Luminous Procuress [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (10th June 2022).
The Film

New Directors Prize: Steven Arnold (won) - San Francisco International Film Festival, 1971

Two young men (co-writer Steve Solberg and Ronald Farrell) enter the strange abode of the Luminous Procuress (Pandora) who shows them a series of sexual vignettes ranging from juvenile exhibitionism to taboo-bursting, among them a human carousel of androgynous and gender-bending nudes and a papal orgy. As the two men shed their exhibitions, the Luminous Procuress takes them into her bed and beyond.

On paper, Luminous Procuress one of only two feature-length projects by underground filmmaker, artist, illustrator, and photographer Steven Arnold sounds like an arty porn film; and, indeed, it looks like a hybrid of Fellini Satyricon by way of Derek Jarman (or Andy Milligan) and the works of Wakefield Poole, particularly the softcore Bible! in terms of its budget baroque visuals staged in a San Francisco townhouse and more conceptually the gay hardcore Bijou in which a construction worker picks up the purse of a woman struck by a car and finds an invitation to a mysterious club where he is exposed to various sexual tableaux that underline his own underlying feelings of loneliness, guilt, and repression. Whereas the latter Poole film culminated in an orgy with the participation of the protagonist, Arnold's Luminous Procuress demonstrates early on that he is less interested in transgression than transcendence. The two young men kissing each other is just another step as bodily pleasures are shed just as readily as the repression that once held them in check it matters not whether the two young men are friends, lovers, or even relatives and the film never clarifies their relationship prior to their journey as the sex scene is no more structured towards any sense of "climax" than the length of time they observe each vignette (apart from one extended instance of heterosexual hardcore that was inserted against Arnold's wishes). While some ultimately conservative films turn sexual liberation into a trap in which ones will or soul is overruled by physical pleasure and vice, the final tableau is ambiguous as to whether the two men are to join the Luminous Procuress' retinue or about to be zapped away to another spiritual plane.

Seemingly by design rather than sloppiness, Arnold plays with the rough edges of the production from the start in which it appears as if the two young men have ventured to a house in the middle of nowhere only for the big picture windows behind them in the lobby to reveal a row of San Francisco townhouses across the street; this as much as close shots of the actors' heads moving past the camera in and out of shafts of colored light to give the impression of moving through a vast labyrinth suggests an internal component to the physical journey that would make the various tableaux vivants seem less silly to someone whose mind has been opened up; and, yet, the film does not seem to have been designed for the "head" crowd. There is no synchronized dialogue, only the multitude of foreign voices electronically-processed as part of the score by electronic music pioneer Warner Jepson (who had previously scored the short The Bed by gay San Francisco Renaissance poet and filmmaker James Broughton) and only sometimes seeming to follow the mouth movements of the actors; such is the aural and visual economy of Arnold's staging that the "auditory gibberish" we interpret to represent wisdom bestowed to the young men by the woman, the actual details of which are irrelevant as just a means of moving the trio from one vignette to another. The film features the screen debut of drag theatre company The Cockettes displaying their wares to the camera (in this case, their handmade costumes, wigs, and make-up more so than their bared genitalia). Luminous Procuress may frustrate or even bore casual or even arthouse-dedicated viewers but the artistry behind it is still impressive.


Shot on reversal 16mm color film and restored in 2K in 2018 by the Pacific Film Archive, Luminous Procuress on Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray vividly conveys the strengths and weaknesses of the shooting format. Brighter scenes sport reasonable degrees of detail when the subject is in focus there are many shots in which the camera photographs people through foreground framing objects and occlusions including sheer colored material or distorting glass while the darker scenes have varying minor degrees and the fine and facial detail tend to be lost in the more saturated primary gel lighting to the point that sometimes the faces of the trio look more like they have been painted in those colors before they emerge beyond those shafts of light.


There is no spoken dialogue, either sync-sound or post-dubbed, and the disc's back cover mistakenly describes the LPCM 1.0 mono audio as "English voices" but the voices in the sound collage of Jepson are all speaking foreign languages and have been treated to electronic processing; therefore, the muffled sound of some of these bits that make the viewer's ears strain for comprehension is by design rather than a fault in the mixing or the capture and cleanup of the magnetic audio elements. The more "musical" passages of the score are free of any condition-related hiss. There are no subtitles.


Extras consist of an interview with producer Harry Tsvi Strauch (9:30) from 2022 and "Steve Seid on the History and Preservation of Luminous Procuress (21:12), an introduction to the Pacific Film Archive screening from 2018. Strauch reveals that he and his wife had the first hippie boutique shot in Haight-Ashbury and had hired art school student Arnold to design displays and create promotional posters. Arnold had been renting out a small theater to project midnight movie programs of shorts and cartoons when the owner hired him to make it a regular event in which The Cockettes were attendees who then offered to open the show with performances in lieu of paying for admission tickets. The feature film was the result of a discussion with Strauch and his wife about the lack of serious adult erotic films; whereupon they became principal investors in the film. Strauch also reveals that the hardcore scene was darkened in order to be shown in the San Francisco Film Festival and continued to be so when New Line Cinema circulated the film during their early more adventurous days of arthouse and grindhouse flicks. When the film was restored, Strauch asked for the scene to be brightened up again.

As entertaining as Strauch's interview is, one is not always sure about details he omits that Seid addresses or where their accounts differ. Seid is the one who reveals the hardcore scene was added after the film was taken out of Arnold's hands and he also tells his audience that the Jepsen soundtrack came as a result of the location not being soundproofed and Arnold's high school friend/muse Pandora having a horrible voice and being uncomfortable with delivering dialogue while Strauch avers that Arnold always intended not only to privilege image over dialogue but also for Jepsen to design the film's entire soundscape. Seid does reveal that it took some time to get the materials from Strauch because he did not understand their goals for the restoration and was distrustful of being swindled given the film's bootleg and gray market availability previously.


Housed with the disc is a 23-page booklet featuring new writing by film scholar and critic Elena Gorfinkel and an essay by Steve Seid. The Seid essay is worth reading because it expands upon his video introduction from Arnold's education and friendship with Pandora as well as art teacher Violet Chew, more discussion of the performers including members of The Cockettes, and interpretation of the narrative. Gorinkel's essay discusses the Jungian and surrealist influences as well as the filmic including the aforementioned Bijou and Kenneth Anger's Fireworks.


Luminous Procuress may frustrate or even bore casual or even arthouse-dedicated viewers but the artistry behind it is still impressive.


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