Enigmatic, Transgressive, Cheerfully Queer: The 1970s Cult Movie You’ve Never Seen | Movies

Jhe late 1960s and early 1970s were a fertile time for American cinema, but not all of the groundbreaking films of this period achieved the hallowed status of Mean Streets or Badlands. One, at least, has been lost for nearly half a century. Emerging from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury countercultural scene, Luminous Procuress is an enigmatic, transgressive, and joyfully queer journey into the divine state of enlightenment that lurks just beyond the carnal. And you can’t say that about the Godfather.

Steven Arnold’s first and only feature film caught him the attention of Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí, and seemed sure to set him on the path to cinematic greatness. It begins with two beautiful, naive youngsters, one in a groovy mushroom-colored jumpsuit, being welcomed into the procurator’s lavish modernist home. Played as Arnold Pandora’s friend with tarantula eyelashes and a horizontal pink wig shaped like a milkmaid’s yoke, she is their tour guide through a maze of outdoor attractions. In a room, they find the exhausted sequels of an orgy; in another, San Francisco’s shaggy drag troupe, the Cockettes, bustle onstage in painted faces, posing clutches and pineapple breasts as a clown cranks a music box. These same performers then dress up as nuns and bishops for cheeky antics before a good old-fashioned food fight. The old fashioned way, that is, if they hadn’t taken LSD shortly before the cameras were rolling.

A Cockette in Bright Supply. Photography: Ingeborg Gerdes

It would be dishonest to pretend modern audiences haven’t seen anything quite like Luminous Procuress, which was released briefly in 1971 and has just been released on Blu-ray. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the films of Kenneth Anger, John Waters, Curt McDowell and George Kuchar will instantly recognize that Arnold preaches to perverts. He was fully aware of the tradition in which he operated. When asked if he considered Cocteau an influence, he replied: “I a m Cocktail!

Yet, at the time the film was made, there was relatively little contemporary cinema to which it could be compared. “On one level, it’s a bit of a relic,” says Steve Seid, the former curator of media at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. “But outside of a few things like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and Genet’s weird movie, there was almost nothing that spoke so openly about a polysexual world. Men with men, women with women, women with men, it’s a sexual potpourri! Arnold’s intention, as he expressed in his original proposal for the film, was “to create a sexual fantasy that excites every viewer, regardless of sexual preference.”

The film’s reputation preceded it by many years, if only because there was no way to see a copy: it had been pulled from distribution and its whereabouts were a mystery. “In the Bay Area, it was legendary,” says Seid. “He existed more like a ghost than anything. They said he was revolutionary, but who knew how? The remains I’ve seen over the years were usually defaced bootlegs floating around the internet.

Seid’s detective work led him in 2014 to Harry Tsvi Strauch, a shop owner in the Haight-Ashbury district, who along with his wife Hyla had funded Luminous Procuress and still owned all the materials. The film grew out of a late-night discussion in 1970 between the Strauches and Arnold, who had designed window displays for the couple’s folk gallery and hippie boutique after graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute.

“Steven said, ‘Let’s make an erotic art movie because there’s nothing there,'” Strauch tells me. “There was I Am Curious Yellow, but it was softcore. We wanted to show everything. My wife and I decided to raise the funds to make the film. Among the film’s investors, Strauch says, was someone high up in the fashionable Ernst tie business, as well as “one of our dentists, who’s worked on a lot of famous hippie teeth here in the world.” piece”. Did Strauch himself ever venture onto the set? “No. Steven lived in a huge warehouse in the Mission district, where most of the film was shot. We provided the money and the psychedelic materials for the spirit, but we left the rest to him.

It soon became apparent that the cast’s aesthetic virtues were not matched by their acting talent. “These people were statuesque, beautiful and elegant,” says Seid. “But they couldn’t read a line.” There was also no soundproofing in the warehouse: “Every time a bus came down the street, you could hear it on film.” A radical sound approach was needed. Experimental musician Warner Jepson composed not only the effervescent synthesizer score, in which robotic beeps and squeals rise through the electronic fuzz like champagne bubbles, but also the unintelligible language heard on the soundtrack whenever the performers open their mouths to speak. It might be avant-garde cinema, but fans of Pingu or the Clangers will feel right at home.

Weirdly dressed people with balloons in Luminous Procuress.
“It’s a bit of a relic”… Luminous Procurator. Photography: Ingeborg Gerdes

One element that seems vaguely out of step with the rest of the film is the hardcore heterosexual sex scene. Organizers of the 1971 San Francisco Film Festival requested that this episode be darkened before the image could be shown. The color levels have been restored for the Blu-ray release, but it all looks a bit meaty and potatoy compared to the more exotic dishes on the menu.

Rumor has it that only Strauch insisted on this interlude, inserting it into the film without Arnold’s consent. “It makes no sense!” said Strauch. “Steven was a pansexual person, and it was his idea to show everything kinds of sex. Who else would it have come from? The only ones present that evening were the couple making love, plus Steven and the cameraman. Later, I ask Seid if he thinks the movie would be stronger with the deleted footage. “I think it would be fine without it,” he said diplomatically.

Luminous Procuress hasn’t received much review outside of San Francisco, although Molly Haskell of the Village Voice wrote a thoughtful review, calling it “not exactly erotic, or even sensual, but distanced, stylized, and theatrical. “. She also noted that it was sold in limited editions to collectors, like prints of a work of art. Seid seems surprised to learn this. “Huh. I don’t know how successful they have been. If they sold one or two, I would be impressed.

She has a long woolly white wig, black eyes in a white face;  it defies description
Pandora and Being in Luminous Supply. Photography: Ingeborg Gerdes

But artists responded to Arnold’s film with interest and enthusiasm. Warhol was spotted at a screening, while Dalí was so enamored after seeing him in 1974 that he held a special screening for his coterie. He then invited Arnold to Barcelona to help design and curate the Dalí Museum. The men were seen holding hands in public. “It was almost like a love story,” Arnold said. “I loved him so much.”

So it seems bizarre that Arnold’s film career died out almost as soon as it started. After failing to raise funds for several follow-up projects, Seid says, Arnold “just seemed to walk away from filmmaking. He never saw himself as a filmmaker per se, so he was able to forget that period and not He had sexual, spiritual, and divine interests that were his driving force, and film was just the medium through which he expressed them at that time.

Arnold moved to Los Angeles, where he thrived in art, fashion, and photography. Among her friends were Warhol sidekick Holly Woodlawn and The Exorcist star Ellen Burstyn, who bought her work and today credit her for encouraging her to expand her screen creativity to all ages. aspects of his life. He died of AIDS in 1994.

Strauch still remembers him fondly. “He was a beautiful person. Tall, thin, his movements are almost like dancing. He dressed artistically and was never aggressive. He always had something interesting to say. Why did his film it endured? “It’s the masterpiece of a very talented artist, but it also represents a lot of what happened in the summer of love. There is spirituality, sex, art, color. It is a transcendental experience.

For Seid, the film fits seamlessly into a 21st century culture comfortable with the concept of gender fluidity. “What Steven was trying to show is that we shouldn’t cling to the material world,” he says. “We should follow a divine spirit to reach another plane. Why bother with all the definitions and redefinitions of genre when you can simply transcend genre itself? »

Comments are closed.