-Luc Godard film, or Andy Warhol’s sound films, or vast sections of Doris Wishman’s exploitation oeuvre. Yet Micheaux was working decades before any of them. The only one of his contemporaries whose work Micheaux’s resembles is Dziga Vertov; indeed, the scene of Letha smoking looks like a delightfully fetishistic out-take from Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Did Micheaux see Vertov’s films? Nothing is impossible, but this seems highly unlikely.

Ten Minutes to Live, however, has little of the caustic drama that distinguishes Micheaux’s other films. Black characters strive to improve their lives, but antagonists thwart them at every turn. White characters, when not naïve and well-meaning, operate with vicious impunity. Within Our Gates (1919), Micheaux’s politicized response to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), contains a lynching scene that prevented the film’s screening in the American South. Almost entirely suppressed in the USA, Within Our Gates was believed lost until it was rediscovered in a Spanish film archive in 1991. Body and Soul (1925) presents the story of a preacher – played with relish by Paul Robeson, in his first starring role – corrupt enough to be familiar to modern audiences accustomed to ecclesiastical venality and hypocrisy.
God’s Stepchildren (1938) transforms John Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934) into a tragedy of extraordinary power; it ends with a woman who has abandoned her child taking one last look at him before she drowns herself. In Birthright (1939), a black Harvard graduate tries to found a school in his sleepy hometown, but he gets swindled; only a bequest from the town’s richest man (who may have been in love with him) can deliver him from his predicament.

Inflammatory on principle, Micheaux attracted the attention of censors and, as an independent filmmaker with no studio to defend him, he was completely vulnerable to their whims. Historians have theorized that most of the odd devices in Micheaux’s films are attempts to wrest coherent narratives from material that had been utterly mutilated by racist bureaucrats. This might have been the case with Ten Minutes to Live, which runs a scant 58 minutes, although I am not quite sure.

Apologists call Micheaux a pioneering African–American filmmaker who did his best with limited resources, but whose works – it is sometimes implied – are rather inept. His achievements are undeniable: Micheaux was the first African–American to direct a feature film; having directed more than 40 films, he was by far the most prolific black filmmaker during the era of segregation; furthermore, he was the only one to thrive during the transition from silent to sound cinema. But his films cannot be reduced to these facts, nor can they be comfortably assimilated into an historical narrative. To this day, no one has given a completely convincing account of why Micheaux’s films look the way they do. They remain mysterious cinematic objects. I have seen most of Micheaux’s surviving feature films, some of them many times, and these viewings have only confirmed my original intuition: that the formal eccentricities in all of his films are the result not only of a perverse sense of humour and a bracing contempt for authority, but of sustained reflection and practice. America’s mainstream film culture, worshipping money and status above all else, has thus far been blind to the true virtues of Micheaux’s work. His controversial subject matter and radical film form have stranded him outside the official version of film history. I believe Micheaux is the greatest American filmmaker, and I hope that one day my claim will not seem outrageous at all.

Artist and experimental filmmaker William E. Jones appropriates imagery from archival material to make his prints, films and video installations. His sources range from vintage 1960s footage of a police investigation targeting homosexuals in a public toilet (Tearoom, 2007) to films from North Vietnam co-opted by the United States Army and now publicly available in the US National Archives (Discrepancy (Americans Will Die If They Don’t Give Up the Bombings), 2009). Jones manipulates and combines this archival imagery to, as he puts it, ‘draw out the historical and social meaning from material dismissed as pure product’. His exhibition ‘Discrepancies’ was held earlier this year at VeneKlasen/Werner, Berlin, and his films and videos were the subject of a recent retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, New York. Jones is working on two books, ‘Killed’: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration and Halsted Plays Himself.