In The Screwball Asses—an essay originally published anonymously in Félix Guattari’s Recherches in 1973 and reprinted by Semiotext(e) in 2006—Guy Hocquenghem criticizes the gay liberation movement for answering “oppression in the terms of oppression,” the repressed group’s search for acceptance consequently resulting in the fall of the Leftist principles and the eventual conformation to the established heterosexual conventions. A year prior to the essay’s initial publication, notorious American porn director and self-identified artist Fred Halsted completed his iconic feature L.A. Plays Itself, which earned its controversy for explicitly showing fisting in one of its prolonged sequences. The film serves as a starting point for a survey of the director’s ambiguous life conducted by William E. Jones, an admirer of Halsted’s work and himself a director of many experimental films. Set against the backdrop of the rise and fall of the gay liberation movement, Halsted Plays Himself—also published by Semiotext(e)—offers a personified example of the issues discussed in The Screwball Asses.
The book commences with a transcript of a dialogue from L.A. Plays Itself: a conversation between a naive newcomer to L.A. and a sleazy hustler who promises to “show him the ropes.” In Jones’s narrative, it appears as an analogy for the two conflicting roles—the private and the public persona—assumed by Halsted: on one hand, a dominant sex-hero played by the director himself in the S&M films Sextool (1975) and L.A. Plays Itself, and on the other, an insecure man in search of guidance revealed in the confessions of his contemporaries. While trying to extract the artist from his often autobiographical works and simultaneously examine one against the other, Jones paints a detailed portrait of a complex identity by positioning Halsted into various narratives—private relationships with lovers, family background, the art scene, the gay liberation movement and the now unrecognizable rural Los Angeles neighborhoods. In the process, the author meticulously documents his own efforts to piece together the chaotic journey of creative success and failure, defining relationships and countless one-night stands, alcoholism and depression, that ended in a suicide following the death of AIDS of Halsted’s long-time lover and co-star Joey Yale.
As a project born out of the author’s sincere admiration for his subject, Halsted Plays Himself amounts to a very passionate, if not sentimental, account. Jones not only attempts to symbolically revive Halsted in this elegy, but continuously constructs imaginary scenarios which could have resulted in him still being alive, better understood, or more accepted. Next to his own analysis, the book combines various original sources—information provided by the people who were once acquainted to the director, original reviews of the features, interviews with Halsted and Yale, and Halsted’s own erotic writing—in hope to provide a lucid picture. Yet, while it equips the reader with a comprehensive insight into the circumstances surrounding Halsted’s life and work, the protagonist himself continuously slips out of the confining narratives: misunderstood by the gay liberationists, accepted by the art world with an obvious discomfort, and quietly disregarded by many of his contemporaries. Eventually, it is not in the process of marrying Halsted’s life and work, but in the difficulty to comprehend him as a whole within accepted histories that the book finds its value.
Beyond the sentimentality with which Jones is faced in his admirable fascination lies an important historical record of a life dubbed as failed according to the commonly accepted standards of contemporary society. Ultimately, the criticism expressed by the gay liberationists—substituting a constructive message with explicit examples of violence—translated into similar attacks from his private acquaintances—giving up productive relationships in favor of self-destructive habits. While being dismissed as impulsive and apolitical—characteristics often applied to actions that don’t conform to an accepted language or formulated statements—Halsted was infusing the already failing gay liberation movement and Leftist activism with a pivotal political message: the discontent with the established conventions cannot be expressed on the terms established by the very machine it tries to oppose (Hocquenghem understood this only too well when he faced the hypocrisy of his own practice while writing The Screwball Asses: “What I am writing here does not escape the virus and will inevitably follow the same path.”) At bottom, Jones’s portrait of Halsted can be read as a story of an artist whose alienation from the world found its manifestation through art because—next to violence—it was one of few processes through which this message could still be expressed.