Exploring the Complicated World of Porn Pioneer Fred Halsted

by Sam Cohen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday December 8, 2021
Originally published on December 6, 2021

"Where are all the fist-fucking faggots around town?" So said raconteur, rabble rouser and gay porn pioneer Fred Halsted to a group of New York gay lib writers, poets and — as Halsted called some of them — "jack offs," after a preview screening of "L.A. Plays Itself" that earned boos and hisses aplenty. Halsted, who died in 1989 at the age of 46, is the subject of an incredible new Blu-ray set from U.S. film distributor Altered Innocence and sister company of distributor Vinegar Syndrome, OCN Distribution. (For more information, follow this link.

Halsted's films polarized audiences upon release, and have since been reappraised for the valuable works they are, as they detailed gay subcultures that were even shunned by the community at large, especially the leather-clad S&M culture of LA. But even more than that, they have Halsted's knack for eliding specific gay desire with genuinely solid filmmaking, running the gamut between experimental and traditional narrative techniques. This made Halsted gay porn's first auteur, using sex acts as a way to break down boundaries and have a revealing conversation about sadomasochism, among other so-called perversities. When the infamous fist-fucking scene in "L.A. Plays Itself" arrives in the climax, those pre-determined boundaries of gay lust are shattered. It feels more revelatory than ever, even in today's world of gay porn being immediately available on the internet.

The set, titled "L.A. Plays Itself: The Fred Halsted Collection," compiles Halsted's first four features — "L.A. Plays Itself," "The Sex Garage," "Truck It" and "Sextool" — and adds incredible commentary around the films with special features from industry experts and an accompanying booklet with essays on Halsted. What can and should be taken as a triumph of film preservation, presentation, and conversation, with "L.A. Plays Itself" and "Sextool" being sourced from new 4K restorations culled from 16mm exhibition prints held by the Museum of Modern Art, brings to question the state of gay porn preservation. If Halsted's work is stored at MoMA, then where are the works of filmmakers like Joe Gage, Wakefield Poole, and Arch Brown, and why can't they receive the same treatment Halsted has here? The answer is complicated, but the passion exemplified by the people championing these films is anything but.

One of these people is Elizabeth Purchell, a trans woman who has thrown her time, money, and life behind queer film. She produced and released an essay film about gay porn with "Ask Any Buddy," which has since sprouted a podcast and numerous other projects that look to explore gay male culture through the history of the gay adult film industry. Her essay film, which I reviewed favorably in 2020, "... uses fragments from 126 theatrical feature films spanning the years 1968-1986 to create a kaleidoscopic, day-in-the-life snapshot of urban gay culture in the era — or at least how it looked in the movies." The result is intoxicating and incredible in its ability to weave a narrative through seemingly disparate fragments, showcasing queer life as it lived on the fringes of society, tucked away in back alleys, bath houses, and even New York City's West Side Piers.

Purchell is the Special Features Producer on "L.A. Plays Itself: The Fred Halsted Collection," which should come as no surprise, given her commitment to queer film. But more than just a small-world coincidence, the set is bolstered by Purchell's work in digital archiving of various gay films and publications. It's because of her that Halsted's thought-to-be-lost third feature, "Truck It," is included, even though the only material available to be scanned was a VHS and the shortened 8mm loops meant to be seen in the back of porn shops.

Many of the gay films produced during the era of porno chic (1969-1984) — also known as "The Golden Age of Porn" — were shot on 16mm, and, when the advent of digital video became affordable enough, on that format as well. But these films aren't provided the kind of storage that would prevent their degradation over the course of decades, nor do the owners of these films have the money to throw at digital preservation and restoration.

EDGE Media Network was given the incredible opportunity to chat with Liz Purchell about the Fred Halsted Blu-ray set and gay porn preservation at large.

EDGE: Was being a queer film historian always a passion for you?

Liz Purchell: Ever since I came out as gay years and years and years ago, I've had an interest in queer cinema. But it's been kind of combined with a lifelong love and interest in genre and exploitation films. As time has gone on, seeing the connections between the two; how queer cinema evolves out of the exploitation and genre world. It was a screening of Wakefield Poole's "Bijou" which was kind of my entryway into the gay side of things. That, combined with seeing Halsted's "LA Plays Itself," Curt McDowell's "Thundercrack," and Jack Deveau's "Drive" in quick succession of each other, led me to the question: "If these [films] are out there, then what else is?" These films that are so mind-blowing and never talked about exist, and that's kind of the impetus for everything I do. The Instagram project kind of grew out of me discovering how those films were advertised, and how central they were to gay visual culture in that era. As I slowly started amassing a collection and gained access to different magazines and scans, the Instagram became an excuse to get this imagery back into the world, rather being stuck in dusty old magazines.

