tThe late 1960s and early 1970s were a fertile time for American cinema, but not every revolutionary film of the period has achieved the hallowed status of Mean Streets or Badlands. At least one of them has been lost for almost half a century. Born out of San Francisco’s countercultural Haight-Ashbury scene, Luminous Procuress is an enigmatic, transgressive, and gleefully strange 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 brought him to the attention of Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí, and certainly seemed to set him on the path to cinematic greatness. It begins with two handsome young naives, one in a hip mushroom-colored catsuit, who are welcomed into the opulent modernist home of the Procuress. Played by Arnold’s friend Pandora with tarantula lashes and a horizontal pink wig in the shape of a milkmaid’s yoke, she is their guide in a labyrinth of alien attractions. In a room they find the exhausted aftermath of an orgy; in another, San Francisco’s hairy drag troupe, the Cockettes, shuffle onstage with painted faces, posing pouches and pineapple breasts as a clown twists the handle of a music box. Those same performers then dress up as nuns and bishops for some naughty play for a good, old-fashioned food fight. Old fashioned, that is, if they hadn’t taken LSD shortly before the cameras started rolling.
It would be unfair to claim that the modern audience has never seen anything like Luminous Procuress, which was released briefly in 1971 and just released on Blu-ray. Anyone familiar with the films of Kenneth Anger, John Waters, Curt McDowell and George Kuchar will immediately recognize that Arnold is preaching to the perverts. He was fully aware of the tradition in which he operated. When asked if he saw Cocteau as an influence, he replied: ben Cocktail!”
Still, at the time the film was made, there was relatively little in contemporary cinema to compare it to. “On some level, it’s a bit of a holdover,” said Steve Seid, former media curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. “But aside from a few things, like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and a single Genet 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 intent, as he put it 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 predated it for years, if only because there was no way to see a print: it had been pulled from distribution and where it was a mystery. “It was legendary in the Bay Area,” Seid says. “It existed more as a ghost than anything else. It was said to be groundbreaking, but who knew in what way? The remnants I’ve seen over the years were mostly degraded bootlegs floating around the internet.”
Seid’s sleuthing led him in 2014 to Harry Tsvi Strauch, a shop owner in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, who had financed Luminous Procuress with his wife Hyla and still owned all the materials. The film grew out of a stoned late-night argument 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 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 raise the money to make the film.” Among the film’s investors, Strauch says, was someone high up in the fashionable Ernst tie company, as well as “a dentist of ours, who worked on many of the famous hippie crowds around here.” Has Strauch ever ventured 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 mind, 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 stately and beautiful and elegant,” Seid says. “But they couldn’t read a line.” Also, there was no soundproofing in the warehouse: “When a bus went down the street, you heard it on the film.” A radical sonic approach was required. Experimental musician Warner Jepson not only composed the buzzing synthesizer score, in which robotic beeps and beeps rise like champagne bubbles through the electronic fuzz, but also the unintelligible language heard on the soundtrack when the performers open their mouths to speak. Avant-garde cinema may be, but Pingu of the Clangers fans will certainly feel at home here.
One element that seems to be slightly out of sync with the rest of the film is the hardcore heterosexual sex scene. The organizers of the 1971 San Francisco Film Festival requested that this episode be darkened before the photo could be shown. The color 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.
Rumor has it that only Strauch insisted on this interlude and included it in the film without Arnold’s permission. “That makes no sense!” says Strauch. “Steven was a pansexual person, and it was his idea to show all types of sex. Who else would it be? The only ones there that night were the couple having sex, plus Steven and the cameraman.’ Later I ask Seid if he thinks the film would be stronger if the sequence was removed. “I think it would be fine without it,” he says diplomatically.
Luminous Procuress wasn’t much reviewed outside of San Francisco, although Molly Haskell in the Village Voice wrote an informed review, calling it “not exactly erotic, not even sensual, but aloof, stylized and theatrical”. She also noted that it was sold in limited editions to collectors, such as prints of a work of art. Seid seems surprised to hear this. “Huh. I’m not sure how successful they were. If they sold one or two, I’d be impressed.”
But artists responded with interest and enthusiasm to Arnold’s film. Warhol was spotted at one screening, while after seeing it in 1974 Dalí was so enamored that he arranged a special screening for his coterie. He then invited Arnold to Barcelona to help design and manage the Dalí Museum. The men were seen holding hands in public. “It was almost a love affair,” Arnold said. “I loved him very much.”
It therefore seems bizarre that Arnold’s film career ended almost as soon as he started. After failing to raise funding for several follow-up projects, Seid says, Arnold “just seemed to walk away from film. He never saw himself as a filmmaker per se, so he could write off that period and not look back. He had sexual, spiritual and divine interests that were his driving force, and film was only the medium through which he expressed them at the time.”
Arnold moved to Los Angeles, where he flourished in the fields of art, fashion and photography. Among his friends were Warhol acolyte Holly Woodlawn and Exorcist star Ellen Burstyn, who bought his work and today credits him 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 fondly. “He was a beautiful person. Tall, thin, his movements are almost like dance. He dressed artistically and was never confrontational. He always had something interesting to say.” Why did his film hold up? “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 color. It is a transcendental experience.”
For Seid, the film fits harmoniously into a 21st-century culture that is comfortable with the concept of gender fluidity. “What Steven was trying to show was that we shouldn’t be pinned down 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 gender when you can just transcend gender?”