The Pornography of Exhaustion and Tape Decay: Fred Halsted’s Fast Friends (1986)

Spend any significant amount of time on cult-movie internet discussion boards and you will come across plentiful grievances against the IMDB. The complaints are well founded, though I will confess I’ve generally found them to be fairly minor—the release date of a 1971 grindhouse film off by a year, the running time of a Jess Franco film wrong by twelve minutes, etc.

When it comes to Fred Halsted, though, I’ve never seen a more egregiously inaccurate IMDB page for such a significant filmmaker. He gets credited as director of seven features—barely half of the titles listed at the more comprehensive IAFD (Internet Adult Film Database). By IMDB’s narrative, Halsted’s career ended in 1982.

I’ll be blunt: if Fast Friends (copyright 1986 but listed everywhere as released in 1987) is representative evidence, it probably should have stopped there. This is a sad, dispiriting effort all around, and it’s merely to contribute some commentary on the late-Halsted oeuvre that I even bother here; it seems nobody else has seen fit to do so. BJ Land, a great repository of info and commentary on gay porn history, makes the briefest of comments; Jeffrey Escoffier’s Bigger Than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore contains no mention; in his Bright Lights Film Journal essay on Halsted, Gary Morris simply asserts that “his artistic achievement can be said to have ended in 1975”;  and even William E. Jones, undisputed Dean of Halsted Studies, says in Halsted Plays Himself only this of Halsted in the 80s: “most of his feature films and videos from that period have little to recommend them beyond the obvious attractions.”

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The attractions are not always so obvious in Fast Friends, which opens with a blurry shot of the Los Angeles skyline, then some traffic shots that recall the beginning of Halsted’s 1975 Sextool, probably his last interesting effort. Invocations of the past largely stop there, however, as the film immediately moves into a bland apartment and remains almost wholly interior for the rest of its duration—a shift away from the public sex culture of L.A. Plays Itself, and a move that was paralleled by both the straight and gay porn of the 1980s (not to mention the broader privatization of life under neoliberalism that emerged from the expanding carceral state, but I digress).

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Halsted gives us four friends sitting around a couch sharing sexy stories; indicative of the film’s emaciated erotic imagination and threadbare budget is the fact that we get only three scenes; guess someone had to save his tale for a sequel that thankfully never happened. The young men are utterly anonymous, not even bothering to devise full porn pseudonyms, such that one is credited simply as “Dean,” another as “Gregory.”

In the first scenario that emanates out of their conversation, a diminutive young man lathers and then services two bodybuilders; in the second, a young man submits to a spanking by his father after being caught masturbating; finally, we move ever so briefly back outdoors to a gym, where another discussant meets a straight guy, quickly draws him back inside, and turns him out. All of this is shot and performed in the most perfunctory of manners, without much in the way of flourish or enthusiasm (except perhaps the straight guy, who sweats rather impressively). Then it’s over.

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Only a few noteworthy elements bear mention. Halsted himself plays the intruding father in the second scene, and it’s somewhat depressing to watch. No longer the iconic sexual outlaw of the 1970s, he looks more like an ordinary middle-aged man. Which is fine, of course—it’s commendable to age without desperation. Except that readers of Jones’s book know that he was desperate, self-conscious about his skin and weight gain, and it’s impossible not to invoke that extra-textual knowledge while watching this. Even his usual dirty-talk grunts—“what kinda shit is this,” he asks of his son’s porn mags; “buncha faggots”—sound tired, and though he briefly paws at himself through his pants, Halsted remains clothed throughout the scene, which drags on interminably, punctuated only by the grotesque, inadvertent humor of Halsted’s frequent references to the son’s hardness, a claim visually belied by the cutaways to the poor performer Al Jones struggling valiantly to stay engaged and engorged for over twenty grueling minutes.

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The overall absence of penetrative sex is the only other aspect of note. Penetration is obviously not the all-hallowed telos of sex, but it most assuredly has been the pornographic imperative since the dawn of cinema, and Fast Friends shies away from it. Halsted had consistently emphasized his relative lack of interest in conventional sex since the early 70s, so we might—if we’re extraordinarily generous—read Fast Friends as a defiantly counter-penetrative inscription of bodily pleasures; we might also read it through the lens of contemporaneous AIDS concerns—Cindy Patton has written brilliantly about the safer-sex “pornographic vernacular” fashioned by gay stars like Al Parker at this exact moment; was Halsted engaged in a related project?

