Published in Butt as “A Rather Late Yet Interesting Interview with Dead Porno Artist,” Spring 2008, pp. 24-28.
Fred Halsted’s L. A. Plays Itself (1972) was gay porn’s first masterpiece. Halsted, a self-taught filmmaker, shot the film over a period of three years in a long-vanished Los Angeles, a city at once more rural and sleazier than its present day version. L. A. begins with a lovely coupling in idyllic Malibu, then shifts to the old hustler strip around the YMCA on Selma Avenue in Hollywood. There Halsted picks up a hick from Texas and “shows him the ropes” in an S/M scene climaxing with the first appearance of fist fucking in a commercial gay porno. Director of other films such as the great black and white short Sex Garage and the hallucinatory feature Sextool, Halsted also performed in Joe Gage’s El Paso Wrecking Corp., owned a Silverlake sex club (called Halsted’s, of course) and published his own magazine, Package.
In a rare interview from beyond the grave, the great Halsted spoke with artist and filmmaker William E. Jones at The One Archives on West Adams Blvd. in Los Angeles.
Let’s begin with how you would describe yourself for a personal ad.
Five feet nine and a half, sixteen-inch biceps, under ten inches, thirty-three years old, smooth skin. Into scat, S&M, bondage, water sports, wrestling, Levis, jockstraps, motorcycles, dirty socks, boots, leather, amyl nitrate, belts, whips, chains, masks.
What is your background?
I was born in Long Beach. I was raised in every hick town in California. I was a member of the lower classes. That means you’ve got to work as a kid, help support the family, my mother. My father left when I was three. He just didn’t come home from work one day. I can understand why, though. My mother was a mind-fuck. She was basically a hustler in the sense of an independent, self-made woman. We were constantly on the move. We did lot of agricultural work.
I was born into paradise. A life of being free. As a kid I was able to run naked through a hundred miles of orange groves in fragrant bloom. Revisiting those areas as run-down tenements thirty-two years later is like reading a history of L. A.
How did you “come out”?
I went to L. A. State, the dreariest college ever invented, and studied botany. I thought I was straight then and got engaged. I was into mild S&M even then. I knew I was gay, but my fiancée didn’t believe me. She asked, “How do you know? Have you balled with a guy?” I said, “I just know; intellectually, I decided.” She asked what I was going to do about it. I said, “Well, there’s faggots in Hollywood aren’t there? I’m going to Hollywood to find me one.” Two days after I arrived I met this guy – he was ten years older than I – he brought me out, and we were lovers for three years. That was flowers and poetry. We’re still good friends.
In 1967 I was arrested in Echo Park. Quite simply I was entrapped by two Vice Squad detectives and charged with “lewd vagrancy.” I pleaded guilty and got off with a small fine. I was, at the time, the biggest closet queen you can be. Even when I started L. A. Plays Itself, I didn’t tell people what it was about. I’d just call it “the film.” Making the film was my liberation, my coming out of the closet.
When did you decide to make gay porno movies?
It was 1968, the year Robert Kennedy was murdered. He was my hero. When his life stopped, I stopped everything I was doing. I was a petit bourgeois: I owned a nursery in El Monte, California. I started analyzing my life. I asked myself, “Is selling plants it?” I brooded through the fabulously rainy 1968 into the spring of 1969.
I sold the nursery. Then I worked for people like Vincent Price, Joey Heatherton. I love gardening and plants. Just working took the pressure off. I used to smoke a joint every day and think. I knew something was wrong with the world, with me.
I started back at zero. I thought of the earliest things I could remember. I traced my whole life from the beginning. I sat alone in my single room for weeks.
One thing had been carefully forgotten. I had been raped by my stepfather when I was eight. At that age, I didn’t know what rape was; I didn’t know what had happened to me. I wasn’t repulsed, but I couldn’t accept it. Nineteen years later I introduced fisting to the screen in my first film, which showed it as intrusion, violence, brute force. My interest in sadism, my fascination, had its roots in that early incident. I never meant to editorialize about it; it was catharsis for me, a little kid picked for a sex-object. Analyze it, and it’s myself doing to somebody else what had been done to me.
How did you make sense of this experience as an adult? I guess by that I am asking what S/M means to you.
By sadism I understand the need to dominate another. I can’t get along with anyone sexually who doesn’t want to be dominated sexually. I can’t have normal type sex. I am about the only person who makes gay films from a sadist’s point of view. Almost all gays are masochists, if not overtly, at least subliminally. I see heavy S&M tones going through everything gay, especially gay art. Of course, I am prejudiced, because that is the way I am myself, but I find that most gays even if they are not into it and say that they abhor it, are still intrigued by it.
I am using masochism in the broadest sense from out and out masochists who have to be tortured every day to people who are completely repulsed by it, but who still have it in their consciousness and are intrigued by it. Masochism is both physical pain and psychological humiliation. Everybody loves this stuff on some level, because it is the whole macho, male domination thing. Most homosexuals really want to be dominated by another male. You can take any of them and turn them around. At least I can.
