The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume I & II
(Fantoma) Keith Boyd 10.26.07
How to review this treasure trove of visionary cinema? It's hard to give Kenneth Anger a context if you aren't aware of him already. He's an independent director of a couple handfuls of extremely singular films dating from the late 40's to the early 80's. Perhaps the true flowering and manifestation of his genius was in the 1960's. During that decade he created such masterpieces as, "Scorpio Rising", "Invocation of My Demon Brother" and "Lucifer Rising". These movies are not whatsoever the usual plot driven Hollywood dreck. They are full color, psychedelic rituals rendered with a love and attention to detail rarely seen in film. They are beautiful kinetic collages that both terrify and intrigue with heavily saturated colors and layers of symbolic meaning. Kenneth Anger's fame with the general public is based almost exclusively on his best-selling 1960 book, "Hollywood Babylon," whose scandalous revelations transcended gossip. But a more limited audience knows Anger as a brilliant and stridently independent filmmaker. This reputation rests on nine short films totaling about three hours' length. Plagued by calamities that have included financial problems, threats, despair, lost films, stolen ones and seizure of footage by labs on the ground of obscenity, his output has not been prolific. But his impact on American film and television has been substantial.
It was in Anger's work that raw popular culture first found its place on the big screen. Anger's "Scorpio Rising" revolutionized Martin Scorcese's use of soundtrack music (as he notes in his loving forwards to both volumes). David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" bears the imprint of Anger's perversity. The exotic lighting and gay iconography of Fassbinder's "Querelle" has been compared to Anger's. Indeed, Anger's pioneering work in juxtaposing sound and image, his rapid editing and evocative tableaux can be cited as major influences on the shape of the commercials and music videos that permeate our culture today.
Kenneth Anger was born in 1930 in Hollywood , where his grandmother was a silent-film wardrobe mistress in the studios. At the age of four, Anger played the changeling prince in Max Reinhardt's film, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (This fact however has been greatly disputed in subsequent years). Later, he danced with Shirley Temple. This early inundation with Hollywood culture started his lifelong fascination with glamour, scandal and stars. When he was seven, he started his filmmaking career with the family's home movie camera. In 1947, at the age of seventeen, while his parents were at a funeral, Anger made his prize-winning film, "Fireworks," which became one of the classic films of the underground cinema and a source for gay iconography. It was in this film that he first examined and celebrated the rites of underground or marginal groups. Anger himself played the dreamer. In 1949, he began "Puce Moment," of which only a fragment was completed, due to lack of financing. This was to unfortunately become a recurrent theme in Kenneth Anger's artistic life.
While a teenager, Anger was introduced to and deeply influenced by the work of Aleister Crowley, legendary master of the occult and author of voluminous works on "magick." Anger has said that he means his films "to cast a spell, to be a magical invocation of his fusion of dreams, desire, myth and vision." Fully cognizant of the seductive powers of film, he used it in a ritualistic way, as a magical instrument, to communicate the power and poetry of Crowley 's "Thelema" which had become his chosen religion.
In 1950, Anger moved to Paris , and within a year the desperation of crushing poverty led him to attempt suicide. He also began "Rabbits' Moon," a lyrical fable of the unattainable, blending Commedia Dell'Arte with Japanese mythology, which he did not complete until 1970. In Paris , he met Edith Piaf, Colette, Henri Langlois, Chanel, Jean Genet (whose sensibility he shares in many ways, and Jean Cocteau. Cocteau proved to be both an influence on and a champion of Anger. He stated that "Fireworks" is, "a film that came from that beautiful night from which emerge all true works. It touches the quick of the soul, and this is very rare." In Italy in 1953, Anger made the eerily beautiful "Eaux d'Artifice." His poetic sense and technical skill made it a tour de force of rhythmic editing. In 1954 Anger moved back to Hollywood and made his psychedelic epic, "The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome." By this time, Anger's interest in the occult resulted in a film based on the elaborate rituals practiced by Aleister Crowley; In "Inauguration...," a convocation of magicians assume the identities of pagan gods and goddesses in a Dionysian revelry. Anger spent the late Sixties and early Seventies in England , where he involved British pop stars in his work. Anger inspired the Rolling Stones' hit "Sympathy for the Devil." Mick Jagger scored Anger's 1969 film, "Invocation of My Demon Brother," using a Moog synthesizer to produce bizarre atonal sounds. "Lucifer Rising"also features Marianne Faithfull as Lilith.
It was in 1964 that Anger completed his best-known work and his masterpiece, "Scorpio Rising." He called it "a death mirror held up to American culture." Set to thirteen pop songs including "He's a Rebel", "Heat Wave," and "Wipeout" (whose expensive and unsatisfactorily cleared rights ultimately led to its withdrawal from video release), images of bikers, Christ and his disciples, the grim reaper, and others are interspersed to form a complex picture of what Anger saw as the violent and fetishistic obsessions of youth. It is a kaleidoscope of images, sometimes comical in tone that expresses pop culture in a compelling and disturbing way. "Kustom Kar Kommandos," a short, camp classic followed in 1965. From 1970 - 1980, Anger worked periodically on "Lucifer Rising," which he has referred to as "visual music." Shot in exotic locations all over the world but always evoking Egypt , the film invokes Lucifer in his oft-forgotten role (and name-translation) as light-bearer. Bobby Beausoleil appears as Lucifer and composed its score from the prison cell where he had begun serving a life sentence for his part in the Charles Manson murders. It was Anger's last completed film.
Anger has often argued that Crowley 's teachings are the focal point of all his films, but to the uninitiated, the work deals more broadly with sexuality, myth, popular culture and ritual. One could see its main objective as inflaming the senses through delirious (though magickally systematic) use of color and exhilarating visual energy synchronized with arousing music. Although some works look like Cecil B. DeMille on a low budget, Anger's wry irony is nearly always in evidence, undercutting any accusations of pretension. The need for ritual persists in all of Anger's films, and very few filmmakers have explored the boundaries of filmmaking the way he has, particularly at the convergence of cult and culture.
These two collections represent the first time Anger's films have been available to the general public. The original prints have been meticulously cleaned and transferred to DVD. The amazing extras include Anger's film by film commentary, alternate soundtrack options and 2 short never before seen features. Each set comes with a booklet of commentaries (by film makers such as Gus Van Sant and Martin Scorsese) and vivid photographs. Finally this visionary artist has been given his proper place in the history of cinema.