The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. I * * * 1/2
Puce Moment (1949)
Rabbit's Moon (1950)
Eaux d'Artifice (1953)
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954)
After years of delay, and reputedly some disputes with the filmmaker, Fantoma Films has finally released its long-awaited DVD compilation of the films of legendary underground filmmaker (and Hollywood Babylon scribe) Kenneth Anger, the first in a projected two-volume series. While most of his major works are absent--Scorpio Rising (1964) and Lucifer Rising (1972) will have to wait for the next DVD, which hopefully won't take as long--this DVD contains some stunningly sophisticated short films, totalling about 90 minutes when played as a program. I've wanted to watch Anger's films since beginning my personal "Primer" project of film essays a couple years back, and knew that the best video store in town, Four Star Video Heaven, had a VHS tape compilation that may or may not be legitimate; unfortunately, a flood in the building had promptly erased about a quarter of the store's inventory, and presumably the Anger tape was among them, because it was gone when I went looking again. So it was with great joy when I learned, early last month, that Fantoma had suddenly added the Anger DVD back to their schedule, and it was to be released within a matter of weeks. I am only an Anger initiate, and not an expert, so the short summaries I write here are only first impressions garnered from the very dream-like experience of watching the whole program.
According to the IMDB, Anger had been making films since he was 14 years old, but "Fireworks," made when he was 20, must be considered his first major work. The style and imagery of this, the only black and white film in the collection, calls to mind "Un Chien Andalou" and the early avant-garde films of Man Ray and Jean Epstein, put to use for a gay-themed parable. The story is quite obviously one of self-actualization, as a young man begins to experience homosexual longing, is tormented and brutally beaten for his desires, and finally is resurrected with a firework stuck in his pants. It's obvious, but quite well done given Anger's youth and lack of time and budget. It would certainly play well on a bill with one of Guy Maddin's films.
But it's the only film that seems to be of its time--even if it's an underground film. All the others, probably because many of them were reworked and redubbed over the years, have a more timeless feel. "Puce Moment" is a lovely fetish film that has a delirious opening sequence, as one brightly colored dress quickly replaces another, and the colors seem as dazzling as those of The Wizard of Oz. We obsessively follow a movie star as she leads a pack of dogs like a Siberian princess out of her estate. I'd like to know who's singing the psychedelic rock songs on the soundtrack. It sounds similar to the Velvet Underground, though at least I know it isn't them. Considering that this is a film from 1949, the effect is disorienting and weirdly euphoric. Most of all it feels like the sort of film a gay teenager would make in his bedroom when the parents are asleep--later to grow into a Jonathan Caouette, a John Cameron Mitchell...or a Kenneth Anger. Slight but technically astonishing, like all of the films here.
"Rabbit's Moon" is the first flat-out great film here. Restored to its original length of seventeen minutes (it was later cut down considerably), it's another parable, but reenacted by its players with a deliberately repetitive and ritualistic manner. A mime is stranded in a clearing in a dark woods, and falls in deep love with the moon. While he tries to reach it--an impossible task that continually leaves him isolated and broken--he is visited by a jester and a ballerina, who manipulate his desires. All of this is set to a doo-wop soundtrack--linked by chanting and tribal drums--which lends the atmosphere an electricity. The film is color tinted blue, in the manner of silent films depicting nighttime.
"Eaux d'Artifice" is an astounding and dreamy walk through a palace garden decorated with so many fountains that the water even cascades down the steps of the path. In fact, it brought to my mind Ralph Steiner's 1929 film "H20," in the way it approaches the moving water closer and closer until you're watching a purely abstract film.
Finally I was treated to a film which I gather most closely resembles his later classics. "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome" is a lengthy (38 minutes), intensely ritualistic film which summons imagery both pagan and Satanic (Anger was a professed disciple of Anton LaVey, author of the Satanic Bible). It begins with an initiate decorating himself with opulent jewelry, then consuming it. He is led into a dark chamber and joins a group of masked magicians/deities/whatever; the IMDB tells me that Shiva, Osiris, Kali, Aphrodite, Isis, Lilith, Pan, Hecate, and more are here--a density in myth that is echoed by the visual density of the film, which grows increasingly hallucinogenic and fevered as the film progresses. We even see, but dimly, an orgy of bodies piled atop each other in a pyramid, celebrating in a thick red mist, an image of intense pleasure that also, conversely, seems to invoke the traditional Catholic image of Hell. Clearly, Anger seeks to transform the Satanic into the liberating. In the bottomless pit of this secret chamber, you can don your mask, lose your identity, or discover your true one, free from the hypocrisies of the world above. It's an hypnotic bacchanalia, to which he would return--and hopefully Fantoma will too, as I eagerly await Volume II.