One of the highlights of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, which continues through August 24, is Peep Show, a found-footage noir nightmare set in Chicago in the 60s and directed by the mysterious J.X. Williams. According to Noel Lawrence, director of the San Francisco-based independent DVD label Other Cinema, Williams was a fly-by-night director bounced out of Hollywood during the blacklist era and reduced to making nudie reels and exploitation flicks during the 50s and 60s. Several years ago, the story goes, Lawrence stumbled across a print of one of Williams's shorts, a frenzied, jarring work called Psych-Burn; he's been obsessed ever since with recovering and championing the filmmaker's dark and twisted oeuvre.
Some people say that Lawrence is Williams, and that he's creating rather than restoring this arcane filmography. Lawrence, 32, flatly denies this, and produces some racy paperbacks written by a J.X. Williams in the 60s as proof of his existence.
"He's a little reclusive, but J.X. is alive and reasonably well," he says. "He's in his early 70s and lives in Zurich. I've actually been helping him with a memoir project we're calling 'The Big Footnote,' though it remains to be seen whether it'll be a book or a documentary project--something along the lines of The Kid Stays in the Picture, you know?"
Williams's Peep Show, purportedly made in Copenhagen in 1965 but never exhibited until recently, is a sordid journey into the bowels of the Chicago syndicate. It's also a hoot. At the beginning a hoodlum gets into a cab and starts spilling his guts to the silent driver. His confession becomes a voice-over for a series of flashbacks illustrating a bizarre plot: local capo Sam Giancana, the gangster reveals, wants to get Frank Sinatra hooked on junk so he can manipulate the singer's relationship with President Kennedy to the advantage of the outfit.
Employed at the time in a rep theater, Williams couldn't afford a crew, says Lawrence, but stitched the 46-minute work together from footage he cut from other sources. Scenes of Sinatra shooting dope, for example, came from Otto Preminger's 1955 The Man With the Golden Arm; other footage came from B movies, documentaries, TV shows, and stag films. The cast of characters includes a rogue's gallery of real-life Chicago mobsters--Giancana, Tony "Joe Batters" Accardo, Murray "the Camel" Humphreys--and Williams, shown briefly in silhouette, enters the narrative as the hood explains Giancana's habit of hiring hack filmmakers to secretly film prominent people in sexually compromising situations. Seamlessly edited, the film evokes a sordid, complex, weirdly persuasive vision of the Chicago underworld in the early 1960s.
Peep Show will screen at the 3 Penny on Satur-day, August 21, at 3:45 on a CUFF program titled "Underworld Cinema." Three other Williams shorts will also be shown: Satan Claus, The Virgin Sacrifice, and Psych-Burn. Lawrence will attend the screening; Williams will not. See the CUFF sidebar in Section Two for complete festival listings.