I’m not sure, though it’s impossible not to read all 1980s porn (not to mention all 1980s politics, period) through the AIDS crisis. In any case, the Halsted of Fast Friends is no longer the Halsted of L.A. Plays Itself, as performer or filmmaker, and the film is a slog, effective only at arousing feelings of despondence and pathos over the ravages of time and history.

The most interesting aspect of my own viewing experience was the beat-to-hell VHS tape I scored cheap on eBay. Decrepit and deteriorating into oblivion, it played with drained color and a flickering, horizontally rolling image that gave it the not-inappropriate feel of Bill Morrison’s Decasia. While this aesthetic layer was obviously unintended by Halsted, it actually made the film far more engaging than it otherwise would have been, though it also accounts for the abominable image quality of the screencaps (the tape would momentarily bleed into full color upon unpausing, hence the “play” sign).

I’ll close with my own visual remix of the film, as experienced on my own couch:

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Fred Halsted Goes to Iowa (and Gets Stranded on VHS)

Two (rather blurry*) images of Fred Halsted in the late 1970s:

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The first is from El Paso Wrecking Corp., part 2 of Joe Gage’s “working man’s trilogy” that charted a gay sexual geography across the highways and truck stops of America and constitutes a landmark in working-class queer sexual culture.

You’d think the other image shared a heritage, but no, far from it: this is Fred Halsted in his only mainstream film role, a PG-rated comedy about women’s basketball shot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and released in 1979 as Dribble.

None of this makes sense. Though I suppose few would confuse Dribble for a porn title.

I learned of the film’s existence while reviewing some files on Halsted; it received a brief mention in a 1979 Advocate interview:

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That caught my attention. Halsted was burned out on porn at the time, having also recently made his stage debut in a play called News for Tennessee (as in, Williams). But okay, that at least made some sense. The film, not so much. I became determined to track it down.

Dribble popped up on VHS in 1982, retitled Scoring, and hasn’t drawn much attention since. Wikipedia offers a brief profile that mistakenly attributes it to Troma (which has another film with the same title)**. There’s a nicely researched essay on a dead-minor-league-sports-teams history blog (I’d add a “!” but considering what I’m writing about, it would hardly be fair) about the basketball team whose owner apparently funded the movie as a failed promotional ploy here. And Temple of Schlock, one of the best sources on forgotten regional and exploitation films of the 1970s, has a tremendous set of newspaper documents about it. But none of this mentions Halsted at all, even though he somewhat surprisingly got his name on the movie’s poster (borrowed from TOS):

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Finding a copy, or at least an affordable one, isn’t easy, but I landed one for ten bucks on ebay, a onetime rental at Video Park on Flamingo & Pecos, which the gods of Google tell me was in Las Vegas. The American video cover art is disappointingly dull compared to the Japanese video that must have come out around the same time:

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The film itself is even more dire. The opening locker room scene gives a sense of what Debbie Does Dallas would look like with a PG rating, all flat affect and broad humor. Probably the most clever moment comes on a team bus, where one woman reads The Hunchback of Notre Dame; another leans over and asks, “is that the Knute Rockne story?” Lulz like a Godard film from 1972, here. Usually the jokes aim even lower—more par for the course is a middle-aged florist whose son grows some weed and gets him high, which manifests in some half-assed air-dribbling, true Iowan reefer madness. It’s all pretty painful to watch, even the upside-down-car-on-a-shopping-cart scene.

Usually low-budget regional films from the era before the great neoliberal enclosure movement of the 1980s that privatized everything except the clouds at least promise some nice visual documentation of local scenery, but aside from one driving scene in downtown Cedar Rapids, we don’t even get that. If you want to see Iowa in the 70s caught on film, you’re better off with Dick Van Dyke in Cold Turkey (which was Des Moines, not Cedar Rapids, to be sure). The one nice thing I can say is that otherwise incompetent writer-director Michael De Gaetano shoots basketball games with an impressively active camera that gets into the middle of the action (there was apparently an article about the film in American Cinematographer in 1979, which kinda boggles the mind). Otherwise, it’s a total wash.

