Fred Halsted art-porn classics at Embarcadero, Shattuck cinemas

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Thursday July 8, 2021
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Fred Halsted art-porn classics at Embarcadero, Shattuck cinemas

What are the cinematic boundaries between art and pornography? Here in the Bay Area, the lines have been blurred for decades before the straight flick Deep Throat became trendy.

In gay erotica, the earliest feature works by directors like Wakefield Poole and Joe Gage were well received in their premieres, and most are considered classics.

Crossing artistic boundaries seems relevant considering that the mainstream Landmark-owned Embarcadero Center Cinema's offering this week.

Gay porn actor and director Fred Halsted's work more daringly crossed the genres of experimental non-narrative structure and SM-themed kink — to not so much critical or viewer acclaim back in the '70s.

A double feature of L.A. Plays Itself and Sextool will screen at the Embarcadero Center Cinema July 9-15 with three screenings daily (2:10, 4:40, and 7pm; 1 Embarcadero St.). East Bay retro-porn fans can see the films at the Berkeley Shattuck Theatre (1:15, 4pm & 7:15; 2230 Shattuck, Ave.).

The films have been restored in 4K format, and should provide a special frisson to the usual fare screened at the theaters. Every bit of grit and jump-cut style (in shades of Warhol and Kenneth Anger) will be on display, including some bondage and rough sex amid pontificating dialogue.

Let's be clear. These weren't just slapped together loops and found footage. There was a point to the artistry. A bit of description of L.A. Plays Itself in the PR materials:

"Halsted's elliptical, evasive anti-narrative begins in the lush greenery of the natural world before being literally bulldozed into the center of a grimy, feverish Sodom that deconstructs and erodes the human spirit through vivid sadomasochistic catharsis."

Sextool erratically blends a party of effete queens intercut with their sexual exploits. Auteur Halsted performed in and directed the films, which veer into meta-porn style.

A caustic Bay Area Reporter review in the March 20, 1975 issue notes a "ritual fist fucking scene, one rape, lots of Onanism, a trick scene and one drag from Hawaii who mentioned that her mother was out working the day the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor... What does make a good porno movie? A debatable point, surely, but whatever it is, it wasn't Sextool!"

While that review hasn't aged well, the work of Halsted is now considered to straddle art and porn quite solidly. These were the first feature films to include graphic SM scenes, most notably the blond sailor who gets poked, spanked and plowed in a variety of positions.

The April 3, 1997 issue of the B.A.R. included a kinder write-up of the two films, and Sex Garage, when they were screened at the Castro Theatre.

"The raggedness of [Halsted's] films, their 'I don't give a fuck!' quality, is their strength, giving them a raw power and immediacy that makes them watchable in a way that the work of his contemporaries isn't."

It's amazing what time can do to change perceptions. As the author of a novel (Finding Tulsa, my seventh) whose main character impulsively decides to direct a 'gay art porn' film at the peak of his directorial comeback, I find it oddly reassuring to see raunch elevated to art; deservedly so, but still amusing.

L.A. Plays Itself and Sextool screen July 9-15.

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