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.”
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).
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.
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.
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: