L.A. Plays Itself & Sextool

1972 + 1975, U.S., 55m + 60m, 2K DCP

Showtimes & Tickets

Screened June 9, 2021

Part of the program

“Your intestines are about twenty feet long. Sometimes your hand can come up almost to the heart and you can feel it beating… It’s as though you can feel their very life. You have a man’s life in your hand.” – Fred Halsted, I’m Open to Anything by William E. Jones

For the first time in cinema history, Fred Halsted would depict a man being fisted on screen. It serves as the film’s literal and figurative climax, but it couldn’t be farther from L.A. Plays Itself’s opening images at the Los Angeles city limits sign. 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. Constructed almost entirely in the editing room, Halsted’s film is a dream-porn masterwork that would be analyzed, criminalized, and investigated for decades to come.

 

One of the most ambitious and least successful pornographic films ever made, Sextool‘s production history is rife with nearly as much expurgated desire as the film itself. Funded on the success of L.A. Plays Itself, Halsted’s next major feature was designed to be a crossover success in the arthouse market. Halsted shot much of the film on expired 35mm stock in hopes of securing a wider release, but the film was quickly deemed unviable by the art-film market. The Hollywood Reporter homophobically and horrifically categorized it as “cruel, terrorizing…the kind of film one can imagine Nazi concentration camp commanders commission for their jaded amusement.” Forty years later, the film plays as an astonishingly progressive broadcast from an era of deeply ingrained musculature.

Halsted viewed the film as sexually political; he establishes visual dialogue between intense BDSM sequences (including some with his lover, Joey Yale) and trans women and drag queens at an upscale party. William Moritz, writing in Entertainment West, astutely observes the nuances in Halsted’s vision: “The heterosexual, middle-class concepts of marriage and morality that have been foisted upon gays by society are ruptured and banished. The performers are not sex ‘objects’ like the women in straight gigs, to be used and dropped, but rather sex ‘tools,’ instruments to play out fantasies, implements to realize dreams.”

A film by Fred Halsted