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 the second in a series of box sets hitting the market, Kenneth Anger is finally getting the universal recognition he so richly deserves.
It was long rumored that Anger's films, typically only available for viewing at expositions and museums, (or, sadly, on bootlegs and file sharing sites like YouTube) would finally be making the leap to the digital medium. Fans have been cautious, what with distributor 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 raging Renaissance man has found another calling, involving himself in esoteric philosophical pursuits and speaking on behalf of organizations like Disinformation. But now, after the release of the amazing first volume in The Films of Kenneth Anger series, Volume 2 has finally arrived, and it's a remarkable testament to a mostly forgotten celluloid artist. Containing two of his most notorious efforts - 1964's Scorpio Rising and 1981's Lucifer Rising - the five films contained herein are extraordinary landmarks in the area of outsider cinema. Considered individually, we have the ability to note the flawless finalization in both subject matter and significance regarding Anger's approach, from his same sex obsessions to his growing interest in Satanism and the occult. Let's start with:
Title: Scorpio Rising (1964)
Plot: Young men prepare their motorcycles for a night of cruising while homoerotic imagery emphasizes the link between leather and lust.
Review: Looking at it four decades later, it's hard to measure the original artistic impact of Anger's Scorpio Rising. Taking its name from a biker patch, and drawing on the growing gay subculture of bike/bodybuilding machismo, this combination of jukebox jive ('50s pop standards blast in the background) and visual feast is impossible to deny. Yet in 2007, when metrosexuality has embraced much of the lifestyle's couture, the emphasis on skintight pants, metal chains, and smooth, sensual skin seems like a given. But back in '64, with The Beatles considered the most brazen example of subversive influence this country could tolerate, a movie that merged James Dean, feigned homosexual orgies, jump cut glimpses of genitalia, and an obsessive approach to gear head detail was bound to cause a stir. It's an impact that continues to be felt all throughout film.
Title: Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965)
Plot: A customized automobile is pampered with an oversized powder puff.
Review: Turning his fetishizing lens toward tricked out vehicles this time out, Anger argues for his ability as a purely visual filmmaker. Languishing over the chrome and curves of this amazing auto (it's more a work of art than a street legal ride), we understand the inherent value in framing, composition, and the careful combination of the two. As a cover version of the classic "Dream Lover" caresses each frame, Anger delivers images of stunning creativity. It's a clever commercial with a selling power so severe that Detroit only wishes it could harness its salesmanship.
Title: Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969)
Plot: Intercutting religious iconography with sequences from a surreal performance art/ritual, we experience the title ceremony and the resulting sacrament.
Review: At this point, Anger had a major cult following. He was rapidly moving away from normal concepts of film and looking toward a more experimental ideal. The results are seen in this psychedelic freak out featuring Moog noodlings by none other than the Rolling Stone's Mick Jagger (who makes a brief in concert cameo appearance). The majority of the material is taken from what appears to be a stage show crafted by Anger to explore his newfound religious passions. A noted devotee of Aleister Crowley, the piece offers various religious symbolism (the pentangle, and Egyptian Ank) mixed with clearly confrontational elements (the Nazi flag, some nudity). Since the soundtrack is nothing more than electronic squawks, we don't really get a hint at what is happening, but Anger's wild eyed preaching appears encased in tons of fiery brimstone. With double exposure, cleverly executed montages, and a general desire to provoke, Invocation is absolutely brilliant. Some may consider it self-indulgent, but such a sentiment misses the power in Anger's imagery.
Title: Rabbit's Moon (1979 Version)
Plot: Mimes infiltrate a magical French forest, pining for the moon as they attempt to find comfort in one another's company.
Known for constantly reworking his films to fulfill certain obligations and requirements, this new version of the late '50s French short was developed for Roark Brakhage, son of the noted filmmaker, on the boy's seventh birthday. Substituting a bizarre song called "It Came in the Night" (a really odd Australian glam prog track) for the original's doo wop wonders, this extensively edited adaptation emphasizes the mime's obsession with the moon while minimizing the other character's concerns. There is still 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. The new lyrics, however, seem to spoof the situation and yet the remake approach voids the previous version's piecemeal and fragmented feel. Anger's way with a lens remains unmatched, his camera creating a stream of unconsciousness quality that really helps to hold the likeable lark together.