And what of Halsted? Ah, sweet disappointment: he enters around the 15-minute mark, playing a character listed in the end credits as “Highway Psycho.” Fittingly so: he enters stage right in a jeep, swerving at a van carrying our protagonists of the good team Vixens for no apparent reason. Fortunately, they’re riding with the florist, who carries a cheap-looking mutant venus flytrap (one wonders if De Gaetano, whose previous films were grade-z sci-fi/horror, was planning a Little Shop of Horrors remake)—which he throws at Halsted, who screams and runs off the road. In the next scene, Halsted shows back up at the diner where the team eats, punches the florist out, but then gets knocked out himself by their female coach. Exit Halsted—with another 75 painful minutes remaining.

I kept hoping he’d show back up, but no dice. We do get a more high-profile cameo from real-life basketball star Pistol Pete Maravich, who comes across as a charmless, sexist jerk, but the sad fact is, Halsted himself offers no particular gravitas in his non-sex debut (there’s another film debut here, credited surreally alongside our FH, though he too leaves little impression that he’ll later ascend to a television presidency):

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Of Halsted’s approximately five short lines of dialogue, none are delivered with distinction, and even the suspiciously slow-motion punch he throws is no paragon of choreography. We are left, I am afraid, with the impression, albeit one founded on slender evidence, that pornography is really where his talent best showed.

The single other point of interest in Dribble/Scoring is a brief scene late in the film, on the military base where the Vixens are to play against the men’s team in the climactic game (I’ll withhold spoilers, but you won’t lose money betting with your gut here). The general in charge tells an underlining, “I don’t want any faggots running around this base. I have enough trouble keeping those glory holes in the men’s room boarded up.”

A homophobic joke typical of 1970s fare, to be sure, but am I entirely off base in reading further into it? This is, after all, a film featuring gay porn icon Fred Halsted, whose last acting role was in a hardcore picture that prominently featured actual glory holes (the aforementioned El Paso Wrecking Corp.). Surely someone behind the camera knew this (edit: indeed; see below***). Whether I am making this more interesting than it really is through an act of wish-fulfillment projection, I am not sure, but I can’t help but read this as some sort of willfully perverse in-joke (did mainstream audiences in 1979 even know what glory holes were? I don’t know; I also refuse to speculate about the fact that the actor delivering that line is credited as Dick Hardiman, in his single screen role). During his brief appearance, Halsted is certainly filmed within the precise iconography of Joe Gage’s films:

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Oh wait, that last one is Joe Gage again. See what I mean?

Whatever the case, the story behind the scenes was assuredly more interesting than the one onscreen. Halsted would shortly return to porn. It’s sad to think of him playing out his  final years trapped in a smut trade he longed to escape; sadder still that the available evidence does not support a theory that going mainstream would have been a viable avenue of escape. Such is the unavoidable conclusion of Dribble.

* I’m shooting my TV with my digital camera, so Criterion collection visuals, this ain’t

** I stand corrected; though it seemed reasonable to assume the Wikipeeps had simply conflated this movie with Troma’s 2004 film, never underestimate Lloyd Kaufman’s capacity for dribble: they own it indeed (though to what end, even they don’t seem to know). I thank the esteemed folks at Vinegar Syndrome for the correction. 

*** I am informed by reliable sources that director Michael De Gaetano is indeed gay, so that helps explain Halsted’s otherwise odd presence here and the knowingness of the nods to the Joe Gage aesthetic. De Gaetano also brought an interesting moment of sexual confusion to his 1977 supernatural thriller Haunted. Queer subtext in exploitation films that are assumed by default as hetero-oriented might be an interesting field of investigation; the work of David DeCoteau springs to mind, among others…

Fred Halsted Gets Married

(This post is dedicated to Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Antonin Scalia, bigots who hold tremendous power that they will exercise tomorrow. May they someday be compelled to watch the entire Fred Halsted oeuvre, and may it change them for the better.*)

When Fred Halsted released his rough, transgressive artporn film Sextool in 1975, reviewer William Moritz applauded it in Entertainment West, declaring that the “heterosexual, middle-class concepts of marriage and morality that have been foisted upon gays by society are ruptured and banished.”

Well, not entirely: a few months later, in May 1975, Halsted was “pleased and proud to announce his engagement to his personal slave, super-twink Joseph Yale”:

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In some ways the Halsted-Yale partnership upsets prevailing narratives of same-sex marriage. As opponents of marriage equality quickly recede into an ugly and intolerant past that collective memory is sure to quickly purge (as it did miscegenation laws, a rapid forgetting Peggy Pascoe chronicled in What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America), two main camps are left standing. Liberal proponents of formal legal equality recognize marriage as the basic institution of sexual citizenship, and demand access for all. Queer radical critics, like the Against Equality collective, reject the idea of assimilating into a hegemonic “normalcy” that “apes hetero privilege” and subjects LGBT relationships to the same regulatory mechanisms of state control that straight people have so insipidly hoisted upon themselves in the name of what Dagmar Herzog calls “the wages of straightness.”