EDGE: With Arthur Bressan Jr. [director of "Buddies" and "Passing Strangers"], his hardcore work is deeply connected to his dramatic work in terms of technique and narrative. That's part of what I find so fascinating about queer film from that era, as the content and style are often similar — just one version has fucking, and the other doesn't.

Liz Purchell: Yeah, he never distinguished between the two. It was all just film to him. But there was something he was frustrated about, the fact that the adult films were seen to be less legitimate that his other films. There's a radio broadcast, which you can find online at the LGBT Historical Society's website, of a kind of town hall about "Cruising" [William Friedkin's 1980 film] and the protests behind it. He [Bressan Jr.] was one of the speakers, and he talks about how "Forbidden Letters" was invited to play at the Berlin International Film Festival, and as he was about to leave for Berlin, he was told that he could not show that film at the Castro Theatre (San Francisco) because the owner thought the film would make the theater look like a gay theater. So, the film can play at this world-renowned film festival, but it can't play at a local theater; it had to play at the Nob Hill Theatre, which was a very classy theater, but not the same.

EDGE: Probably not the kind of mainstream appeal he was wishing for? Especially after playing at a festival of that caliber. After all the years you've spent on archiving so far, what do you think is the biggest issue facing the further preservation and restoration of these works?

Liz Purchell: I think the biggest one is lack of consumer support. I've repeated this quote from Joe Rubin [founder of Vinegar Syndrome] many times, but: "The Wakefield Poole films that VS released have only sold less than a quarter of their worst-selling heterosexual release." Even though people look at these [queer] films as art films, but they haven't sold. The other [issue] is a combination of film elements and rights. Finding negatives for many of these films is incredibly rare. I know that Joe has an enormous collection of prints of gay films, but he only has a handful of negatives. A lot of the people making these films didn't make it out of the '80s. So, when they passed away, the elements got discarded or were sold to companies like VCA [Video Company of America], who had a gay label called HIS Video. When they were bought out by Hustler in the late '90s, they threw every film element into the dumpster. Both straight and gay films. What we're left with mostly is these theatrical prints, and since there weren't that many gay theaters back then [the 1980s], few theatrical prints were produced for each film. If you've seen the quality of some of these transfers, you can see that these films were played a lot. Splices, missing titles, audio, this and that; it's kind of working with what we've got left.

EDGE: How does that compare to the straight hardcore releases that VS puts out?

Liz Purchell: There's the big comparison. They have a lot of negatives for those films. I know Joe [Rubin] has told me that most of those prints were acquired from film labs or from the actual companies themselves, but these gay films have a one-in-a-million chance that single print pops up. It's literally, "If you don't get this, then this is the last chance you'll have." The first big score I had was a storage unit on Craigslist in San Francisco. Joe bought the lot, and in it was something like 100 prints of films, including a lot of lost films, even the first feature from the director of "Dracula Sucks" (a popular straight hardcore film from the Golden Age). It's this insane bisexual hardcore take on "Lonesome Cowboys," the Paul Morrissey/Andy Warhol film, called "The Savages." It is a gonzo underground comedy, and has never had a video release. [There is] only one print in existence, in that storage unit. The funny thing about the gay films is that the ones where we know the most prints still exist, they're usually the worst films. When you think of Fred Halsted and Wakefield Poole, those people distributed their own stuff, so nothing [in the way of good archival material] really exists. But Joe has a dozen prints of "Golden Boys of the SS" and "Michael, Angelo and David by this director named Mother Goose, who we can't identify.

EDGE: Well, that's kind of what I love so much about AGFA, Altered Innocence, and other labels distributed by OCN and Vinegar Syndrome. If the actual film is good or not is of no great concern. It's that these underground films were made by people with absolutely no oversight. Even if I don't like the film, the supplements included and even the bare existence of these films on physical media is incredible. That goes for the Blu-ray release you contributed to with AGFA called "What Really Happened to Baby Jane?" And the Films of the Gay Girls Riding Club?

