Wednesday, August 27, 2008
LA Plays Itself by Fred Halsted
Last night at Light Industry in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, I attended a presentation by William E. Jones of 2 films made by Fred Halsted, Sex Garage and LA Plays Itself. LA Plays Itself is almost a "lost film" in that no fully extant version of it exists currently, except perhaps a film in the film department of MoMA, which does not circulate. Jones has made a provision reconstruction of the film which includes a fisting scene at the end which was removed when the film was transferred to VHS way back when.
Another issue, discussed by Jones after the screening, is the squeamishness on the part of some institutions and individuals in involving themselves with research & reconstruction of a gay porn film. This involves both commercial video companies as well as remaining family & colleagues of the late Fred Halsted. In the commercial film industry, porn exists as a quasi-invisible parallel universe to the corporate fantasies of giant entertainment conglomerates, & as such is kept distant, or ignored, or denied. & if it is gay - one can exponentially increase that disdain.
I had never seen LA Plays Itself. There is a brief excerpt of it in Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself - in addition it gave Andersen a title for his film. Made in a span of 3 years, from 1969 - 1971, released in 1972, LA Plays Itself now exists as a kind of archaeological find of gay porn. In photographic terms, I would say it is comparable to looking at the work of Hill & Adamson, early calotypists making portraits in the 1840s, in an exploratory, ad hoc manner, in contradistinction to the later industrialized commercial portrait studios of Paris, London, New York, churning out mass-produced cartes-de-visites.
What is so striking about LA Plays Itself is its affinities to experimental films as well as its raunchy hubris. Kenneth Anger without any occult. Stan Brakhage in a backroom. Discontinuous editing akin to Soviet experiments of the 1920s. I don't know if Halsted had any experience of any of this kind of film, & it doesn't really matter. What is apparent is Halsted's extreme engagement with the material, his radical "focus" (excuse the pun) on desire, lust, carnality, & how that shapes the provisional narrative - that really is the narrative as such. There's also an amazing array of other "things" in the film, scenes of nature in Malibu Canyon, flowers, insects, fish, & the streets of Los Angeles, & also a rather "Pop art" use of billboards, advertising & newspaper headlines to punctuate scenes. This recalls a similar use of billboards & advertising used by William Klein, in his film Muhammad Ali: The Greatest or the advertising copy which becomes party dialogue & also visual commentary in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou - Criterion Collection ("put a tiger in your tank!"). The newspaper headlines involve the Tate-LoBianca murders & Charles Manson, which become ominous in lieu of the last part of the film which involves an s/M scene between a youth & Fred Halsted in which they are intercut, leading up to the now fragmentary, partially lost fisting scene.
Both Malibu Canyon & the streets of Los Angeles as scenes of cruising, either solitary or in general groups (Selma Ave. was the hustler strip at the time as per Jones) become existential theaters. In daylight they seem still isolated, interior. While the "nature" scenes are lush & fecund, the streets seem infernally shabby. The streets are senseless, cruel, mocking. There is a repetitious Warholian dialogue overlaid on the scenes of street, of Halsted speaking to a young Texan hick, new to LA, telling him to be careful hustling on the streets. There is a sardonic aspect to this as it leads up to the extraordinary 2nd sexual sequence of the film, of a boy being dominated by Halsted - forced to climb stairs on hands & knees, tied to a bed, worked over. At the risk of casting it in negative terms, the film is not joyous about sexuality, although it is certainly obsessed with it.
Contra contemporary porn which has a great deal of polish, a fully illustrative manner in detailing sex acts, routine conventions & a fairly predictable schedule of sequencing, Halsted's films look hand-made. Although made for public consumption, there's a degree of angst to them which in commercial terms is very different from "product". The camera movements are hand held, blurring & obscuring actions. It is often difficult to follow what is going on, or to understand the narrative (jump-cuts a la Antonioni for instance). This can seem intentional, in rendering the sexual violence as truly dangerous. & when it is more oblique, we the viewers are forced into an existential immediacy of consciousness, which seems the true "story" of the film. The images pulsate in & out of near abstraction. In art photography, especially nude "erotic" photography, abstraction is often a kind of visual brake to keep the sexuality of the images contained & controlled, to elevate it to an aesthetic level of "tastefulness". In Halsted's use of abstract framing, with its kinetic force, it instead amplifies a heated voyeurism, or extends the sexuality to that which is not directly sexual or genital related - the lilt of hair, a shoulder, the curve of a back. One could say that this relentless looking of the camera pulls EVERYTHING into a sexualized tension - including the flowers, insects & rocks (& of course the gritty streets): A low-down heated-up frenzy.
Looking at men erotically in our culture has been commercialized so successfully, whether it be a Falcon video, or an Abercrombie & Fitch ad campaign, & so thoroughly identified as such (along with appropriate product placements), it is invigorating to see something like Fred Halsted's films, which are so much more delirious & messy & complex an experience. Our "real" commodified, defined world looks truly shallow in comparison.