L.A. Plays Itself begins as a mock-pastorale, with a steamy woodland encounter between a long-haired blonde guy and a hunky brunette whose face, typical of the director, we can barely discern. This extended hardcore sequence of outdoor sex gives way to images of bulldozers tearing down parts of the city; noisy, car-choked streets; and opportunistic encounters that occur both onscreen and on the audio track, the latter in the form of a conversation between a hayseed from Texas who’s just arrived in town and a predator who pretends to warn him of the dangers of the “big city” as a kind of nervous foreplay ritual. Halsted’s sex is sweaty and desperate, set against images of cruelty and destruction both in the bedrooms, bathhouses, and casual sexspaces where it occurs and in the grim, trashy world looming just outside. The sardonic commentaries of the director, who’s also usually a participant even when only seen in shadow, add unexpected touches of humanity.L.A. Plays Itself is a film of private rituals publicly exposed
L.A. Plays Itself, Fred Halsted’s classic odyssey of Los Angeles men, has been hailed by critics around the globe as a watershed film in the history of gay erotic cinema. L.A. Plays Itself has been chosen for the permanent film collection of The Museum of Modern Art.
Fred Halsted spurted onto the gay porn scene just as the genre was gathering momentum as well as a modicum of “real world” respectability. The year was 1972 and groundbreaking adult movies like Gerard Damiano’s THROAT and MISS JONES and the Mitchell Brothers’ decidedly different GREEN DOOR had instigated the all too short-lived “Porno Chic” trend on the straight end of a budding skin flick industry. With his homo hardcore harbinger BOYS IN THE SAND, Broadway choreographer turned erotic “auteur” Wakefield Poole actually preceded what was to become known as the genre’s Big Three by facilitating his film’s first screenings in late ’71. In truth, Halsted beat them all to the punch, or indeed might have if endless delays and difficulties hadn’t kept him from finishing his still astonishing first work a full four (!) years after initial shooting had begun as early as 1968. Staking out his position in a slowly filling market place, he brought a downbeat West Coast sensibility to counteract the idealized imaginings of such early East Coast alumni like Poole and Jack Deveau.
[Unlike most of his film-making contemporaries, Fred rarely tried to emulate mainstream narrative structures or production values and prided himself on his lack of formal training. As a result, his movies are much closer in style to underground cinema of the period, its decision to add hardcore penetration probably seeming like a logical extension of an art form which already included rampant male and female nudity at the time. At least some agree with me on this as both L.A. PLAYS ITSELF and SEX GARAGE – the half hour featurette Fred hastily shot to support it on theatrical screenings and subsequently regarded as an integral part of its unit rather than a separate work – have been included in MoMA’s permanent collection and remain to this day the only pornographic titles represented therein.
Running a little under an hour, L.A. PLAYS ITSELF consists of two episodes. The first shows an idyllic pastoral encounter between dark-haired drifter Jim Frost and blond nature boy Rick Coates. The latter was a one shot, but Frost appeared in a couple of straight, barely remembered – or, at least, they wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the tireless efforts of Mike Vraney and his ilk – Sandi Carey vehicles entitled THE ELEVATOR and NAKED ENCOUNTERS. In voice-over, we hear two friends debating the merits of city and country life, the latter designated (for the time being at least) as the preferred option. Solemn Japanese ceremonial music accompanies extreme close-ups of butterflies ‘n’ bugs buzzin’ about the natural splendor of a modern day Garden of Eden. Jim complains about having “a heavy load on my mind” with just a smidgen more subtlety than this genre’s dialog generally allows for. Cheerfully, Rick offers to give him head ! They make laid-back love besides a babbling brook as the soundtrack switches to Mozart. Their carnal courtship progresses gradually in blissful harmony with the music. While Frost remains oblivious, reverently plowing Coates’ nether regions, one foot precariously perched on a well-placed boulder, roaring bulldozers clawing the soil brutally interfere in their unfettered Utopia, suggesting that the time of innocence has come to an end.
A jarring jump cut introduces audiences to another and far less benevolent drifter, played by the handsome director himself, cruising the grimy L.A. streets in search of a casual pick-up. He spots a naive country lad, straight off the Greyhound, and lures him along, warning him of the dangers that lurk on every street corner. What follows is a lengthy yet deliberately dispassionate sequence of Halsted putting ultimate submissive Joey Yale through his paces in a calmly constructed S&M ritual, including fleeting moments of water sports and fist insertion that have been trimmed from most available copies since. Though it was to become their specialty both privately and on screen, this occasionally gruesome to watch scene established the director’s desire to “tell it like it is” more than anything else, eschewing the glossy, odorless perfection that rival filmmakers were passing off as their version of male sexual union, a vision he almost literally tore apart along with that intervening heavy machinery in the preceding segment. The final images are of Fred in proximity to Joey’s now spent and seemingly lifeless body (an inter-cut newspaper headline suggests as much), frigging himself towards a joyless solitary climax, partly shrouded in dramatic shadows, a sad and pathetic and all too human monster…