Bright Lights Film Journal

Private Rituals Made Public: The Lost Erotica of Fred Halsted

“The whole world wears a jockstrap!”

One of the late George Sanders’ greatest contributions to culture was found in an interview with Rex Reed (in the book Conversations in the Raw), conducted a few years before the actor committed suicide. “The whole world wears a jockstrap!” Sanders railed, his final denunciation of the hypocritical puritanism of society, which, even during the so-called “swingin’ sixties,” still preferred to pretend that sex didn’t exist.

Queer porn auteur Fred Halsted and openly heterosexual Sanders would have made strange bedfellows indeed, but Halsted’s entire, relatively brief career as a filmmaker was based on tearing off the “jockstrap” that Sanders reviled. Halsted’s first film was L.A. Plays Itself (started in 1968, released in 1972), and his last was a minor appearance in Breaker Blue (1988) a year before he, like Sanders, killed himself with sleeping pills. But his artistic achievement can be said to have ended in 1975 with Sextool, even as his legend continued through appearances in films by the people he inspired and occasional writings in s&m magazines like Drummer.

Halsted was one of a small cadre of innovators in the early days of the hardcore gay feature. Many of the others – Wakefield Poole, Jack Deveau, Arch Brown – were based in New York, but Halsted brought an “L.A. malaise” sensibility to the mix, documenting the peculiar torpor of life in the Big Orange through a series of rough (in every sense) s&m porn features. Another thing that set him apart from this group was his pride in how little he knew about the process of filmmaking. While the work of Poole et al. had somewhat respectable production values, or at least aspired to them, Halsted’s films are ragged collages of imagery, with ambient (i.e., sometimes incomprehensible) audio, confusing double exposures, and nonlinear narratives, to put it mildly. While he claimed to have eventually learned his craft, after 1975 it was too late to matter, as he directed only one film after Sextool. More important, his films’ primitive stylistics, their fuck-it-all quality, is their strength, giving them a raw power and immediacy that makes them watchable today in a way that the work of some of his peers isn’t.

Halsted’s films owe more to the underground fetish-fantasies of Kenneth Anger than to the kinds of commercial narratives that other porn filmmakers aspired to. L.A. Plays Itself, celebrated – or vilified, depending on who’s talking – as perhaps the earliest film to show fist fucking, brings onto modern screens the same kind of masculine fetishism that obsessed Anger in works like Scorpio Rising. L.A. Plays Itself begins as a mock-pastorale, with a steamy woodland encounter between a long-haired blonde guy and a hunky brunette whose face, typical of the director, we can barely discern. This extended hardcore sequence of outdoor sex gives way to images of bulldozers tearing down parts of the city; noisy, car-choked streets; and opportunistic encounters that occur both onscreen and on the audio track, the latter in the form of a conversation between a hayseed from Texas who’s just arrived in town and a predator who pretends to warn him of the dangers of the “big city” as a kind of nervous foreplay ritual. Halsted’s sex is sweaty and desperate, set against images of cruelty and destruction both in the bedrooms, bathhouses, and casual sexspaces where it occurs and in the grim, trashy world looming just outside. The sardonic commentaries of the director, who’s also usually a participant even when only seen in shadow, add unexpected touches of humanity.

L.A. Plays Itself is a film of private rituals publicly exposed. As in Sextool, Halsted uses his real-life lover, the late Joey Yale (right, with Fred), as whipping boy, punching bag, and slave. The hunky Halsted himself appears as a shadowy loner, surveying the bleak boulevards of Los Angeles from his car just as his camera does. Not that the film is devoid of humor – in one scene, the predator-in-overdub explains to the hick about “learning the ropes” while the visuals show Halsted casually fashioning what appears to be a noose for poor Joey.

The black-and-white Sex Garage, released the same year, is a marginally more focused work, though by conventional standards it’s far from a classical narrative. It opens with a hardcore hetero scene – a sexy young guy getting head from an enthusiastic woman. Surrounded by cars and car paraphernalia, they fuck furiously on the concrete floor of the title space. But the guy turns out to be bisexual, and graciously accepts the services of a knob-polishing queen who serendipitously moseys in. As in other Halsted films – and recalling the entropic atmosphere of early Warhol movies – here the characters come and go at random. There’s no attempt to create characterizations – in the demimonde of the “sex garage” there are no “people,” just random fetishes, body parts, and desires enacted and forgotten.

Sex Garage has its share of lurid encounters, but the most prescient one is reminiscent of – and surely outstrips – both Kenneth Anger’s bike fetish and the car-fuck crazies of Cronenberg’s Crash. A bored hunk arrives; tired of getting head from the wandering suckboy, he goes for some real action and “mates” with the exhaust pipe of his motorcycle in clinical close-up. This film was banned in New York at the time because the police believed it was “promoting obscenity.” Apparently they didn’t appreciate the peculiar modernity of this scene as a parable of humankind, so often overwhelmed by technology, connecting with cold steel in a way hitherto unimagined. The fact that the overcooked Crash had similar censorship problems around the same time (mid-1990s) that Halsted’s films spilled back into select repertory venues shows how far we hadn’t come. Those budding cineastes who wish to repeat Halsted’s achievement, in general if not in the specifics, will be heartened to know that Sex Garage was shot in a mere one day at a cost of $1,800.

The last of this loose trilogy is Sextool. This is probably the most complex of Halsted’s films, with radical narrative shifts and some of the – still – raunchiest sex scenes in all of non-amteur gay porn. Sextool features the director’s trademark faceless machos: a pair of cops who shove their nightstick up a trick ‘s ass, and a group of sweaty gangbangers who whip, fuck, and fist a cornfed blonde sailor on a bunk bed without a mattress. This scene offers a distillation of Halsted’s world-view. The ruthless abuse of the neatly dressed, boyish, sweet-faced sailor is the director’s most pointed assault on everything wholesome that he hated in postwar American culture. The sailor-boy’s enthusiastic acceptance of his abuse is Halsted’s proof that the mindless “goodness” and optimism of the rising middle class deserved to be attacked, and he does it with gusto. Like the sailor, Joey Yale appears as a too-willing bottom, eagerly embracing the authentic abuse that the real Fred Halsted dishes out. Sadly, the culture wasn’t as accommodating as Yale; these films were censored and remain difficult, and in the case of Sextool, virtually impossible to see (much less own) even today outside rare cinematheque and museum screenings.