Book Review: Halsted Plays Himself
William E. Jones, Semiotext(e), 2011
by Travis Jeppesen
In the absence of any definitive oral history of gay porn -- the genre is in dire need of an epic accounting-for by its surviving originators, something in the vein of what Legs McNeill's The Other Hollywood did for straight porn -- we have to make do with gossip, anecdotes, scraps of innuendo and hearsay, putting those of us with an interest in the subject in the position of basket weavers of a narrative, constructors of our own version of truth out of inference. Artist William E. Jones traverses this path in Halsted Plays Himself, a look at the life and work of Fred Halsted, director of the legendary skin flick L.A. Plays Itself. Much like its subject, whose defiance of categories and the trappings of identity politics positioned him as a perennial outsider, belonging completely neither to the art world nor the porn world, the book wavers between biography, critique, and coffee table monograph, in a veritable field of indeterminacy. In this, the structure of the book mirror Jones's own journey towards his subject. Jones admits in his preface that he is as much fascinated by Halsted's flaws as a character and filmmaker as he is by the work. Hence, we have one of the most intriguing and unusual cultural histories of recent years, a work that simultaneously serves as a valuable extension of Jones's own idiosyncratic oeuvre.
L.A. Plays Itself was undoubtedly the first major work to appear in the American gay porn canon -- as well as a bizarre, experimental art film, thanks to its disruptive editing and abrupt sequencing -- aspects which, Jones suggests, can be attributed equally to Halsted's clumsiness as a self-taught filmmaker and his confrontational, punk-before-Punk attitude. Whatever the film's merits may be, its release arrived at a time (the early 1970s) when pornography was something new and glamorous, and did not have the stigmas we attach to it today; it was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York to a who's-who of the artistic elite, including the likes of Salvador Dali and William S. Burroughs.
L.A. Plays Itself would prove to be the highlight of Halsted's career -- though certainly not the sole interesting chapter of his life, as Jones's book demonstrates. Halsted made several other films, performed in many others, owned a gay sex club, ran his own magazine, and lived the life of what we might call today a sex activist. Halsted's aggressively politically incorrect stance -- he once referred to himself in an interview as a Nazi -- betrayed his own constant battles with his personal demons. By the time he committed suicide in 1989 -- three years after the death of his lover and L.A. Plays Itself co-star Joey Yale -- his legacy in the gay porn world had already played itself. He was largely forgotten.
In addition to his former day job as an editor in the porn industry, Jones has devoted a significant part of his career as an artist mining the archives of faggotry, that treacherous domain that eludes pseudo-acceptance by the heterosexist mainstream. In films and installations like Tearoom and The Fall of Communism As Seen in Gay Pornography, Jones has showed how the playing-out of desires meant to be secret and taboo can have loud social implications. Jones takes us to places where we are not supposed to want to go, and he goes there all the way -- to the extent that he can. In a sort of superficial way, Halsted Plays Himself is unsatisfying in the end, as it is unable to fully resolve the enigma of Fred Halsted, which has much to do with the scene of paranoia Halsted painted around himself. "No single person I interviewed was an excellent source, speaking openly, for the record and for attribution to a real name," writes Jones. "Most required anonymity to loosen their tongues, while others seemed to withhold much more than they disclosed. Everyone added the proviso, 'Please don't mention...' whether the taboo was an especially salacious story, a paranoid theory, or facts that would reveal an identity."
As frustrating as Halsted Plays Himself can be, the genius of the book is that it forces us to ask how it is possible to really know anyone -- whether they be dead or alive. Thus, the shady underbelly of the porn world is shown to be but a mere reflection, if not amplification, of those facets of reality few of us wish to contend with in our daily lives, but are always there, not far below the surface, playing themselves out.
Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio.view all articles from this author