Many film fans have never heard of him. Others only know his name in conjunction with comments by noted supporters like John Waters and David Lynch. There will be an additional few who recognize his moniker from his famous books of Grand Guignol gossip, the scandalous Tinsel Town screeds Hollywood Babylon (I & II). Yet his contributions to the cinematic artform are barely acknowledged, reserved for silver screen students and scholars who are required to look beyond the mainstream for links to George and Michael Kuchar, Stan Brakhage, and even Andy Warhol. Part of the problem is the lack of available screenings. Like most avant-garde cinema, there were precious few outlets for such artistic expression, even in the more cosmopolitan cities of the world. Instead, glimpses had to be snatched from college retrospectives and gallery exhibitions. Now, thanks to DVD, many of these amazing moviemaker's works are finding an outlet. And with a series of box sets ready to hit the market, Kenneth Anger may finally find recognition among a new generation of obscure film devotees. He definitely deserves it.
It was long rumored that Anger's films, usually only available for viewing at expositions and museums, would finally be making the leap to the digital medium. Fans have been furious at Fantoma's many announcements and retractions, but anyone familiar with Anger the artist understands the situation. While constantly remaking and modifying his films, dropping whole scenes and substituting soundtracks randomly, the filmmaker has found another calling, involving himself in esoteric philosophical pursuits and speaking on behalf of organizations like Disinformation. But now, the amazing first volume in The Films of Kenneth Anger series has finally arrived, and it's a stunning overview of a mostly forgotten celluloid artist. While we will have to wait for Volume 2 to see his most notorious effort 1964's Scorpio Rising the five films contained herein are remarkable landmarks in the area of outsider cinema. Considered individually, we have the ability to note the growth in both subject matter and significance in Anger's approach, from his days as a teenager rebel to his early '50s expressionistic look at life and luxury. Let's start with:
Title: Fireworks (1947)
Plot: A young man explores his sexuality in dreams that eventually overpower and destroy him.
Made when he was only 19, this overtly homosexual fantasy, filled with wildly erotic imagery and the harsh social stigma's surrounding same sex expressions, is Anger obviously dealing with his own inner demons. Taking the lead role, nothing more than a scrawny visage looking to pick up sailors at a local dive, we see subtle and obvious suggestions of male lust, machismo physique, and some fairly noticeable personal guilt. Legend has it that Anger made this movie while his parents were away for the weekend, and it's a real cry for help and recognition. As the smooth, sullen Navy boys beat him up, bloodying his desire to share their body, we see a kind of awkward acceptance, a note by Anger that the rest of his life will be such a battle between his inner needs and the outer world. The gorgeous black and white imagery, slightly out of focus at times, gives Fireworks a dramatic edge that really highlights the horniness and horrors inherent in the narrative. This is a stunning first film.
Title: Puce Moment (1949)
Plot: A starlet tries on different clothes, and then lounges around her boudoir.
Like a screen test for a surreal CinemaScope production, Puce Moment is all bright colors, luminescent imagery and arcane import. Part of a larger project Anger was planning on (something called Puce Women), this superficial whimsy argues for the filmmaker's ability with color and tone. What could have been a mere fashion catalog come to life shows remarkable compositional and framing facets, and the aura of glamour glazed over and slightly decaying is terrific. It's just too bad Anger never got to realize his grander vision and make the movie he really wanted. It would be interesting to see where the rest of this optical affluence would take us.
Title: Rabbit's Moon (1950)
Plot: Mimes infiltrate a magical French forest, pining for the moon as they attempt to find comfort in one another's company.
Combining classic fairy tale imagery (a faux forest filled with fake trees), traditional elements of mime, street theater (including a harlequin and a ballerina), and enough do-wop songs to send PBS directly into telethon mode, what we have here is a gorgeous joke, a repetitive riff on woodland scenes and their importance to old fashioned playwriting. Anger uses a single series of images to represent his title item a cartoon moon coming closer and closer to the lens and a series of arc performances from his French cast to comment on the cruelty of nature and the incompleteness of emotional bonds. There is not very much from a pure storytelling stance going on. All we see are costumed pawns playing dress up in a location that recalls Jean Cocteau at his most fascinatingly flamboyant. As the '50s music melds with the images, we wind up with a tale told by inference. The lyrics seem to comment on the action, but the overall experience feels piecemeal and fragmented. Still, no one can deny Anger's way with a lens, his camera creating a stream of unconsciousness quality that really helps to hold the likeable lark together.
Title: Eaux d'Artifice (1953)
Plot: A regal lady in waiting wanders around an evocative water garden.
