Magick Lantern Cycle Review

The BFI brought Kenneth Anger’s collection of shorts known as the Magick Lantern Cycle to Blu-ray in May. A little late on the draw, but clydefro faces fireworks and mustard on the genitals.

With some delicacy, I’m going to encourage readers or potential buyers of this release, an excellent high definition rendering of Kenneth Anger’s short films comprising his “Magick Lantern Cycle,” to also read the two reviews (here and here) Gary Couzens has already written for Fantoma’s DVD releases of these works, but to make sure and opt for the BFI’s edition which collects all nine films (and two different versions of “Rabbit’s Moon”) alongside the feature documentary Anger Me and a substantial booklet. There’s really no need to again provide the considerable background of Anger and his films since Gary laid all of that out so well in his reviews. I will note, however, that some of it (notably that Anger appeared in the 1935 Warner Bros. production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is taken directly from Anger himself, but nonetheless questionable and, frankly, unverified by other sources. It seems that no one is more interested in the mythmaking of Kenneth Anger than Kenneth Anger.

So while we necessarily have to take the incessant namedropping and reputation polishing with some skepticism, there remains a completely legitimate reason to honor Anger and his work. You probably can’t blame his combining of popular music with unrelated, often ironic imagery for the foibles brought upon by MTV and the music video, but you can fairly look to something like the final few minutes of “Scorpio Rising” (1964, 28:32) as an unhealthy, nausea-inducing style of editing which helped pave the way for the impatient and nervous cuts so familiar to most modern viewers. Anger is often cited as the primary influence for the creation of the music video, which may be true or simply convenient, but the more pertinent credit should probably be for how he inspired major directors like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch to insert pop music into films for purposes other than the obvious. If “Scorpio Rising” or other Anger works caused Scorsese to use “Be My Baby” in Mean Streets or “Blue Velvet” in Lynch’s film of the same name, then his importance ultimately goes far beyond the short films found here.

Certainly, for some people, Anger’s “Fireworks (1947, 15:03), made when he was just 17 or 20 depending on who you’d prefer to believe, or “Scorpio Rising” ranks alongside the Scorsese and Lynch films in the greater canon. They are generally considered his two most important and representative pieces, with both also being his most overtly homoerotic and, thus, inherently controversial. “Fireworks,” the only short in black and white, has such obvious imagery as to make it questionably relevant for contemporary viewers. Its power to shock the more sheltered and conservative viewer may still be worth noting, but there’s an otherwise patting on the head for acknowledgement purposes of importance rather than a marveling at any supposed audacity. If a fifteen-minute short film from the forties where milk is slowly poured across a young male’s bare chest and a roman candle plays the part of the male sex organ can be considered quaint, “Fireworks” would register as such.

The films that immediately followed “Fireworks” but prior to “Scorpio Rising” are hardly related, and while less experimental or daring than those two, the progression from “Puce Moment” (1949, 6:20) to “Rabbit’s Moon” (1950, 19:11) and through “Eaux d’Artifice” (1953, 13:03) is nonetheless an important, comparatively accessible shift. The shorts remained free from dialogue and far beyond the normal conceptions of reality, but they still kept an inviting formalism absent from the better-known efforts and, while variously derivative of other filmmakers like Griffith, Eisenstein and, especially, Cocteau who’d clearly influenced Anger, each one remains an intriguingly self-contained work. Despite “Puce Moment” being only a fragment of what was intended as possibly a feature-length production, it’s nearly perfect as is, showcasing glamour against a pair of obscure, unreleased British Invasion-type rock songs. There are some time line issues here regarding the songs featured actually being recorded long after the footage was shot (with selections from Verdi in the original version), but there’s still a compelling argument for this as the very first music video, something it undoubtedly feels like in tone, limited emotion, and disposability.