Title: Lucifer Rising (1981)
Plot: A series of ancient societies call upon Satan to return to Earth, with their various ceremonies compared and contrasted.
Review: This long delayed production, featuring famed locations from around the world, a famed squabble with Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, and an eventual soundtrack by Manson maven Bobby Beausoleil (criminal record notwithstanding, the guy is a great rock composer), stands as Anger's last legitimate film. It is also a borderline masterpiece, a collection of the man's fervent fascinations reflected in a series of sensational cinematic setpieces. We see God-like visions standing amongst Middle Eastern ruins, young pagans circling Stonehenge, even Marianne Faithful as Lilith walking amid an amazing Celtic site in Germany. Referencing Crowley (especially in its extraterrestrial ending), Lucifer Rising is a dark, disturbing work. Less scattered and more direct than Demon Brother, it's on par with Mel Gibson's Passion, a film that tries to show, in an openly visual way, the various teachings included in Satanism and its differing secular components. It's breathtaking in its scope and striking in its ambition. From the reverential treatment of volcanoes (another Crowley fixation) to the numerous male nudes, this is blasphemy at its most beautiful, faith as an expression of idolatry and the connection to nature.
With its first volume acting like an instructional manual on the birth of American avant-garde filmmaking The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 2 shows the extent to which the director's imagination would expand. As always, he sees celluloid as a medium, as important to expression as paints, clay, canvases and one's hands. This means that it could be managed and manipulated in ways that expanded and explained the power within the means. While Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos draw on mannerisms mastered in previous works, Invocation of My Demon Brother and Lucifer Rising show an auteur equally influenced by the world he helped create. All throughout his final film, nods to associate/devotee Alejandro Jodoworsky can be perceived (especially the combination of the sacred and profane, the sexual and the sickening). There is also an acknowledgment of the growing deconstructionist movement, obvious attempts to thwart the standard film language to push the boundaries of the form. Yet there are themes that continue to resonate throughout all the amazing movies presented here: the love of form and body shape; the acknowledgement of issues outside regular Western thought; man and woman as part of the cosmos and individuals as the masters of their own karmic destiny. Argue over his dogma, but it's impossible to dismiss his abilities. Kenneth Anger stands as a forgotten genius and Fantoma should be proud for bringing his brilliance back to the fore.
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. Scorpio has some slight grain, but it's nothing to complain about. Indeed, such a visual standard is important, since Anger was as adept at mixing and matching tints as he was manipulating items within his frames.
Made up mostly of classical music, the aforementioned '50s/'60s Bandstand basics, and Beusoleil's fantastic score, 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 endlessly fascinating. 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. While there is not as much dead air here as in the first volume, Anger remains an artist more than willing to let his images speak for themselves. In addition, we are treated to a new film entitled The Man We Want to Hang. From 2002, it represents a visual overview at the various artworks generated by Crowley. The 14 minute movie is best viewed with Anger's available commentary. His insights and descriptions are crucial to understanding the canvases and sketches presented. Finally, there is another 48 page booklet which describes each film. It also contains an introduction from Martin Scorsese, essays by the likes of Gus Van Zant, and a telling explanation by Beausoleil of how he managed his participation in this new DVD from behind prison walls. It's a remarkable read. Overall, the supplemental material offered is excellent, and makes a fine companion to the movies being discussed and deciphered.
At this point, it's relatively easy 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, the offerings in Volume 2 will inspire many a movie maven, challenging their perception on film as well as the manner in which it can be manipulated. Fantoma has done the history of cinema the grandest of services by making these remarkable motion pictures available. For what it represents to future generations as well as current cinephiles, the collection warrants a DVD Talk Collector's Series rating. Even the potential limits to their appeal fail to mandate a reconfiguration of such a score. A feast for the eyes as much as a shock to the system, the final fulfillment of the Anger renaissance has been a long time coming. The maverick auteur rightfully receives one of 2007's best DVD packages.