Stunning, simply stunning. Anger unloads all his typical experimental convention on this solemn look at the gorgeous Villa d'Este fountain in Tivoli Italy, and the results are simply ravishing. Relying on Vivaldi's Four Seasons to set the mood, and trying every optical trick in the motion picture pantheon (slow motion, overcranking, etc.) Anger manages the impossible. He takes a fairly familiar object in this case, a testament to the ancient artisans who harnessed water to serve as a kind of fluid sculpture and renders it new and unusual. We are mesmerized by the shot selection, seeing the way in which fountains channel and funnel their fluid amongst varying physics-defying elements. By the end, we are whisked away to a world where witnessing such a site was not just pure, but privileged. While fountains are everyday occurrences for most of us, Anger makes us relive our initial discovery of the opulent objects, and the experience is both heart wrenching and soul settling. It's not hard to see why this particular work found its way into National Film Registry in the Library of Congress. It is a work of wondrous art.
Title: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954)
Plot: Various gods and mortals make preparations for the opening of a temple of temptation and desire.
Here is where some people will start tuning out regarding Anger's oeuvre. As is the case with most artists, this director decided to expand his cinematic language, employing more esoteric and idiosyncratic elements to his expression. While it starts off simple enough (people preparing for a party) what we end up with is a series of setpiece segments, repeated and crashed into each other, kaleidoscope style, to create a visual variation on the notion of hedonism and glut. The obvious references to religious iconography all manner, Christian, Hindu, etc. and the orgy-esque feel recalls the kind of overdone opticals of Fellini's Satyricon (and Anger made his movie 15 years before). You can really see the Kuchar Brothers here, the boys obviously influenced by the intersection of colors and concepts. Even early John Waters can be uncovered in these slightly dreamlike sequences of hallucinations and desire. While it tends to go on a little longer than necessary (how many split screen double exposures can we endure in one sitting) the results definitely sweep us away to another plane of existence, a realm where reality fights fantasy for social prominence. As preparation for the equally unusual offerings to come in Volume 2, this is an excellent primer for second phase Anger.
Indeed, the entire first volume of The Films of Kenneth Anger acts as an instructional manual on the birth of American avant-garde filmmaking. Deeply rooted in Hollywood's heyday, with all its bright colors and slightly unreal takes on truth, moviemaking rebels like Anger understood that Tinsel Town set the standard for what we expect from film. But since celluloid is a medium, as important to expression as paints, clay, canvases and one's hands, they also realized that it too could be managed and manipulated in ways that expanded and explained the power within the means. That is what the five films here do they look at what makes a movie fun and fascination, beautiful and important, and then slowly twists each and every element until they no longer resemble, at least outwardly, the standard stereotypical device. Then, by shoving them together in ever increasing combinations of contradiction, we are supposed to see the inherent worth and the new, novel value placed on them. From the pain of homosexuality to the wanton waste of overkill, Anger's message is one of certainty meshed with the bizarre. The finished product is something that still triggers the imagination, but calls into question everything we've come to appreciate about the motion picture artform. To hear Anger tell it, that was his intention all along.
Since each of these films has recently received a complete restoration overhaul (supervised by Anger himself) it is clear that what this DVD offers is some of the best examples, technically speaking, of Anger's creative canon made available to the viewing public. The 1.33:1 full screen images are practically pristine, loaded with color and detail as well as expertly balanced light and shadow. Such a visual standard is important, since Anger was as adept at mixing and matching tints as he was manipulating items within his frames. Of note to Anger experts each film comes with a "disclaimer" title card, explaining the process and the 'version' of the movie being presented. As stated before, Anger was notorious for endlessly fiddling with his work.
Made up mostly of classical music, the aforementioned '50s street corner jive, and a couple of examples of sloppy '60s psychedelia, the Dolby Digital Mono is clean and crisp. With almost no dialogue to worry about, the lush soundscapes come across with as much aural vibrance as the amazing visuals.
Featuring commentaries from the filmmaker himself, the added content supporting this release is limited, but quite information. Anger is an interesting guide, though he tends to state the obvious and add little to the more metaphysical aspects of his films. He also speaks like a film scholar, offering terminology that may test even the most learned cinephile. Similarly, there is a lot of dead air here, the artist more than willing to let his images speak for themselves. There are some intriguing monochrome outtakes from Rabbit's Moon, and a 48 page booklet which describes each film. It also contains essays from Martin Scorsese, a diary excerpt from Anaοs Nin, and a collection of storyboards. Overall, the supplemental material offered is excellent, and makes a fine companion to the movies being discussed and deciphered.
It's hard to make a final judgment on Anger's work. From a critical standpoint, his films are indeed genius, a true expression of personal aesthetic measured out in invention and imagination. From a commercial standpoint, they will leave many a movie maven cold, coming off as self-indulgent and slightly seedy. No matter the position you find yourself in, it's clear that Fantoma has done the history of cinema a service by making these remarkable motion pictures available. For that alone, the collection should earn a DVD Talk Collector's Series rating. But because of the potential limits to their appeal, a slight reconfiguration of the score is warranted. As a result, The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 1 earns a very robust Highly Recommended mark. A feast for the eyes as much as a shock to the system, this initial volley in what promises to be a full blown Anger renaissance has been a long time coming. Thankfully, Fantoma has done the maverick auteur right. Even with 2007 barely a month old, this is already one of the year's best DVD packages.