Presenting an interview by John Wisniewski with William E. Jones, author of Halsted Plays Himself (2011). The subject is gay filmmaker and performer Fred Halsted (1941–1989) whose 1972 film LA Plays Itself was a pioneering piece of low-budget cinema which combined a fragmented view of Los Angeles with explicit liaisons between several men, one of them portrayed by Halsted himself. Halsted took advantage of the period between 1970 and 1975 when porn in the US was no longer illegal but hadn’t yet been industrialised. As with Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, what you get on the screen isn’t a product, it’s the representation of an obsession. It’s this that makes LA Plays Itself a still surprising and provocative piece of work.
I arrived at this film and Halsted somewhat belatedly, in fact I don’t think I’d read anything about him at all until William E. Jones was interviewed when his book was published. (Matters haven’t been helped in this country by the way hardcore porn of any kind was still illegal into the 1990s.) LA Plays Itself fascinates for the view it gives of the LA cruising scene which John Rechy described in considerable detail in The Sexual Outlaw. It’s a curiously hybrid film, neither straightforward porn—many of the sex scenes are fragmented—nor is it narrative fiction or outright documentary. Together with the recently reissued films of Peter de Rome, it’s the kind of thing that few people would be likely to make today, despite the easier access to film technology and the relaxing of censorship. And like all porn films of this era, it now has a unique look simply because it’s been shot on film.
None of Halsted’s films appear to be on DVD at the moment, and as William Jones notes below, Sextool (1975), the film Halsted regarded as his major work, may only exist as a single fading print.
Here’s John and William.
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John Wisniewski: Why did you choose to write your book on filmmaker Fred Halsted?
William E. Jones: For several years I made money in the adult video industry, producing budget DVD compilations (4 hours for $10) sold in adult video stores. Before technological innovation rendered my job redundant, I watched over 700 hours of gay adult film and video produced between 1969 and 1999. In such vast quantities, the material, especially from the second half of the period, began to seem nightmarish in its ugliness. I would relish the opportunity to see any earlier title, produced before 1985, directed more or less like a movie, shot on location, and sometimes even acted fairly well. I can say without hesitation that Fred Halsted’s films were my favorites of all the videos I saw during those years in the porn industry.
Fred Halsted’s films have many fans but few advocates, and I thought my book could intervene in a decisive way before his legacy – the films and the memories of those who knew him personally – disappears completely. I also chose him as my subject because of his connection to Los Angeles. He lived and worked in neighborhoods I pass through nearly every day. But there was something else that drew me to his films, the uncanny power of work by a novice, and a self-taught one at that. His films are crude, idiosyncratic, and at their best have the force of a revelation.