The two versions of “Rabbit’s Moon” may seem somewhat primitive when held up against the more avant-garde of Anger’s output or derivative when sat next to what Cocteau did or parts of the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I ultimately find them to be the most enjoyable and focused of anything from the Magick Lantern Cycle. (Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise also probably deserves a mention.) The plight of Pierrot and the change of music and speed, thus entirely altering the tone, in the latter offering done in 1971 (6:46) welcome an emotional shift otherwise absent from these shorts. I can understand a reluctance to fully embrace “Puce Moment” and “Rabbit’s Moon” (in either incarnation) from Anger’s oeuvre, but perhaps they work best for the more uninitiated or casual viewer. In comparison, “Eaux d’artifice” seems almost impenetrable, a filmed account of a woman (played by a dwarf) wandering through the gardens of Tivoli’s Villa d’Este that’s heavy on fountains and water and an overall immersion into the wet cleansing of a coldly-toned dream. Its title playfully mocks Anger’s earlier “Fireworks,” which would translate as “Feu d’artifice” in French.

A leap forward and hint at things to come could both describe “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome,” Anger’s 1954 film, the longest in the cycle at 38 minutes, in which experimental imagery and a torrent of colors combine with a burgeoning interest in the occult. Anger let his fascination, obsession even, with Aleister Crowley bleed into several of his shorts. The filmmaker’s paganism has served as a major influence on his work, to an offputting degree I think. Certainly those who share an interest in Crowley or Lucifer or swastikas might have a different take, but I struggle to find much to get excited about here. It’s not the ideology but the tiresome consistency in filtering these later films through that prism, often paired with a homoerotic slant as in the male hazing activities of “Scorpio Rising,” that ultimately bores me into discontent. Anger’s techniques are rarely less than interesting and often mesmerizing, with his status as a pioneer of American experimental film impossible to question. His choices in subject matter, however, and insistence on punching one quick cut after another across the second half of the Magick Lantern Cycle are clearly from another era, one in which these things must have seemed far more novel than they do now.

“Inauguration” really only hints at the Crowley influence, and it can easily be viewed as a then-audacious exercise in mythology and playing dress-up in Hollywood. The superimposing Anger favors no longer feels new or interesting, and his little story about, basically, a guy who eats jewelry seems best confined to the fifties. There are less experimental filmmakers from this same time period whose work has had a greater impact as well as a significantly more timeless quality. Even at 38 minutes, “Inauguration” is a painless history lesson, but, like much of Anger’s work, it fails to really impact the modern viewer. The same could be said of “Scorpio Rising,” which cannot separate itself in terms of subject matter or message from Anger overall. We’re looking with the filmmaker’s eyes in all of these shorts. If you like what you see the Magick Lantern Cycle should have great appeal, but if the continued and needy insistence on filtering everything through a certain dishonest, narrow vision seems disappointingly dated and stale then you either share my views and/or would do well to limit yourself to a test run before committing to ownership.

Things continue in the same basic direction following “Scorpio Rising.” Anger’s aborted follow-up was “Kustom Kar Kommandos” (1965, 3:24), focusing on a young man’s affection for his automobile. Anger thinks the seats look like vulva and the mirror effect of much of the chrome makes for a likening of the owner to Narcissus. That and more juxtapositioning of music with images, this time “Dream Lover” by the Paris Sisters, is about all there is take away from this effort. The pop songs against other imagery wears really thin for me by this point, but the final two original pieces of the Cycle go in a completely different direction in terms of music. “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1959, 10:58) uses an odd, and actually quite annoying, moog synthesizer score done by Mick Jagger, who also appears briefly in a clip from a Rolling Stones concert at Hyde Park. There’s not much to readily make of “Invocation” considering its origins come from footage of what Anger intended to use for “Lucifer Rising.” What’s left, aside from Jagger’s contribution, is a collection of devilish figures, naked men, a young albino man, clips from Vietnam, Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, and musician/Manson family associate/convicted murderer Bobby Beausoleil. Anger says that Beausoleil destroyed much of the footage intended for “Lucifer Rising,” though he would ultimately provide the musical score for the eventual “Lucifer” short.

That film, “Lucifer Rising” (1981, 28:15), was the last in the Magick Lantern Cycle, though Anger has done various things this decade and one of his shorts “The Man We Want to Hang” even appears on this disc as a bonus feature. I’ll again mention and this time quote Gary Couzens’ previous review on “Lucifer Rising,” which he succintly described as: “Miriam Gabril, Donald Cammell and Marianne Faithfull as Egyptian deities, intercut with shots from nature – the eruption of a volcano (Hekla, in Iceland), bubbling mud, reptiles hatching, and so forth” before summing it up as “a dense, ritualistic work that is best watched in isolation.” Yes, very much.