What is your sex life like?
I come maybe one out of ten tricks that I like. Coming is not the point. The point is revelation – the why. Orgasm is fun, but you can do that anytime, anywhere. I am not interested in orgasms. I am interested in me. I can jack off better than I can have sex with anybody. Celibacy is great. I like it. It is more pure, more strong, more real than sex.
My God, you sound like a priest! What are your religious beliefs?
I’m not part of a Christian/Judaic heritage. My mother was a Dukhobor. The Dukhobors have always been spiritualists, vegetarians, and pacifists – all the stuff that I am – for a thousand years. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been going to flying saucer meetings, to séances. I met L. Ron Hubbard in 1949 when Scientology was just five people. He audited my mother and me when I was about eight years old. So most of my religious training was in spiritualism.
You should have been here last weekend. My last friend was a Fundamentalist Christian. As we went through the night, I revealed his Christianity to him and as he was eating the shit out of my asshole, I told him that the words of the Lord are written right there. That is where the Lord has written, right in my shit. And I told him, you don’t say to me “yes, sir,” but “yes, sir Lord.” I put him through a revelation to himself. I told him that anytime he wants to see where the Lord is, he just has to watch my asshole.
I reveal things through sex. I am very religious. I don’t say that I am the Lord. I find such little satisfaction because few people can break out of their egocentric shells and protectiveness, their Christianity and humanity, and whatever else it is that they surround themselves with. The Lord is everywhere – in the sunset and in my shit. It is all Him.
All I can say is, oh, wow. To get back to your movies…
In 1969 I realized I wanted to be a porno star and make plenty of money. I mean I wanted to make my own porno film – to create a part and then be the part. After all the thinking I had done, I decided that I had something to say about sexuality. Things just sort of jelled and I wanted to make my statement: an autobiographical homosexual story, which became L. A. Plays Itself.
One of the purposes of L. A. Plays Itself was to get S&M and allied perversions out on the screen where people could look at them think about them, analyze them, let it affect them, whatever they wanted, but not have it hidden anymore, and leave it open where people can deal with it easily. Maybe it affects them, maybe it doesn’t, it’s irrelevant, the thing is being an open pervert and not being ashamed of that.
Your films have been some of the most successful gay pornos ever. How did you promote them?
On my first films I screened them for the big name critics. Up to that time porno was always considered something you made money off of, but a thing you were never proud of, something you did secretly. Well, I just barged into fucking New York and said this is film, a work of art. It also happened to be gay, hard-core porno. A sadomasochistic, fist fucking faggot film, but that is not the point. No one had ever done this before with a sex film. To me sex is the most viable area of human interest, it is the most important area, so I was proud of what I was doing. I wasn’t the least bit ashamed I and never have been.
Nothing could throw me after my first screenings of these films. In New York City, I invited all the gay liberationists, writers and other artists. I thought, Jesus, here I’ve made this great gay liberation film, L. A. Plays Itself. They can’t help but love it. I was there and I was happy and then the curtain went down and they started to boo and hiss and stomp their feet. I thought, My God, is this a gay, liberated audience? I had to go up and talk to them, to the crème de la crème of New York gay lib writers and poets and jackoffs, had to explain what I had just done on screen.
They said, “What are you doing all this shit for?”
“What do you mean?” I said. “That’s the way I ball. I’m just another faggot and that’s just another sex scene. Why make such a big deal out of it? You know all about it.” It was a hostile audience, which surprised me, but I disarmed them in ten minutes. “Where are all the fist fucking faggots around town?” I asked. “I know this stuff goes on and we all go to it and we all go to these places, so why are you acting as if your virginity has been lost or something?” I guess they expected love and kisses and beautiful flowers, which they got, too, but I think they expected me to give them a poem to sexual virginity. I stuck with the audience and thought, well, I just assume too much. I thought they’d been around, but they acted like they’d never seen a cock before.
The film was a forced expression of my overt sexuality.
Are you happy with what you have achieved?
I think I’ve been extremely influential in terms of breaking faggots out of the swish era. My films present faggots in the macho era, and maybe it’s too overdone, but the whole style changed. I think that it had an enormous influence on the style and fashion of gay America, and I think that’s good. At one time for several years I was the dominant thinker in America in terms of breaking this softness, and I think it’s succeeded.
L. A. Plays Itself and Sex Garage are the only hardcore movies in the Film Collection of the Museum of Modern Art. After seeing L. A. Plays Itself, Salvador Dali kept saying over and over, “New information for me,” and William Burroughs said that it “breaks all the stereotypes.” I feel that these two artists certainly are outrageous too, certainly many people felt that Burroughs was disgusting with Naked Lunch. I would like to film Naked Lunch as an all-out sex film. Burroughs and I were working on that a few years ago in London.
I’m proud of my work. The best is yet to come.
This séance/interview was pieced together from a variety of sources, some unpublished, and others long out of print. A full bibliography is included in the book Halsted Plays Himself, published by Semiotext(e).