I contributed an essay this spring to Dirty Looks, Volume 3, the latest collection of writings about queer experimental film organized by the intrepid and brilliant Bradford Nordeen and connected to the screening series of the same name.
My contribution is about Steven Arnold’s 1971 erotic feature Luminous Procuress, which was recently restored and screened in its full glory this past March at the REDCAT theater in Los Angeles. That’s the film’s star, Pandora, on the cover.
Below is my intro to the essay, where I get a little personal and go off topic. Get the book to read everything I have to say about Arnold’s film and to explore the other great essays (Steve Seid!), filmmakers (Chris E. Vargas!), and performers (Flawless Sabrina!) included in the volume.
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“Freeze-Frame Eye: Steven Arnold’s Archetypal Vision”
At a key moment in the film Suddenly Last Summer, Catherine, played by Elizabeth Taylor, finally reveals what her and her aunt’s relationship was with her cousin Sebastian: “We procured for him!” I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw the film, but I still remember how the line jumped out at me.
Released in 1959, Suddenly Last Summer is a strange mixture (though familiar to Tennessee Williams fans) of Southern Gothic and post-war Freudianism. Its two female leads, Taylor and Katharine Hepburn, bounce from one go-for-broke speech to the next, repeating words and phrases in a patently artificial way and hovering always on the verge of hysteria. As the women get closer to revealing the truth about Sebastian and what it was that happened “suddenly, last summer” on that hot Spanish beach where he died, we sense that the secret is going to be a big one: big enough to send Liz, Kate, or perhaps even us in the audience tumbling into madness forever.
I’m guessing that’s why Liz’s line hit me so hard: because it was clearly supposed to explain everything but to me it explained nothing. I had understood every word in the film up till then, but I didn’t know what “procuring” meant. There was something magical about the gap between the character’s palpable sense of relief in saying the line, like a valve letting off a huge amount of steam, and my utter confusion upon hearing it. In retrospect, I think it was one of my earliest experiences of camp.
Later, when I had forgotten virtually everything else about the film, I would still imitate Liz’s breathless delivery of the line at odd moments to friends: “Don’t you understand? I was procuring for him!”
Gleefully, they never understood.
I don’t know if Steven Arnold took the word “procuress” from Suddenly Last Summer when he was figuring out the title for his own feature-length film. Perhaps not. He may have landed on the term simply because it is about sex, is quaintly old-fashioned, and pairs so nicely with “luminous.” Both words lead from opening long vowels across three syllables to final juicy sibilants, and together they have an incantatory power and are a lot of fun to say. Cockette Scrumbly intoned “luminous procuress” as if it were part of a blessing from the Latin mass when he played the Pope in Tricia’s Wedding, a film that was likewise shot in Arnold’s studio and premiered the same year, in 1971.
Nevertheless, since Liz trained me in the word’s meaning at such a young age, I watch Luminous Procuress with an eye towards the procurement plot…