May 5, 2011

The Sex Garage

I recently discovered the gritty erotic art house works of Fred Halsted; a director whose fetish for motorcycles and automobiles seems to be greater than even that of crowleyite auteur Kenneth Anger. In fact, Halsted’s 34-minute short The Sex Garage (1972) is fairly similar to Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964), as both films are experimental tributes to the hypnotic sexual magnetism of motorcycles. Although made nearly a decade after Scorpio Rising, The Sex Garage has a grittier aesthetic and a more vintage look. Also, unlike Scorpio Rising, The Sex Garage seems to lack any type of socio-political subtext. In fact, if The Sex Garage did not contain such a dreamy atmosphere of illuminant sexual surrealism, it would be nothing more than forgettable smut that would have probably disappeared from the radar of obsessive cinephiles decades ago. It may sound a bit odd, but The Sex Garage seems like the kind of porn film that Roger Watkins (who, did in fact, make porno films) would have made. Like Watkins’ lost (but now found, although out-of-print again) low-budget masterpiece Last House on Dead End Street, The Sex Garage has a fairly distinct atmosphere that seems like it could have developed by mere chance as a wonderful artistic accident (not to insult either filmmaker). Also, like Watkins’ horror film, The Sex Garage has the earmarks of a work that was directed by someone who had developed a somewhat morally-confused psychosis due to heavy drug use (Watkins once admitted he spent most of the budget for Last House on Dead End Street on speed), as both films are so distinctly perverted, yet consistency powerful in their entirety. It is rumored that director Fred Halsted was once Vincent Price’s gardener (which wouldn’t surprise me). Judging by Price’s dubious sexuality, I am sure the iconic classic horror star would have enjoyed employing Halsted – a gay porn filmmaker and performer – as his gardener. With The Sex Garage, Halsted proved he was an eclectic pervert, as this film is a bisexual mix of straight sex, gay sex, and the unthinkable.....mechaphilia.

Despite seeming quite tame by today's pornographic standards, The Sex Garage was such a controversial work upon its initial release that a New York City showing of the film was raided by police. Apparently, the liberal cosmopolitan citizens of NYC were quite terrified to see a man fornicate with his beloved motorcycle. Undeterred by the public's snide reaction to the motorcycle-sex scene, Halsted kept it intact in subsequent versions of The Sex Garage released on video, but a controversial fisting scene was cut from later prints of the film. The Sex Garage was released as a supporting work for Halsted’s film LA Plays Itself (1972, 51 minutes), thus many consider the 34 minute short to be a third act of the larger work. Despite not appearing in The Sex Garage, Fred Halsted stars in LA Plays Itself as a sexual performer, social commentator, and hypocritically brutal sexual torturer. LA Plays Itself also features Halsted’s lifelong boyfriend Joey Vale (who also directed a couple porn flicks). When Vale died in 1986 at the premature age of 36, Halsted – unable to cope with the loss of his life partner – committed suicide in 1989 via sleep pills, even leaving a confessional suicide note behind that stated, "I had a good life...I've had looks, a body, money, success and artistic triumphs. I've had the love of my life. I see no reason to go on." During the 1980s, the quality of Halsted’s erotic works plummeted to an unwatchable level, so it seems that the Reagan years were not very kind to the libertine auteur. During his prime, Halsted dressed in a fetishistic leather-clad manner similar to that of the outlaw rebel bikers featured in the Marlon Brando vehicle The Wild One (1953), therefore his works seems to be primarily an erotic extension of the controversial Hollywood films that he saw as a young man. Hollywood would not fully recognize Halsted’s brand of fetishism until the release of William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980); a homoerotic S&M quasi-slasher flick that is probably the most underrated work ever created by the man who directed the totally overrated Hollywood horror blockbuster The Exorcist. Unfortunately for Halsted, he would never reach the homo-prestige of Robert Mapplethorpe; a renowned photographer (who also focused on fetishistic homoerotic themes) that died of aids during the same year as the art house pornographer committed suicide.

Cinematic sex mechanic Fred Halsted during his prime

For those individuals interested in films that blur the line between porn and art, The Sex Garage is certainly one of the greatest American films belonging to this highly sensational category. Unlike most of Fred Halsted’s work, The Sex Garage is accessible to people of various sexual persuasions (except lesbians). Despite featuring some queer material, the short is also a true expression of male sexual masculinity, as The Sex Garage manages to lucidly express the parallels between the organic power of male potency and the contrived energy of man-made horsepower; a theme Kenneth Anger also explored in Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos, albeit in a less blatant and more metaphysical manner. Halsted received some recognition as an artist when the Museum of Modern Art in mid-Manhattan, NYC screened his works and even collected some of his film prints for their permanent collection. Over the past decade or so, posthumous screenings of Fred Halsted’s films have been cropping up throughout the United States, thus one can assume that the deceased filmmaker will only acquire more recognition as the years pass. After all, we live in a time where sexual perversion is one of the most glaring attributes of the Occidental world, so it is no stretch of the imagination to say that the films of Fred Halsted are artistically symbiotic of our sexually unrestrained times. Like the surrealist auteur works of Jean Cocteau and Kenneth Anger, The Sex Garage is an incandescent cinematic poem. If you only see one film by Fred Halsted, make it The Sex Garage; a visually and musically (featuring pleasurable noise) ambient work that audaciously celebrates the unnatural unity of man and machine.

-Ty E


The Angry Lurker said...

Quality work again sir.

Unknown said...

Fantastic work that reminds me that I really, really need to delve into Halsted's work.