Just to try and put a small bow on things, the problem I sometimes have with experimental filmmaking from the past when watched today is that it no longer has the very thing – the experimental feeling – that once made it so novel. Cable television, DVD, and the internet have ruined Kenneth Anger and his ilk for me. They are muskets when I’m in the market for a .357 Magnum.

The Discs

As mentioned above, Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle can now be found on Blu-ray from the BFI. It’s a two-disc set where the shorts are on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc and a PAL standard definition DVD contains Elio Gelmini’s 2001 tribute documentary Anger Me. The Blu-ray is not region-coded and should play on any machine capable of handling Blu-ray discs.

All of Anger’s films here save for “Rabbit’s Moon” were done on 16mm so it should be obvious that we can’t quite expect the extreme clarity which often characterizes high definition releases. That being said, the 16mm shorts generally look very good and, as far as I can tell, are a definite improvement on the Fantoma editions put out in the U.S. “Rabbit’s Moon” is absolutely gorgeous from start to finish, and the included booklet informs us that it was sourced from a UCLA reconstruction which originated with the 35mm nitrate camera negative. Similar details on the other short films are also contained inside the booklet. It seems that Fantoma provided the BFI with these films and they were then further restored to remove dirt, scratches, etc. Each short is in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio as it should be. In terms of specifics, “Fireworks” somewhat inevitably looks the roughest, though it still maintains a more than adquate and watchable picture quality. There’s still some noticeable frame jitter on “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.” I have little doubt that “Eaux d’artifice” is basically as it’s always looked, but it still appears too dark in my eyes. The bottom line is that these shorts have somewhat technically compromised origins and I’m confident the BFI did what they could without going to extremes. A restoration demo is even included on this disc to further highlight some of the direct effort that went into the release.

Mono tracks for each short, no real dialogue aside from a prologue by Anger on “Fireworks.” It’s all music and everything sounds, the best I can tell, as it should. There weren’t any instances where I noticed obvious deformities in the sound track. The PCM audio is clear, consistent and seemingly authentic.

The Blu-ray disc has Anger’s “The Man We Want to Hang” (2002, 13:45), a fairly uneventful short where the camera mostly pans across an art exhibit in London dedicated to Aleister Crowley. It’s a Christmas card more than a full-blown gift. The aforementioned Restoration Demonstration (6:05) is also on here. Additionally, we have commentaries, recorded in 2008, on all of the shorts from director Kenneth Anger. Some of the background for each film gets discussed and the main ideas behind these works are also here, but generally this is Anger the author of Hollywood Babylon, someone who’s constantly searching for sensationalism and artificial items of interest instead of letting the truth suffice.

Gelmini’s Anger Me (2006, 71 mins.) is on disc two. It begins with fellow experimental filmmaker and god of Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives Jonas Mekas talking about Anger for a couple of minutes. The rest is a walk through the early life and subsequent films of Kenneth Anger in his own words. Much of what can be heard in the commentaries gets repeated here. This is ultimately the better outlet for the stories and proves to be an enlightening watch in terms of gaining some basic knowledge of the subject.

Finally, vitally, is the BFI’s 40-page booklet almost uncomfortably contained inside the case. It has technical information on each short, but the main attraction is probably a nice overview written by Gary Lachman which occupies 15 pages. There’s also a reprint of Anger’s 1951 article “Modesty and the Art of Film” from Cahiers du cinéma and a couple of pages of sketches for the unfinished Puce Women.

Final Thoughts

If my review didn’t quite persuade the uninitiated on Kenneth Anger then take it as either an individual opinion or a small disagreement with the canon. Anger deserves his status as an important filmmaker even if his films have, in my opinion, lost their relevancy other than for purposes of history. The BFI’s contribution is fine – a treat for fans and a nice starting point superior to DVD for the curious.

clydefro jones

Updated: Jul 29, 2009

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