Experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger used his camera to express his innermost feelings. Encouraged to do exactly the same thing, modern film students invariably imitate their favorite Hollywood pictures. Los Angeles- based, and with a grandmother who was once a movie costumer, Anger essentially invented his own kind of cinema based upon what he could accomplish with some friends when the rest of the family left for the weekend. His first efforts are photographically crude but visually arresting; they communicate precise states of mind and conjure visuals that stick in the memory. As with Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger's homegrown art movies attracted the attention of the Hollywood art crowd, and his reputation quickly spread to museums and film clubs. High praise followed from luminaries like Jean Cocteau. Within a few years Anger was in New York and Europe, moving among an elite crowd, an intellectual cinema fringe.
Experimental films often need the atmosphere of a cinema club or a film school, any place where the audience can be 'prepared' to lend an open mind to something new. Pale video copies of old 16mm prints are now the common way for students see films like Meshes of the Afternoon. Superior collections of artistic short subjects are in short supply: Treasures from American Film Archives, Unseen Cinema - Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941. Fantoma's The Films of Kenneth Anger, Volume One takes advantage of excellent restorations of his most notable early work.
Seen as a group, Anger's pictures express a personal, symbolic inner world. He claims that they are often literal representations of his dreams. The first film on the playbill is a direct recounting of personal anxieties. The later efforts reach for new directions of artifice, but all evoke dream states, from the delicate to the phantasmagorical.
Fireworks (1947) is the only overt example of gay cinema in this first volume, although it has no graphic sex content per se. Anger filmed this crude, remarkably expressive film literally over a single weekend when the folks were out of town. Using a living room cleared of furniture and some simple props, Anger's blunt, often out-of-focus images tell the story of a seventeen year-old (himself) fascinated by male beauty, and then beaten and tormented by a group of sailors. The abstract imagery goes way beyond what one would call sexually charged ... Anger's visions of torture include bizarre shots of milk cascading onto his face and down his chest. The film obsesses on a Piéta-like image of a sympathetic sailor carrying Anger's dead body, a shot echoed in a stack of burning photographs. Remembered from the Playboy "Sex in the Cinema" articles is a shot of a sailor lighting a roman candle stuck in the fly of his pants -- I imagine that was the film's buzzword visual. But more disturbing -- I don't know why -- is the cutaway to the young man struggling because his head has turned into the remnant of a Christmas tree, complete with decorations and tinsel! Anger's personal visions seem obsessed with the idea of transformation, a concept that links his fascinations with glamour, monsters and ambivalent primal creatures akin to the mythological 'elementals' of his later work.
What makes Anger an artist is that his images aren't repackaged from the media or the movies, and his unsophisticated equipment doesn't allow him to get bogged down in technique. Every shot has impact and force. He's tapped a cinematic form independent of narrative concerns.
Puce Moment (1950) is an expressive fragment, this time in bright, almost electric colors; Anger's camerawork is improving. Anger planned a much more elaborate film, that judging by his storyboards (included in the disc booklet) might have looked like a tinsel town variant on Alla Nazimova's 1923 Salomé. The 'moment' that he did shoot simply shows a female star choosing a dress -- a lengthy shot of colored garments moving past the lens -- and primping to go out. The film is an example of the 'a little help from my friends' sub-genre; Anger makes use of his grandmother's costumes, a friend's collection of vintage perfume bottles and the Hollywood Hills home (and fancy dogs) of yet another presumed confidante/career enabler. It's the weakest show here but would probably take first prize in a student film contest.
The beautiful Rabbit's Moon (1950) was filmed in 35mm on a Paris soundstage and consciously affects Cocteau crossed with William Dieterle's A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Anger incidentally played the Changeling Prince character. He uses a modest but beautiful forest glade set, cel animation and actors from a mime troupe to tell the Commedia dell'arte story of a clown who falls in love with both the moon (sometimes represented by a bunny rabbit) and an aloof dancer. Finished only twenty years later, this full 16-minute version is accompanid by fifties' Doo-Wop tunes ("There's a moon out tonight ...") that somehow set the perfect mood. Actions are repeated in a dreamlike trance as the poor clown Pierrot is humiliated by the dancer and a leering harlequin figure. Unlike some experimental filmmakers unconcerned with technique, Anger is a visual stylist in search of precise images, and this show is a beauty. But oneiric fantasy always comes first: Pierrot uses a magic lantern to project an image of his dancing princess, and then joins her in the lantern's secondary reality.
