As an iconic figure of gay erotic film and of the leather world in the early seventies, Fred Halsted is at a unique disadvantage. Though his work is revered and his reputation formidable, very little is known about him and his most important work is unavailable. In 1972, at the age of thirty-one, Halsted released L.A. Plays Itself, a film which drew upon Kenneth Anger’s surrealist eroto-expressionism, and went way beyond Anger’s sublimated homoeroticism to explicitly portray gay male S/M sex. In 1969, when Halsted first decided to make a sexually explicit film, he decided to create a part for himself, and then be that part. In this same period he had also begun to explore his sadism.
When L.A. Plays Itself opened at the Paris Theater in Los Angeles in June 1972, gay porn cinema was just slowly beginning to emerge from the world of peep shows and beefcake magazines. Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand – the first widely recognized gay porn and a huge hit – was playing to gay and straight audiences in New York and Los Angeles. L.A. Plays Itself followed Boys in the Sand at the 55th Street Playhouse in New York soon afterwards and almost immediately was declared a masterpiece. It was included, with Sex Garage, a short “sequel,” in the film collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
LA Plays Itself and its sequels were very different films than any of the other porn films being shown in theaters during the early seventies. “In my films,” Halsted explained, “I am not that interested in cum-shots or erections or sucking or fucking. I am more interested in what is going on in the psyche and not the action itself.” Instead Halsted sought to make artistic and philosophic statements about sex – in particular about S/M sex. The fist-fucking scene that concluded L.A. Plays Itself introduced the practice to the American public as a form of sexual play. Halsted noted, “I consider myself a pervert first and a homosexual second. Sadism is more basic to my personality than homosexuality.”
In Halsted Plays Himself Los Angeles-based artist and experimental filmmaker William Jones has brought together a variety of materials that will help, hopefully, revive an appreciation both for Halsted’s work as well as of the man himself. Almost half of the book is a short biography. Halsted was strikingly handsome and masculine. But as Jones shows he was also alcoholic and tortured by self-doubt and insecurities that undermined his public persona as the ultra top—the role he chose to play in his own movies. One of the few films still available where you can see him in that persona is Joe Gage’s El Paso Wrecking Corp.
Jones has included a portfolio of photographs and illustrations, a number of fascinating reviews of L.A. Plays Itself, Sex Garage, and Sex Tools published when the movies were released, several in-depth interviews with Halsted, and some of his pornographic writing. The book feels like a time capsule. These pieces took me back to early seventies—when I first read about and saw the films at New York’s 55th Street Playhouse—in fact, the only time I ever the saw the films in the form that Halsted himself had given them. When I was working on Bigger than Life, my history of gay porn cinema, I never managed to see the film that is supposedly preserved in the MOMA film archives. I had to rely on my and other peoples’ memories and a badly reproduced and incomplete video tape version made in the 1980s.
The one area of Halsted’s life that Jones doesn’t explore sufficiently is Halsted’s radical philosophy of sex. Several years ago Patrick Moore devoted a chapter to Halsted in Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality. Halsted believed that the erotic is transgressive and sacramental, that it is inherently violent and involves acts of violation. “Sex is not ‘coming,’ that is superficial sex,” he once explained. “Mine is personal cinema. I don’t fuck to get my rocks off. In the best scenes I’ve ever had, I haven’t come. I am not interesting in coming. … I am interested in getting my head off, my emotions off—and if I get my dick off, my rocks off, it really doesn’t matter that much to me. … I am interested in emotional satisfaction and intellectual satisfaction.” In some ways, Halsted seems to have anticipated Foucault’s view of S/M as a “creative enterprise” which imagined “the desexualization of pleasure.”
We should be grateful to Jones for pulling together all these materials. I hope future editions might also be able to include the long interviews with Halsted from Paul Alcuin Siebenand’s 1975 dissertation. Hopefully Jones’ book will generate further interest in Halsted and spur H.I.S., the company that controls the rights to Halsted’s work, to re-issue DVDs of L.A. Plays Itself, Sex Garage and Sex Tools, his great trilogy of erotic films.
Halsted Plays Himself
By William E. Jones Semiotext(e) Native Agents Series, MIT Press Hardcover, 9781584351078, 216pp