Tangled Bodies and Blown Minds, Complete With the Cockettes

Tangled Bodies and Blown Minds, Complete With the Cockettes
Photo

Hibiscus, a member of the Cockettes, in “Luminous Procuress.” Credit Courtesy BAMPFA

For its male and female nudity and gender-bending sexual attitude, Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures,” first shown in 1963, was the most scandalous American avant-garde movie of its time. It may also have been the most influential, at least among Smith’s fellow underground filmmakers.

Steven Arnold’s “Luminous Procuress” (1971) is among the Smith film’s most flamboyant offspring.

The movie, restored and screening in a new 16-millimeter print Sunday and Monday at Anthology Film Archives, is a 75-minute immersion in Mr. Arnold’s self-consciously decadent worldview — a blend of art nouveau stylization, occult rituals, Hollywood camp and rampant orientalism. Like the poster artist Victor Moscoso and the multimedia group USCO, Mr. Arnold, who during the late 1960s designed handbills for rock bands and programmed midnight shows at an old San Francisco movie-house, was an exponent of hippie modernism.

His magical mystery tour is set in a bordello not unlike the Magic Theater in the Hermann Hesse novel “Steppenwolf.” A winsome pair of longhaired lads are guided through a series of esoteric mysteries by the androgynous madam, Mr. Arnold’s high school friend and frequent star, Pandora. Her establishment is populated by a collection of depraved-looking baby dolls, costumed love goddesses, Egyptian mummies, men with deep red lipstick and glitter-encrusted beards (members of the Cockettes, an anarchic troupe of acid-head drag queens), and mainly lots of entangled naked bodies.

A trippy score by the electronic music composer Warner Jepson largely obliterates the sparse dialogue, which may have been versions of “oh, wow” and “far out,” and, in any case, is usually heard backward. Everyone plays peekaboo through the veils and beaded curtains of the heavily dressed set. Pandora often stares deeply into the camera as if to hypnotize the spectator.

“Luminous Procuress,” which had its premiere at the 1971 San Francisco Film Festival and was given a run at the Whitney Museum in 1972, was something of an underground extravaganza. The movie is as remarkable for its mise-en-scène as for its druggie, orgiastic content. Where “Flaming Creatures” — an alternately frenzied and languorous home-movie of a transsexual bacchanal — was distinguished by a radical absence of production values, “Luminous Procuress” can boast professional lighting, glorious Kodachrome color and elaborate sets. The copious credits include one for “hair creation.” (According to a contemporary article in the film magazine Take One, the movie cost $15,000.)

Mr. Arnold appears to have abandoned movies after “Luminous Procuress,” although he remained an active photographer and graphic artist, working largely in Los Angeles until his death in 1994. Fran Lebowitz, who reviewed “Luminous Procuress” for the counterculture monthly Changes, thought it needed to be “enhanced by a little chemical accompaniment.” Forty-five years later, the movie — which is wittier than its original notices, including Roger Greenspun’s review in The New York Times, would suggest — has the power to provide its own.

In addition to “Luminous Procuress,” Anthology is showing on Sunday a program of earlier short movies, shot on black-and-white 16-millimeter film, apparently while Mr. Arnold was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. The last, “Various Incantations of a Tibetan Seamstress,” is notable for the droll approach it takes to the practice of Tantric Buddhism.

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