Luminous Procuress (1971)

Like a lot of people, I found Kyle Edward Ball’s childhood nightmare simulator Skinamarink compelling both as an experiment in form (especially in its layering of visual & aural textures) and as a breakout success story (from microbudget outsider art to TikTok meme to wide theatrical distro).  Unlike its loudest, proudest champions, however, I can’t say I was fully captivated with it as a narrative or emotional experience.  I found Skinamarink effectively, impressively creepy, but I can’t say I felt the revelatory breakthrough in form that my fellow horror nerds found in its darkened corners.  I suspect that’s because I’m not a regular visitor to the spooky YouTube channels and creepypasta message boards where Kyle Edward Ball cut his teeth as a short-film director before making a splash in that debut feature.  In a lot of ways, Skinamarink is the exact low-fi creepypasta horror that We’re All Going to the World’s Fair was mismarketed to be, and its most ecstatic praise appears to be coming from creepypasta enthusiasts who are relieved to finally see their online obsessions projected at feature length on the big screen.

I mention all this because I recently did have a revelatory, emotional experience watching a film that shares formal similarities to Skinamarink; it just happened to be steeped in the visual art traditions of drag & genderfuckery instead of online creepypasta lore.  Luminous Procuress is the sole feature film of visual artist Steven Arnold, whose own experimental short-film production & programming happened to be platformed at the legendary Nocturnal Dream Show screenings in 1960s San Francisco, not on YouTube in the 2010s.  I recently purchased a DVD copy of the film’s 50th Anniversary restoration while playing tourist in San Francisco, unfamiliar with its history beyond its proud credit “introducing The Cockettes” – the genderfucked drag krewe that performed as carnival sideshow accompaniment for Arnold’s Nocturnal Dream Show programs.  I was a little worried that a feature-length dose of Cockettes-era hippie drag wouldn’t be able to sustain itself, so I was oddly relieved when it turned out to be an experimental anthology of “silent”, psychedelic vignettes.  Like Skinamarink, Luminous Procuress is a film composed entirely of vibes & textures; those vibes & textures are just slathered in acid & glitter instead of childhood fears & digital grain.

The titular Luminous Procuress is Arnold’s childhood friend & lifelong partner in art, Pandora, posing as a kind of drag queen sorceress in a California hippie commune.  Two himbos wander into her pleasure palace looking for a good time, and the Procuress obliges by guiding them through a series of gorgeous bootleg-drag tableaus: the bejeweled-beard Cockettes posing in tropical Carmen Miranda drag and staging a Last Supper food fight; pre-Deep Throat hardcore sequences shooting straight & bisexual sex as if they were far-out geek show attractions; Kenneth Anger-inspired occultist rituals worshipping a stoic sci-fi futurelord.  Their cumulative effect seeks psychedelic holy ground between the transcendent sensuality of Pink Narcissus and the thrift store glam of Vegas in Space.  Besides Arnold’s auteurist vision as director, The Cockettes’ self-styled Old Hollywood wardrobe, and the glorious “hair creations by Nikki” (modeled by Pandora, naturally), the most important name among the credits is experimental musician Warner Jepson’s, whose noise music soundscapes are almost entirely comprised of synthy bird chirps & shrill baseball stadium organs.  It was Jepsen who provided the film with its deliberately obscured, unintelligible Charlie Brown dialogue track, adding the texture of spoken language without any of the pesky words or meaning of traditional dialogue getting in the way of the tripped-out glam on display.

If there’s any legitimate reason to discuss Skinamarink & Luminous Procuress as a pair, it’s in their shared connections to the experimental cinema foundations of Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou.  Kyle Edward Ball appears to make direct homages to that landmark surrealist short, both in Skinamarink‘s nonsensical time-passing title cards and in its ocular gore.  Steven Arnold’s connections to Un Chien Andalou‘s history is much more direct, as Dalí was such a massive fan of Luminous Procuress that he took Arnold in as a protege in his Court of Miracles.  In all honesty, though, any experimental, surrealist work made after 1929 owes some debt to Un Chien Andalou, so these films are likely only paired in my mind because I happened to watch them the same week.  Both are largely silent, experiential pieces with only the barest of plot structures to justify their liminal-space tableaus.  Of their two premises, I happened to connect much more deeply with a drag queen sorceress asking “Hey, y’all wanna see something weird?” than I did with a childhood nightmare simulation where all doors & windows disappear from a suburban home.  What’s incredibly cool about the two films’ modern distribution is that they’re both widely available outside of the fringe event spaces where experimental works of this ilk would’ve been exhibited a half-century ago: art galleries, universities, and Salvador Dalí’s hotel room. Skinamarink may be a far-out, revelatory work in the context of niche internet media being projected in suburban multiplexes, but it’s also part of a long tradition of experimental filmmaking – including, apparently, 16mm footage of drag queens playing dress-up on LSD.

-Brandon Ledet