Halstead Plays Himself – William E. Jones (Semiotext(e)/MIT Press)

9781584351078

Before we get on with Felice Picano’s guest review, I need to take a moment to celebrate Out in Print’s 500th post. When William Holden and I started this blog (suggested by Steve Berman at Lethe Press), we had no idea it would run this long. It’s a remarkable coincidence that our 500th post falls on Labor Day, because this has been a labor of love. I cannot express to you how much I’ve enjoyed sharing wonderful books with you–poetry, drama, gay fiction of all stripes and flavors, interviews, essays, and even the occasional music or video review. It’s been a marvelous ride, and it’s not over. It can’t be. There’s still so much to read, so much to share, and so much to say. Thanks to all of you out there for clicking and bookmarking and buying and being involved. As Duke Ellington used to say at the end of his concerts, we love you madly. And we intend to keep on being all you need to read about all you need to read. Okay, Felice–take it away.

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When the Queer Theorists finally stop screwing around discussing who in the nineteenth century might have been signaling in their second-rate short stories that they were playing “hide the salami” and other such foolishness, academia may actually begin doing some serious exploration of LGBT culture. Until that mythical time to come, we are beginning to see some other popular outlets for the dissemination and discussion of the first decade of open homosexuality in America.

The immediate post-Stonewall era let loose many different breeds from their many different kennels, and nowhere was that more evident than in film. Under review is a book and several films about two of the two best known gay male cineastes of the 1970’s, Wakefield Poole and Fred Halsted, who in some ways might be seen as the alpha and omega of their time. Pretty much any film savvy and with-it queer over the age of forty is expected to know, and hopefully to have seen, The Boys in the Sand, Bijou, L.A. Plays Itself, and Sextool. Throw in Joe Gage’s El Paso Wrecking Company, and you have a gay porno pentateuch.

If that early biographer and arch-gossip, Plutarch, were alive in 2014 and writing an updated version of his Lives, he’d do far worse than include in his gallery of contemporaries the singer, dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, and entrepreneur, Wakefield Poole. At least, according to Jim Tuskhinksi’s sweeping new documentary movie, I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole that premiered at Los Angeles’s Outfest film festival recently. Poole’s films in 1971 and 1972 helped to alter everyone’s view of what a gay man was and could be–most famously, Boys in the Sand. Poole is to gay film and especially gay porn what D.W. Griffith is to the film medium in America: the originator and first master. And unlike Griffith, Poole’s movies can be watched without MV5BMTExMjI4MzgzMzVeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDA0MzU1MzAx._V1_SY317_CR6,0,214,317_AL_flinching some forty odd years later. To my mind, Bijou is a classic.

I was at the Poole documentary’s L.A. premiere because I’m in the film, one of the “talking heads” who contextualize what we see on screen. Also, because Wakefield Poole touched my life through his art, almost through a career choice–which I’ll share later–but mostly through the unique and beautiful men on the scene we knew, now gone–among them, the famous Casey Donovan. It’s been several years since I was shot for the movie, and while I’d not exactly forgotten the session, it had been one morning’s labor superseded by similar work in three films since, so my stake in it was tiny. Luckily, Tushinski caught me on a particularly articulate day and used the footage wisely, so I end up saying nothing stupid. That’s always a relief.

From the opening of the Poole documentary, you are immersed in the life of a child for whom talent is abundant. The four-year-old from Florida singing along to the big console radio became the star of the church choir and school, and when his voice changed at puberty, two thoughtful women got him into dance–first tap, and later classical–and they supported his talent. As a high school graduate, he was able to leave home and fly to New York to join the Ballets Russes. When young Walter Poole Jr. (Wakefield is his middle name) realized he didn’t want the touring and rigors of classical dance, he switched to popular dance and was soon hoofing it along with major stars on Broadway.

This led to a stint as a choreographer where he worked with people like Richard Rogers, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, and Michael Bennett. He also had the hard luck to work with brilliant if troubled theatre folk like John Dexter and Joe Layton which nearly ended his career. His early marriage to another dancer did end, and they divorced. Poole’s involvement in small commercial films decided him–he would become “an experimental filmmaker.” By then he was involved with a brilliant man–Wakefield has nothing but great things to say about all of his personal relationships. He would fall in love quickly and remained hitched for long periods of time. Somehow everything seemed to come together and for a total of $4800, Poole filmed a two hour 16 millimeter film with a good-looking blonde and a bunch of guys he makes love with at a house, pool, deck and upon the sands of Fire Island Pines.VS-041_webIronically, Boys in the Sand opened in a little theatre a few doors down the same block as The New York City Ballet where Poole might have been onstage but for his earlier decision. Boys was a smash hit from the first day. Fortified with cash and a new star, Bill Harrison, Poole then made a second feature film, Bijou. It was urban, gritty, and far less sunny than the first, and that too struck gold–which is where I come in. While I was being filmed for this documentary Wakefield said, “I know you. You took your clothes off for me.” He vanished into an office and emerged with a semi-nude photo he’d taken of me from when I auditioned for Bijou. That came about because I knew Casey and he sent me to Poole. Alas, in the 1970’s one did not become an author and porn star at the same time. So I turned down the part and a porno career and found a low-paying bookstore job.

