Halsted Plays Himself, published by Semiotext(e), is artist William E. Jones’s first stand-alone research book, a rich and rewarding excavation of a blazing moment in the early 1970s when American filmgoers flocked to porn cinemas; when sexual and racial activism might be perpetrated in popular cinema; when media empires might be forged from elbow grease. Such was the case for pornographer Fred Halsted (1941-1989), who became a celebrity with his very first feature, L. A. Plays Itself (1972), for which he served as writer, director and star.
In addition to his reputation as the first filmmaker to feature fisting in wide-release, Halsted imbued the porn format with subjective perspectives, social documentary and artful editing tactics that situated him as an heir to Eisenstein or Anger. Due to these techniques and his investment in the medium of porn as an art form, Halsted is the only hard-core pornographer with titles in MoMA’s permanent collection.
Halsted Plays Himself collects gorgeous production stills from his films and pornographic print spreads, pitting them alongside period advertisements, original press responses, and Halsted’s original columns for the sex magazine Drummer as well as his own short-lived publication, Package. Jones’s 100-page assessment of Halsted’s life and work is told in first person, recounting his lengthy and troubled research process. Appearing alongside historical reprints, Halsted is a fascinating kind of experimental biography, as the archival material that fills the book’s second half allows Jones to legitimize the claims made in his text. He reproduces a wonderfully breathless review of L. A. Plays Itself by Jonas Mekas, written at the time of the film’s release, while Rosa von Praunheim grants a characteristically blunt interview. In the end, however, the power lies in Halsted’s own words, through his wildly adventuresome columns.
Halsted was a masculine figure, more S than M-a trait, which certain texts suggest, prevented many filmgoers and historians from including him in a canon that featured more effeminate contemporaries like Jack Smith or Curtis Harrington. His difficult and irascible public persona-a result of painstaking self-mythologizing-is traced through the book, as an attribute that led to his commercial ruin, once his looks began to wane. Jones hilariously recounts these often startling details in matter-of-fact asides, such as Halsted’s propensity to publicly urinate through his tight Levis, like some territorial mongrel, in the din of a crowded bar.
The portrait that emerges from Jones’s book is evasive and fragmentary, constructed from verbatim emails from jilted lovers, anonymous interviews, and family members who no longer wish for their name (now linked to a large Southern California construction company) to be associated with that Halsted. Jones’s approach to biography proves a poignant counterpoint to Halsted’s image, which is removed, mysterious and prone to image-conscious aggrandizing.
In L. A. Plays Itself, the filmmaker cast himself as a seasoned hustler who picks up another hustler, fresh off the bus from Texas. After pretending to school the boy, he takes him home to beat and penetrate his younger protégé with his fist. Punctuating this scene, filmed with his long-term lover Joey Yale, Halsted intercuts imagery that seems freely associative and ominous, including an L.A. Times headline of the Manson murders. Halsted’s Sex Garage (1972) similarly integrates pop advertising imagery alongside erotic couplings in a body shop—forming a kind of seamless, SoCal landscape—while a leather-clad nihilist animates his chopper in inventive ways. Halsted Plays Himself grants special attention to the lavish Sextool (1975) with copious illustrations. The film was Halsted’s most ambitious, shoot on 35mm film, as opposed to16mm, which was the standard for theatrical porn venues. The move proved commercially disastrous: Sextool was deemed too explicit for art house cross-over, and porn theaters couldn’t screen the 35mm format.
Considered alongside recent bestsellers like Secret Historian, Justin Spring’s astonishing biography of Samuel Steward, and City Boy, Edmund White’s autobiography of life in New York during the 1960s and 70s, Halsted Plays Himself is a valuable installment in a recent, resurgent interest in queer documents from that flourishing social period, positioning Halsted’s artistic legacy within a teeming moment of gay visibility. Jones builds his case by including dialogue snippets, reviews, interviews, illustrations and erotic writings—all reproduced in full-alongside his own 100-page assessment of Halsted’s life and work.
Jones is hyperaware that personal details will be impossible to obtain. Halsted’s tumultuous, often brusque personality, and his suicide in 1989, forced Jones to cull data from interviews, scant legal documents and unreliable hearsay. “Sanitized pasts, guilty consciences and selective memories,” Jones writes, “seemed to have been common among Fred’s most intimate friends. It was no wonder that they tended to favor pseudonyms.”
This wealth of historical evidence distinguishes Halsted from the otherwise fascinating fan portraits that characterize Jones’s earlier film work, of subjects like the somewhat unremarkable, ill-fated porn actor Alan Lambert, or Morrissey’s Southern California fanbase (Finished and Is It Really So Strange?, respectively). Placed beside these figures, Halsted seems a far more necessary subject of such impassioned scrutiny. Yet something in Jones’s personable tone lends itself better to those earlier, cinematic narrations. At points, his opinionated asides (“Unfortunately for the historian . . . “) momentarily distract from his historical thesis. And it is the inclusion of this evidentiary material that sets the book apart from other, straightforward biographies.
He is wise to end with Fred’s words. “It is important to keep it dark so the mystery is created,” Halsted wrote, in a regular column for Drummer. “[A] garage with the light on is just a garage . . . With the lights out it is a fuck space. It isn’t what you have—it’s how you use it.”