Why a hap-hap-hop-hoppy Easter Sunday to you, dearest Filthy Dreams bunnies! What’s that? You’re not religious? That doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the ecstatic joy of trash religiosity. I mean, this Easter, I feel like I finally understand the resurrection of Christ. I mean, nearly 30 days into my bout with COVID-19, I know how He felt and I’ll tell you–this resurrection shit is TIRING! No wonder it took Jesus so many days to get out of the tomb. He wasn’t just lazing about, it’s physically exhausting!
This Easter, it’s a little different than other years. No more White House Easter Egg Roll. You can’t just cover yourself with Jesus’s blood and meander into the most gaudy looking mega-church you can find. Or hell–maybe you can. Why not roll the dice with a deadly illness! Who knew death cults would make a comeback in 2020??
But for those of you who want to stay safe or are weirded out by thoughts of a Christ bloodbath, Filthy Dreams has you covered by recommending a heavenly and dare-I-say holy documentary on photographer, filmmaker and artist Steven Arnold that was just put online in full and for free by the Steven Arnold Archive just for this weekend. So get on it!! Entitled Steven Arnold: Heavenly Bodies, the documentary delves into Arnold’s lush mystical and celestial worlds. Even just listening to actress and Arnold’s close friend Ellen Burstyn’s beginning narration of text by Arnold stating, “We belong to a special secret order of angel creatures…” feels as if you’ve transcended past those pearly gates.
The documentary traces Arnold’s creative life, starting with his early art school experimental films featuring gorgeous wackos like fellow artist Pandora and Beat poet ruth weiss (who was the first poet that combined jazz and reading that–surprise–she never gets the credit for) and ending, as with many flaming creatures, as he worked furiously up until his death from complications from AIDS in 1994. In between, the film details his artistic progression, including running the midnight movies at the Palace Theater in San Francisco, which gave the psychedelic drag psychos The Cockettes their first break, and his breakthrough 1971 film Luminous Procuress, which sparked his close friendship with Salvador Dalí with whom he helped construct Dalí’s museum, along with, of course, our disco queen, deadpan role model and fellow Dalí muse Amanda Lear. The film also takes a deep dive into his surreal, dreamlike and erotic black-and-white photographs, which required him to construct elaborate, seemingly opulent otherworldly tableaus out of trash like popsicle sticks and toothpaste caps. Trash can be treasure!
Beyond just his art and film practice, Steven Arnold: Heavenly Bodies also depicts the man as the pinnacle of the self-fashioned decadent flâneur with his jangling bracelets, copious rings and overall ornate fashion sense. And it wasn’t just his own dress. I mean, Des Esseintes would have burned with envy at Arnold’s studio in Los Angeles, called Zanzibar Studios. From the pictures, it looked like derelict graffiti-laden hovel on the outside, only to open up into a golden, treasure-trove of aestheticism inside, within which Arnold would hold salons inviting people such as Holly Woodlawn, Timothy Leary and Debbie Harry.
Now, with Arnold’s enduring interest in mysticism and religiosity, watching the documentary, if you can get over the continuous New Age-y soundtrack that inches toward being too much to bear in parts, might as well be a sermon for us devotees of decadence. I mean, in one part, Arnold in a conversation with painter Ed Moses in 1992, discusses Christ, asserting: “Jesus was androgynous. He was both male and female. And he had twelve guys who would do anything for him.” Well, that’s one way of putting it!
But don’t worry–Arnold’s interest in religions was certainly non-denominational, as he describes “homosexuality as a state of grace” in Native American cultures. To Arnold, celebrities were also a form of religion. As artist and DJ Scott Ewalt says, “Marlene Dietrich was a religion to him. Mae West was a religion to him.” As they are to us. I mean, idol worship is the highest form of devotion I can imagine.
Frustratingly, despite how unquestionably gorgeous and intoxicating Arnold’s work is, he, like many actually talented transgressive artists, still isn’t quite given his due, as Simon Doonan points out in Heavenly Bodies. Doonan suggests it may because his work exudes too much joy and collectors tend to love pathos in photography. Naturally, there’s no accounting for taste…
So, Filthy Dreams faithful, grab a glass of sacramental wine, stuff your mouth with Peeps (if you made it to the store in your medical mask) and watch Heavenly Bodies to pray with, or if you’d like, to Steven Arnold this Easter here.