Avery Willard

In Search of a Backstory by

Charles Wassum, Jr.

One of the things non-narrative films often do that traditional narrative films don’t is pose questions without simple answers. Things get a little tougher in our case since Avery Willard, the filmmaker we are researching, is one who received precious little attention during his lifetime and is virtually unknown today. Charles Wassum Jr. (excerpted above), one of the earliest films by Willard still in existence, offers a first-hand illustration of the challenges posed by this project.

A nine-minute experimental portrait of a young man from Willard’s hometown of Marion, Virginia, the film demonstrates Willard’s keen eye at a young age and brings to mind elements of the later structural film movement of the 1970s, especially the repetition of shot composition and motion. There is a hypnotic and compelling rhythm to the cuts and mirrored frames. With little visual context, Willard is able to create a sense of intrigue around his subject, which makes for a deceptively simple and elegantly textured work.

The film’s subject “Charles Wassum, Jr.” is caught walking from his car to various buildings around town and from buildings back to his car. His outfits change from day to day, but his smile toward the filmmaker seldom wavers. Willard’s relationship to Wassum remains unknown. Was he the filmmaker’s friend? Mentor? Co-worker? An unrequited crush? A lover? Or none of the above?

So far, all our team has been able to find was an obituary for Wassum, Jr., which states that he died at age 90 in 2003, in the same Marion house he was born in, leaving behind a wife and many offspring. During his life, he was an entrepreneur responsible for planting gardens and estates from Tennessee to New England. One of his most notable works was being one of the visionaries behind the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in southern Virginia. The obituary also says that he maintained an apartment in New York City for many years and that he was a witness to many of the most notable moments in New York City’s history during the early 20th Century: the ticker tape parade when Charles Lindbergh’s plane crossed the Atlantic in 1927, Rudolph Valentino’s funeral in 1926 and the explosion of the Hindenburgh in 1937. He also was a frequenter of speakeasies during the era of Prohibition.

But as is the case with this project, the answers we find don’t tell us the whole story. Anything we find out invariably leads to more questions, more unexplored pieces of the story, becoming part of a puzzle that may never be quite put together. Could it be possible that by seeking to solve the mystery, we may be ruining it in the process?

Adam Baran

Editor, Keepthelightsonfilm.com

Adam Baran is a NYC-based writer/director with a passion for making films that tell queer stories in unique, risk-taking ways. After graduating in 2003 from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a Bachelor’s degree in Film and TV Production, Adam wrote and directed two short films, Love and Deaf (2004) and Jinx! (2007), which aired in regular rotation on Here! TV and the IFC Channel in the US, respectively. Love and Deaf was released in popular gay shorts collections on DVD in the U.S., Germany and France. In 2009, Adam wrote the daily web comedy MTV Detox for MTV.com. That same year, he finished the feature script Jackpot, which was selected for the 2010 Outfest Screenwriting Lab and performed as a staged reading during the festival. That script led to his being asked to write the webseries The Great Cock Hunt, which is being produced and directed by Jon Marcus (Party Monster) and executive produced by Rose Troche (The L Word) and will premiere in late 2011. Adam’s work as a writer and editor began in 2004 with contributions to the groundbreaking gay journal BUTT Magazine. He became a contributing editor in 2007, had several articles featured in the BUTT Book, and was the online editor of ButtMagazine.com from 2008-2011. He has also written for V Magazine, Pin-Up, Foam and the “T Blog” for the New York Times Style Section. Adam also co-curates the monthly film series Queer/Art/Film with Keep The Lights On director Ira Sachs at the IFC Center in New York. An “essential” series according to the New Yorker, Queer/Art/Film invites queer artists to screen films that have influenced their development. Past guests include Justin Bond, Antony Hegarty, John Kelly, John Cameron Mitchell, Barbara Hammer, Kate Bornstein and Genesis P-Orridge. Adam currently lives in Brooklyn and is working on making a short film based on his feature script Jackpot and writing several new features and shorts.

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