Liz Purchell: That [Blu-ray set] was something I pitched to them [AGFA], and am so grateful that they took it on and made it a reality. Something Weird Video released those films very briefly on tape in the late '90s, but they instantly got sued because of them (specifically, their content). And apart from those films getting recognition at queer film festivals, those films haven't been seen in decades. I don't necessarily think they're masterpieces, but they're really amazing snapshots of queer culture at the time, especially early drag history. Drag is so ubiquitous right now, so to go back to 1962 [the year in which the first film in the set is released], and seeing this really cheap parody of a Greek film, you know? You can go back and watch this version of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" This is just months after the original film's release, and someone's already done a drag version of Bette Davis, and it's perfect. Someone has already done a drag version of Joan Crawford, and it's perfect. Here's that same type of comedy we're still seeing today in drag culture.

EDGE: Part of the big draw to these queer hardcore films for me is that they feel like unfiltered id. They can be so unapologetically authored by a single filmmaker. You're seeing a culture chastised and pushed to the margins.

Liz Purchell: The way I always describe these films is that they're the lowest of the low. They're not just porn, they're gay porn. The typical exploitation and genre film world could not give a shit less about these films, since it's a very straight, white fanbase.

EDGE: It seems like the fanbase for the straight hardcore films can be a bit gross, especially in how these films are assessed. Would you say that as well?

Liz Purchell: That's something I've been dealing with in my own work, like getting unsolicited messages and constantly being followed by gay porn accounts. Especially since I've come out as trans, it's suffocating. For me, [the Ask Any Buddy Instagram account] has never been a gay porn history account, it's been a gay cinema account and project. My interest in these films is from a cinematic and narrative level. I mean, good sex is good sex. It's just never been the major thing for me. If the sex can help tell a story or is actually erotic, then yes. But I think a lot of the stuff isn't like that.

EDGE: Going back to the stigma surrounding porn in general, I personally have found myself gravitating to the straight hardcore films that prioritize the story higher than the sex, like Gerard Damiano's "Memories Within Miss Aggie." If people refuse to engage with a film because there's hardcore sex in it, then we're bordering on the puritanical. Almost like nothing has been learned from times of great sexual expression.

Liz Purchell: That's what I always say about the gay films; they are the birth of modern queer cinema. You have coming-out stories, horror films, thrillers, etc. Any possible subgenre of film has been done [in queer cinema] from the late '60s up to the mid-'80s. Some of the first films about coming out originated during that era, like "The Experiment" by Gordon Hall from 1973. That's a film about a guy coming out and dealing with his feeling, then the end of the film you're expecting it to climax with a big orgy like most porn. But it ends with the character coming out to his dad. I've read interviews with the director, and he mentions people crying at the end. It's something you don't expect from a nearly two-hour-long film with half a dozen sex scenes. It even was the first gay porn film to have a crane shot. They really spent the money on that scene.

EDGE: I know Fred Halsted's 1973 film "Truck It" was a last-minute addition to the Halsted Blu-ray set. Can you talk about how that came to be?

Liz Purchell: Ever since I was brought on to this project, something I've always wanted to do is find that film. I knew where the 8mm loops were being stored, but I really tried hard to find an actual copy of the full film for years now, always hoping that it'd be included in a wholesale lot of prints. I figured we'd get these loops digitized and it'd be a nice bonus. After all, it was all there is. Literally three days before the deadline, a VHS copy of the film popped up on eBay. I had seen the film listed on a bootleg site. I thought it had been released illegally, of course. But this label [on eBay] was a made-to-order label. It felt like a sign from Fred Halsted up above. It was in San Francisco, and I jumped on it so fast. Then a friend, Josh Cheon of Dark Entries Records, agreed to pick up the tape, take it to a lab, and get it scanned. We got the transfer done just in time.

Where does that leave us, the viewers, in all of this? We're afforded the unique opportunity to support people like Elizabeth and companies like Altered Innocence, Vinegar Syndrome, and AGFA through subscribing to their social feeds, purchasing their home entertainment media releases, and, most importantly, influencing people to do the same. Just as Halsted's "L.A. Plays Itself" laid bare the taboos shunned by society at large, so should we announce that these works of art are not only worth our time, but also the money and commitment being given to non-porn films by companies across the world. Fist fucking; it belongs in a museum, at home, and, yes, directly in the public eye.

For more information on "LA Plays Itself: The Fred Halsted Collection", follow this link.