An extraordinary instance of working with found footage, William E. Jones’ Tearoom (2007), makes for an unsettling viewing experience – and thus succeeds in what it sets out to do in the first place. What we see is some operational footage of Mansfield (OH) police, shot to track down instances of lewd (as in: homosexual) behavior in one of the public toilets. Most of the 56 minutes of Tearoom is filled with a strange ballet of men checking each other out, fellating or masturbating each other, having sex, or just passing one another with no contact whatsoever (potential contact is what the movie is about, too).
It’s unsettling, because the men themselves are unsettled. There is no tenderness here, no kisses, no holding hands (unlike in the classic scene from Terence Davies’ Madonna and Child ). The constant fear of the door being suddenly opened, and the readiness to “rearrange” once it does open (by swiftly jumping away from the partner and pretending to be otherwise “busy”) – that’s what makes for the strange, exhausting and unpleasant suspense of Tearoom, and in this it makes us complicit with the men presented.
But we are complicit with the policeman filming, too. Of course, it’s hard to identify with him in the first minutes of the film, when we see him gleefully waving to us and explaining the positioning of the camera (it’s placed behind a mirror door). But for the rest of the movie, we’re stuck with his gaze for better or worse, and thus we replicate his act of voyeurism in our viewing of Tearoom. That’s what Jones’ movie is about – it makes us question not only social mentality that forces homosexual desire to fulfill itself in a literal shithole, but also the viewing practice offered by surveillance camera footage, with the subject unaware (or, at best, vaguely aware) of being caught on film.
Of many individuals appearing in the film, possibly most striking is a couple having sex somewhere near the middle of Tearoom: a bespectacled young man and a harshly carved guy (Lyle Lovett-lookalike, to be honest). Their bodies joint in nervous spasms, their eyes fixed on the ever-threatening door: together they personify desire as distilled from any personal attachment and intimidated by both its own nature, and by the society’s dominant morality. It’s a world light years apart from the clubs shown on mainstream TV series like Queer as Folk (2000-2005), with the gay club’s toilet door bearing the ever-useful reminder: “Do not have sex in here. That’s what couches are for”.