As the documentary shows, Poole definitely had major career ups and downs, he moved across country then back again and ended up near where he grew up. He was a San Francisco co-owner of American Hot Flash Emporium which opened just as the Castro was taking off. He made and lost fortunes. He’s totally open about how and why (drugs, sex, men) and unlike a lot of Boomer hypocrites, Poole is completely unapologetic about what he did. He tells us that he had a great time and enjoyed himself immensely. Bravo for him.

Add it up and his is a storied life; and the story via the film is worth viewing. As are the new prints of those two films as well the 1986 Boys in the Sand II. In a separate video is Poole’s later, polymorphous perverse film, The BibleIf Poole was all sunshine and positive imagery that any healthy gay suburban lad could use to come out with, Fred Halsted provided a shadowy vision that many of us living in those 1960’s/1970’s grimy urban neighborhoods where gay life actually happened were quite familiar with.

Blessed with regular handsome features and a hairless, good physique that he continued to build up in the years long before muscles were in, Halsted was himself a suburban lad who grew up in San Jose, California. But the dark side was already in place. In later years, he attested to being raped by his stepfather while still young. This in turn led to his discovery and then his whole-hearted acceptance of the world of sadomasochism, which Halsted would go on to explore in both his private life with his partner in business and personal life, Joey Yale, and in his films. Naturally, Halsted took the top.

Like Poole, Halsted was never educated beyond high school and, like Poole, he worked intuitively in the medium of his choice, which he also called “experimental film.” But he was intellectual enough to form some kind of artistic vision that informed and strengthened his work. He counted it as his greatest triumph that several of his films were officially part of the New York City Museum of Modern Art’s film collection. Unlike Poole, Halsted wanted to break out of what he saw as a flat and boring “acceptable” landscape of homosexual behavior and art, and he did so in spades in his first feature length film L.A. Plays Itself, which ends with the first on-screen display of fist fucking.

As William E. Jones points out in his excellent and well put together biography of Halsted, the first gay leaders and tastemakers in Manhattan to see the film were completely scandalized. As I myself found out several years later when my novel, The Lure, was published dealing with other dark parts of gay life, this kind of display in any media was deemed treachery and siding with the enemy, i.e Hetero America. “We’ve got enough haters, so why air this dirty laundry in public?” both Halsted and I were told. Well, in my case and I’m assuming in Halsted’s too, there existed an underlying belief that if you’re doing art as well as entertainment, that the truth is required.

Halsted’s life was short—he committed suicide in 1989—and he apparently wavered wildly between judging it a success and a failure. He did peak early and, in a way, his life went out of his control as he continued using drugs and alcohol. Clearly, he lacked that one essential ingredient for any kind of artistic reputation in the U.S.–dogged perseverance. He was certainly one of the most outspoken advocates of what he was showing and living. Besides his films, he did numerous interviews for some surprising mainstream media, he started one magazine, Package, and was instrumental in the growth of another, Drummer. In addition to that, others closely followed in his path, including Joey Yale who also became film producer/director. And so, unlike Poole, Halsted left both an immediate and also a future legacy.

That Halsted’s own life ended up being tragic, is something Jones touches on again and again in his book without going into it too much. In a way, he may be leaving that intriguing question to someone else. What might be needed is a fiction-maker with a similar tragic vision. What becomes clear when we hear Halsted’s voice is that he is, as many of us were doing at the time, busily constructing some sub-section of an entirely new lifestyle which had distant predecessors, but no real rules or criteria. And he did it without any way of knowing whether or not any of it would survive. That Halsted and his persona are today instantly recognizable is a sign that he did a great job.

Again, unlike Poole, Halsted’s personal relationships were few and tormented in all senses of the word. In one interview, Joey Yale begins to interrupt Halsted and is flatly told to shut up. But when Yale was dying of an HIV opportunistic disease, Yale turned the tables in true bottom-style, constantly blaming and baiting guilt-ridden Halsted, who seemingly never got over Yale’s or other deaths around himself.

Meanwhile we have this handsome hardcover book, typical of Semiotexte’s best publications. It is over-sized, filled with photos and stills from many movies and copies of crucial documents, with on-set pictures not seen before and room for a lot of s/m artwork of the period, including advertisements of the time: a real visual treasure-trove. Halsted’s life was neither long, nor very complex, so Jones tells his story and also includes invaluable full reviews of the films, lengthy interviews with the star/director, and even examples of his writings.

Want to know gay history? Forget the Queer Theorists blowing smoke up each others asses and check out this book and these films.

© 2014 Felice Picano

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1 Comment

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One response to “Halstead Plays Himself – William E. Jones (Semiotext(e)/MIT Press)

  1. Felice, your comment of: “The Boys in the Sand, Bijou, L.A. Plays Itself, and Sextool. Throw in Joe Gage’s El Paso Wrecking Company, and you have a gay porno pentateuch” had me rolling with laughter!
    Thank you.
    Eric Andrews-Katz

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