I’m simplifying, but that’s because what I really want to talk about is Fred Halsted.

Halsted and Yale complicate the tension between these camps. As kinky, nonmonogamous, drug using pornographers, they were hardly precursors to what Lisa Duggan has labeled homonormativity, a sort of inversion of Foucault’s perverse implantation in which it’s the ones labeled perverts who internalize the standards of vanilla straight society. Carl Wittman railed against this in his famous “Gay Manifesto,” writing that “gay people must stop gauging their self-respect by how well they mimic straight marriages.” But Halsted caught flak from the other side, too, as radical gay liberationists often reacted negatively to the rough SM slant of his 1972 masterpiece L.A. Plays Itself, some even considering it oppressive.

Halsted himself saw no ideological tension in his marriage. When asked in a 1978 interview why anyone would want to get married, he simply said, “Because they’re in love. Everyone’s always wanted to get married.” While this somewhat unnuanced and ahistorical view fell short of profundity, he later added qualifying comments that rejected a monolithic view of the institution. He and Yale had a clause specifying that adultery could not constitute grounds for divorce. “We’re not heterosexuals,” he said, “and I don’t think we should live our marriage in terms of heterosexuality.”

So far, so queer. Domesticated consumer subjects of American empire, they were not, and Halsted and Yale provide an interesting historical counterpoint to bifurcated narratives of marriage in which it stands in opposition to a more “radical” liberationist ethos. (They also, I think, serve as reminders of an important aspect of this history all too often overlooked, which is that whatever legal bans have been imposed, same-sex marriage has been happening for decades, and has never been prevented by homophobic laws; the actual question is one of state recognition.**)

Yet something sticks in the craw upon reading that mostly charming announcement. Slave imagery has a long (and complex) history in BDSM circles, but as Margot Weiss recently argued in Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, it can’t be wholly “emptied of any specific historical or social meaning, or rendered ‘not real’ by the bracketing function of the safe, sane, and consensual scene” (196-97). In a society still haunted by the ongoing racial inequalities generated by slavery, calling something “play” does not simply remove it from history. Yet Halsted granted himself license to transcend race; as a self-identified pervert, and a filmmaker who at times used bold interracial imagery, he seemed to feel entitled to lay claim to racial imagery that was not his to own.

It wasn’t just the widely-used SM slave trope. William E. Jones’s Halsted Plays Himself, one of my favorite books of the past decade and a work of astounding research and recovery, includes a tremendously useful bibliography of Halsted material. One citation it does not include, though, which I found in the vertical file for L.A. Plays Itself at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives (from Drummer, issue 38, 1975), reflects Halsted’s casual but deeply problematic claiming of loaded racial language:

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Ugh. You can see my shocked underlining. Surely the affective resonances of language like this vary across time and place, and it fit Halsted’s carefully cultivated self-presentation as a coarse iconoclast (who also called himself and others “faggot,” much to the anger of many gay activists). Yet it also undeniably shows a sense of unquestioned racial entitlement. 

There are numerous analytical avenues one could take from there. I fear that I stretch the limits of a decent blog post (and heaven forfend that one would traipse into indecency whilst discussing that all-American man Fred Halsted!), but I’ll leave it at the simple suggestion that Halsted and Yale queered the question of same-sex marriage long before it became a mainstream-LGBT-vs-queer-radical proposition, and also that they did so while engaging in a form of sexualized white privilege that requires interrogation—had the Supreme Court not, this very day, reminded us that racism is dead and we live in a post-racial nation that just happens to be riddled with deep-seated racial inequalities. I guess Fred Halsted and Samuel Alito share some ideas after all.

* I like to think that while Thomas was renting copious amounts of porn lo those many years ago before the interwebz, he accidentally brought home a copy of L.A. Plays Itself. Oh, the ensuing hilarity…

**I’m not sure whether Halsted and Yale received state recognition for their marriage, but the announcement does mention being “wed legally,” and the time and place of Boulder, 1975, is glaring; Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan had wed there in April 1975, with a half-dozen gay couples following before the county clamped down. Were Halsted and Yale among them? I don’t actually know, but I’d love to learn more.