Jim Coughenour's Reviews > Halsted Plays Himself (Semiotext

Halsted Plays Himself (Semiotext by William E. Jones
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's review
Nov 10, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: biography, experimental, film
Read in November, 2011

The name of Fred Halsted will ring a bell for very few readers, and those few will be as incredulous as I was to discover a slick Semiotext(e) monograph dedicated to his obscure, obscene ouevre – mostly hardcore homosexual art films from the 70s and early 80s. Like Justin Spring in his extraordinary Secret Historian, the filmmaker William E. Jones has salvaged a forgotten outré artist from the refuse heap of history.

Way back when, Halsted was infamous for LA Plays Itself (1972), an almost incoherent experimental film that starts with a naturist's sunny ramble through the Malibu hills and ends with a lad getting fist-fucked in a warehouse – a trajectory (comically recounted by Jones) that posed peculiar problems for the MoMA curator presenting the film at an early screening for museum patrons. Halsted's following films featured further S/M rhapsodies, as did his few pieces of one-handed fiction.

For me the fascination isn't with the work itself (which I never found appealing), but with Jones's resurrection of the milieu in which Halsted lived and died. The gay subculture of the 70s and early 80s was a wild weird wonderland, an exuberant Dionysian underworld coexisting with a sometimes strident utopian politics. Jones enriches his book with some pulpy Halsted interviews (by Mikhail Francis Itkin, aka Saint Mikhail of California; and Rosa von Praunheim) that are alternately hilarious and hair-raising. The book is also exceptionally well-illustrated, although not SFW unless you work in a porn store.

"So Fred, how does it feel not to be the most beautiful person in the room anymore?"

Halsted's biography is itself a grim fairy tale – a damaged, handsome young man who recreates himself as a hardcore icon. As Jones sums it up: "Fred came from nothing, and whatever he learned, whatever he owned, he acquired himself through guile and exploit. Without supportive parents, sufficient money or education, Fred had little choice. His looks were what he had to work with... That Fred was able to achieve the success he did qualifies as a triumph." It's also a lacerating love story. Halsted found his soulmate in a young buff blond boy named Joey Yale, who in turn destroyed his soul. In its seedy desperate permutations, Halsted's story is spectacular - a Faustus for fist-fuckers.
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