by Douglas Messerli
Steven Arnold (director) The Liberation of the Mannique Mechanique / 1967 [15 minutes]
A proto-hippy from San Francisco, Steven Arnold was primarily a photographer, and directed only one major short, The Liberation of the Mannique Mechanique (1967), but with his later work with The Cockettes and involvement with Holly Woodlawn, he pioneered the midnight LGBTQ-oriented movie, later becoming a muse for Salvador Dali. His Los Angeles-based circle was often touted as the West Coast version of Andy Warhol’s New York City-based The Factory.
Without any obvious narrative structure except for the metaphor of “awakening,” his Mannique Mechanique is nearly impossible to describe as a series of linked frames. Inspired by William A. Seiter and Gregory La Cava’s film One Touch of Venus—a fantasy work in which a window-dresser kisses a mannikin of Venus, who, turning into Ava Gardner, creates a series of dilemmas as she falls in love with him—Arnold immediately repositions the story into the world of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947), moving into the territory of George Kuchar and Andy Warhol.
With the music lifted from Alfred Newman’s score for the biblical epic The Robe, Arnold made-up his stars Sonia Magill and Ruth Weiss to look like mimes, clowns, drag-queens, and other sexually fluid gendered figures who all swirl and whirl into life ready to take on their roles as fully sexually-charged machines of a grand kitsch reality.
Costumed in masks and various forms of plastic head-gear and feathers, lit up by the intense focus of everything from gig lights to flashlights, and surrounded at moments with naked gay boys while at other times kissed into being by a would-be drag queen, this mechanical mannikin experiences the multiple orgasms of coming into human existence.
By primarily focusing just upon the face, Arnold creates the sensational sexual collage that Michael Brynotrup simulated by using the facial expressions of gay porn magazines in his 1993 film All You Can Eat. Arnold’s variations on a mannikin-ical symphony of awakening, the polar opposite of Warhol’s Sleep (1963), is something perhaps to be seen rather than talked about. Below I’ve gathered several stills from the film.
Los Angeles, July 9, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (July 2021).