Academic journal article Framework

"Use/Abuse/Everyone/Everything": A Dialogue on LA Plays Itself

Academic journal article Framework

"Use/Abuse/Everyone/Everything": A Dialogue on LA Plays Itself

Article excerpt

LA Plays Itself (US, 1972), made by Fred Halsted (1941-1989) across a three-year period, consists largely of two lengthy sequences: a male couple engaging in oral and anal sex and mutual masturbation in a sunny woodland setting, and a male couple engaging in ritualistic BDSM/"leathersex" practices in darkened rooms. Street scenes and scenes of public cruising, along with montages of a sometimes tangential association to the action, also feature. Bar one instance, the couples do not speak, but occasional stretches of sometimes inaudible "found sound" are deployed extradiegetically: conversations between males, often of a sexual nature.

At present the film is rarely seen since it remains mostly unavailable. It could also be said to be unsettled too: the print we viewed seems to miss or slightly curtail a sequence (the fisting that closes the film), and earlier versions of the film reversed the order of the key principal sequences, and different cuts of parts of the film seem to have featured in gay porn compilations. Yet LA Plays Itself has been hailed as seminal in terms of gay hardcore pornography, and William Jones (2011) and Cindy Patton (2014) have both written books on Halsted and his times.

Halsted's two subsequent films, Sex Garage (US, 1972) and Sextool (US, 1975), have sometimes been taken as the second and third parts of a gay hardcore pornographic trilogy. Prints of all three films are held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA).

Benjamin Halligan: LA Plays Itself is mysterious and yet mythical: it could almost be said to be an unearthed artefact from an earlier civilization. Patrick Moore, in his history of radical gay sexuality, goes as far as to claim that ". . . these images simply did not exist before Halsted," and places the film, in his project of "reclaiming the abandoned history of radical gay sexuality," as a central access to those fondly remembered but long-gone, times.1 A sense of how déclassé and perhaps even unwelcome the development of a nominal pornography of queer sexuality was at the time can be derived from the programmes of the Amsterdam Wet Dream film festivals of November 1970 and October 1971. These programmes catered to tastes in underage sex and bestiality, but virtually nothing featured that was straight-forwardly gay or queer.2

Laura Wilson: Yet, in spite of a number of detractors of the genre, LA Plays Itself belonged to an era not only of unprecedented (and unrepeated) triumph for hardcore pornography (Escoffier notes that Deep Throat [Gerard Damiano, US, 1972] made more at the box office than many contemporary mainstream Hollywood features) but also an era of different aesthetics. LA Plays Itself pays little or no debt to pornographic tropes, arguably because there were, as yet, few if any to speak of.3

It also formed part of what many call a sexual revolution, a time where sexual expression was less taboo, freer (but not entirely, of course) from the limits placed upon it by legalities, cultural bashfulness and prejudice. This was a time where the leading entertainment trade magazine, Variety, previewed gay porn for the first time (as with Wakefield Poole's Boys in the Sand [US], released in 1971, just a few months prior to LA Plays Itself). However, the significance of commercial arthouse success for LA Plays Itself and one of Halsted's subsequent films, Sex Garage, should not be overstated, especially for, as you say, an unwelcome genre. A number of mainstream theaters refused to show Halsted's follow-up film, Sextool, due to its BDSM content, which is not, unlike LA Plays Itself, limited to a small portion of the film. Further, when MoMA screened Halsted's films, protestors campaigning outside passed around flyers decrying the BDSM subject matter as "expressions of anti-homosexuality."4

BH: Similar protests would occur years later, as Cindy Patton notes: "Halsted was openly castigated for his ongoing project of creating a dark sexual habitat during the first years of the AIDS epidemic, when the S/M subculture was scapegoated as a vector of disease. …

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