Halsted Plays Himself

William E. Jones on Fred Halsted

Left: Fred Halsted, L.A. Plays Itself, 1972. Still from a color film in 16 mm, 55 minutes. Right: Fred Halsted, Sextool, 1975. Production still.

BORN IN LONG BEACH IN 1941 and raised all over the state of California, Fred Halsted rarely left his adopted city of Los Angeles. Capturing the city as few other films could, L.A. Plays Itself (1972), Halsted’s first film, has come to be regarded as a classic within the genre of gay porn. It looks more like an experimental film than a porno, and, in its time, it garnered Halsted the kind of celebrity that simply isn’t possible today. Halsted never held a regular job; he didn’t teach; he had no gallery representation; he had no agent; he didn’t shoot commercials or advertising campaigns; he didn’t even have a social security number. He made films and performed in them, published a magazine (Package), ran a sex club (Halsted’s), and, for a while at least, kept all of these ventures afloat.

During the ’70s, Halsted also directed the remarkable short Sex Garage (1972) and an attempt at crossover success, Sextool (1975). He gave provocative interviews in a wide range of publications and wrote a small but fascinating body of erotic stories. The apogee of Halsted’s unprecedented career came when he presented his films at the Museum of Modern Art, which acquired prints of them for its permanent collection.

After these successes, the ’80s were unkind to Halsted. He continued to direct, but his films from this period have little to recommend them beyond the obvious attractions. Pornography made its gradual transition from monstrously profitable and intermittently interesting outlaw form to almost respectable, formulaic corporate content, and after the transition, there was little room for Halsted’s artistic concerns. In 1986, AIDS deprived Halsted of his main lover/partner/tormentor, Joey Yale. Despondent over Yale’s death, unable to find his bearings in an age not to his taste, financially and creatively destitute, Halsted sought refuge with an unsympathetic brother, who put him up in an apartment building he owned in Orange County. It was there that Fred committed suicide in 1989.

Untimely deaths, legal complications, and the day-to-day indignities of living in a city devoted to ruthless development harassed Halsted the artist. Today, access to his work is all but impossible, due largely to the indifference (or hostility) of his family. Only a handful of his friends survive. Halsted’s films have fallen out of distribution, though scenes from them can be seen on various bargain-DVD compilations. The city made available to us in L.A. Plays Itself, the Hollywood of lost boys on mean streets, has nearly been eradicated. To reconstruct Halsted’s history is to imagine another world, a time when a man with no formal training in filmmaking and a small amount of money could make a sexually explicit experimental film starring himself, and the result could become a hit that enabled him to embark on a career.

Artist William E. Jones presents Fred Halsted’s L.A. Plays Itself and Sex Garage at Light Industry in Brooklyn on August 26. For more information, click here. His book on Halsted will be published next year by Semiotext(e).