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the 1970s cult film you’ve never seen

  • The late 1960s and early 70s was a fecund time for US cinema, but not every revolutionary film from that period has achieved the hallowed status of a Mean Streets or a Badlands. One, at least, has been lost for almost half a century. Emerging out of San Francisco’s countercultural Haight-Ashbury scene, Luminous Procuress is an enigmatic, transgressive and gleefully queer journey to the divine state of enlightenment lurking just beyond the carnal. And you can’t say that about The Godfather.


    Steven Arnold’s first and only feature brought him to the attention of Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí, and seemed sure to set him on the path to cinematic greatness. It begins with two handsome young naifs, one in a groovy mushroom-coloured catsuit, being welcomed at the lavish modernist home of the Procuress. Played by Arnold’s friend Pandora in tarantula lashes and a horizontal pink wig shaped like a milkmaid’s yoke, she is their tour guide in a labyrinth of outre attractions. In one room, they find the exhausted aftermath of an orgy; in another, San Francisco’s hirsute drag troupe, the Cockettes, shuffle on stage in painted faces, posing pouches and pineapple breasts while a clown cranks the handle on a music box. Those same performers then dress as nuns and bishops for some naughty cavorting before a good, old-fashioned food fight. Old-fashioned, that is, had they not taken LSD shortly before the cameras rolled.


    It would be disingenuous to claim that modern audiences won’t have seen anything like Luminous Procuress, which was released briefly in 1971 and has just been released on Blu-ray. Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the films of Kenneth Anger, John Waters, Curt McDowell and George Kuchar will recognise instantly that Arnold is preaching to the perverted. He was fully aware of the tradition in which he was operating. Asked if he considered Cocteau an influence, he replied: “I am Cocteau!”


    Yet at the time the film was made, there was relatively little in contemporary cinema to which it could be compared. “At some level, it’s a bit of a relic,” says Steve Seid, the former media curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. “But outside a few things such as Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and the odd Genet film, there was almost nothing that talked so overtly about a polysexual world. Men with men, women with women, women with men – it’s a sexual pot-pourri!” Arnold’s intention, as he phrased it in his original proposal for the film, was “to create a sexual fantasy that stimulates every viewer, regardless of sexual preference”.


    The film’s reputation preceded it for many years, if only because there was no way to see a print: it had been withdrawn from distribution, and its whereabouts was a mystery. “In the Bay Area, it was legendary,” says Seid. “It existed more as a ghost than anything else. It was said to be groundbreaking, but who knew in what way? The remnants I did see over the years were usually degraded 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 with his wife Hyla had funded Luminous Procuress, and still owned all the materials. The film originated out of a stoned late-night discussion in 1970 between the Strauches and Arnold, who had been designing window displays for the couple’s folk gallery and hippy boutique after graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute.


    “Steven said, ‘Let’s make an erotic art film because there’s nothing out there,’” Strauch tells me. “There was I Am Curious Yellow, but that was softcore. We wanted to show everything. My wife and I decided we would pull together the funds to make the movie.” Among the film’s investors, says Strauch, was someone high up in the fashionable Ernst tie company, as well as “a dentist of ours, who worked on a lot of the famous hippies’ teeth here in the neighbourhood”. Did Strauch himself ever venture on set? “No. Steven was living in a huge warehouse in the Mission district, which is where most of the movie was shot. We provided the money and the psychedelic materials for the mind, but we left the rest up to him.”


    It soon became apparent that the cast’s aesthetic virtues were not matched by their acting talent. “These people were statuesque and beautiful and elegant,” says Seid. “But they couldn’t read a line.” There was also no soundproofing in the warehouse: “Whenever a bus went down the street, you could hear it on the film.” A radical sonic approach was called for. The experimental musician Warner Jepson composed not only the effervescent synthesiser score, in which robotic beeps and squeaks 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. Avant garde cinema this may be, but fans of Pingu or the Clangers will feel right at home.


    One element that seems vaguely out of step with the rest of the movie is the hardcore heterosexual sex scene. The organisers of the 1971 San Francisco film festival requested that this episode be darkened before the picture could be screened. The colour levels have been restored for the Blu-ray release, but it all feels a bit meat-and-potatoes compared to the more exotic dishes on the menu.


    Rumour has it that Strauch alone insisted on this interlude, inserting it into the film without Arnold’s consent. “That’s bullshit!” says Strauch. “Steven was a pansexual person, and it was his idea to show all kinds of sex. Who else would it have come from? The only ones there that night were the couple having sex, plus Steven and the cameraman.” Later, I ask Seid whether he feels the movie would be stronger with the sequence removed. “I think it would do just fine without it,” he says diplomatically.


    Luminous Procuress was not widely reviewed outside San Francisco, though Molly Haskell in the Village Voice wrote a considered assessment, calling it “not really erotic, nor even sensual, but distanced, stylised, and theatrical”. She also noted that it was being sold in limited editions to collectors, like prints of an artwork. Seid seems surprised to learn this. “Huh. I’m not sure how successful they were. If they sold one or two, I would be impressed.”


    But artists did respond to Arnold’s film with interest and enthusiasm. Warhol was spotted at one screening, while Dalí was so enamoured after seeing it in 1974 that he arranged for a special showing 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 affair,” Arnold said. “I loved him very much.”


    It seems bizarre, then, that Arnold’s film career fizzled out almost as soon as it started. After failing to raise funding for several follow-up projects, says Seid, Arnold “seemed to just walk away from film. He never saw himself as a film-maker per se, so he was able to write off that period of time and not look back. He had sexual, spiritual and divine interests that were his driving force, and film was just the medium through which he expressed those at that moment.”


    Arnold moved to Los Angeles, where he prospered in the realms of art, fashion and photography. Among his friends was the Warhol acolyte Holly Woodlawn and the Exorcist star Ellen Burstyn, who bought his work and credits him today with encouraging her to extend her on-screen creativity to all aspects of her life. He died of Aids in 1994.


    Strauch still remembers him with great fondness. “He was a beautiful person. Tall, thin, his movements almost like dance. He dressed artistically, and was never confrontational. He always had something interesting to say.” Why has his film 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’s spirituality, sex, art, colour. It’s a transcendental experience.”


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


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