The visual delights of Eaux d'artifice (1953) were inspired by a beautiful location, an Italian garden of fountains. Enchanted by the 17th century setting, Anger used infra-red B&W film and carefully lined up each shot so that the light would set off the water sprays from their backgrounds; he also changed camera speeds and shutter angles to make the droplets of water seem alive. A grand lady character strolls down the garden's many steps. Anger's brilliant stroke is to cast a heavily costumed midget in the role, to double the apparent size of the fountains! The entire film is toned blue and set off by a couple of startling hand-tinted shots. By the end, the show has gone way beyond the notion of 'pretty pictures'; it's as if we've spent thirteen minutes in a new reality. The musical background is the 'winter' section of Vivaldi's Four Seasons.
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) is Anger's most magical film. Suggested by a "Come as your madness" costume party, it's clearly a harmonious effort by friends eager to be part of an Anger Happening. It looks as though the filmmaker locked them all up for as long as it took to work out his complex lighting and special effects schemes. The picture is a pantheistic "Night on Freak Mountain," a kind of cinematic pageant where an eclectic gallery of mythological figures -- Shiva, Aphrodite, Astarte, Ganymede -- gather to 'do their thing.'
Remarkable creative energy is behind this parade of charades. The costumes are terrific and the strange make-ups alarming; after a few minutes we're accepting men with cabalistic painted faces as totemic mythological figures. The color movie makes good use of the extreme décor of the house of Sampson De Brier, who also plays Shiva, Osiris and The Great Beast. De Brier's rooms were already painted in bright colors like red and yellow; it's a perfect fantastic setting. Anger plays Hecate, fellow experimental filmmaker Curtis Harrington is a slave, and the remarkable Anaïs Nin is Astarte.
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome ended up as a key inspiration for trippy psychedelic movies; let's just say that its dozens of creative in-camera visual effects have been ripped off daily for fifty years. Unlike the Warhol group of 'artists,' Anger's contemporaries made movies instead of non-movies, and they spent their time studying and sharing art instead of promoting the notion of instant superstardom. Anger's films are modern art visions of beauty that don't require intellectual excuses to connect with an audience.
Fantoma's DVD of The Films of Kenneth Anger, Volume One showcases brand new film restorations by UCLA, The Film Foundation and others; much of the actual film work was done at the lab Triage. The films are annotated with text explaining their various 'lives' in altered forms; some have been exhibited in shorter versions and synchronized with different soundtracks.
Kenneth Anger's relaxed commentaries make all the difference. He speaks openly about the circumstances of filming. He saved the family's Christmas tree until Spring, when he filmed Fireworks. Rabbit's Moon became possible when some Russian filmmakers gave him a batch of unused film stock, and a French studio allowed him to film for free in the 'vacation month' of August. Anger identifies players and speaks honestly of mistakes, but doesn't indulge in gossip or tell tales out of school.
A fat insert book (48 pages) documents the details of each film while offering attractive frame grabs, storyboard art and a few photos of the handsome Anger. Anaïs Nin's diary pages about a wild party and her film shoot are included as well. We occasionally have to read between the lines: We're not told why Rabbit's Moon lay unfinished for twenty years but can guess that unpaid bills had something to do with it. Martin Scorsese offers an introduction praising Anger's electric images and especially his use of music.
Experimental filmmakers can't be accused of doing what they do for the money. Anger's work has lived on in museum and film school showings; none of them ever received anything like an organized theatrical distribution. It's interesting that soon after the publication of the popular coffee-table version of his notorious scandal book Hollywood Babylon, Anger stopped making movies for twenty-five years.
In a quaint touch, the book offers a website for Canyon Cinema, where Anger's films can be rented in 16mm, the old fashioned way.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 1 rates:
Supplements: Kenneth Anger audio commentaries, Rabbit's Moon outtakes, Program book
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 11 , 2007