The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume II Review
For an overview of the earlier films and career of Kenneth Anger (1927 - ), see my review of Volume I of Fantoma’s DVD release of his work. Anger’s key films are informally known as the “Magick Lantern Cycle”. Volume II deals with the second half of his output, and begins with one of the most influential avant-garde short films in cinema history.
Scorpio Rising (1964, 28:20)
Anger returned to America to attend his mother’s funeral, and was staying with a friend in New York City when he met a gang of bikers in Coney Island. Workers at the Fulton Fish Market by day, they spent their money and leisure time on their bikes, often neglecting their girlfriends. As a result, Scorpio Rising is close to documentary. The bedroom of Scorpio (Bruce Byron) is the actor’s real one, and the crash that ends the film was genuine – and fatal.
Following the multiple superimpositions of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (see Volume I), Anger’s principle device in Scorpio is associative cutting: to a Sunday School silent film of the life of Jesus, to Marlon Brando in The Wild One (which was actually playing on Byron’s TV set during the film), to Nazi regalia. The documentary footage becomes a mythical statement – astrologically Scorpio is the sign which rules both the sex organs and machinery. Although none of the bikers were actually homosexual (during the Halloween Party, their girlfriends were behind the camera), Anger’s eye makes the film’s content distinctly homoerotic. From bikers putting on leather jackets and zipping up their jeans to the sound of Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” (more than two decades before David Lynch’s use of the song) to the party/orgy later on, this is hard to miss. With some fleeting male nudity and on-screen drugtaking, Scorpio Rising was the subject of an obscenity lawsuit in its day, though today it’s very mild.
The film’s major influence is in its use of music. There are thirteen pop songs of the time in the soundtrack, which (contrary to rumour) Anger did pay for. The licenses cost $8000 in total, more than two-thirds of the film’s total budget. Contemporary pop music had been used in films before, but mainly as song-and-dance numbers in Elvis Presley musicals. Anger’s use was different: the songs counterpoint and comment on the images, often ironically. Later in the decade this approach to a soundtrack entered the mainstream with the use of contemporary rock in Easy Rider. Watching and taking note was a young man called Martin Scorsese, who began his third feature, Mean Streets, with the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”. More importantly, Scorpio Rising, compared to some of Anger’s more obscure later work, can still have an effect on an audience.
Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965, 3:25)
Originally planned as part of a longer project, Kustom Kar Kommandos features Sandy Trent loving tending to his “Dream Buggy” with a giant powder puff before driving away in it. This fragment plays like a particularly camp out-take from Scorpio Rising, with its pink backdrop and fetishistic tone, accompanied by “Dream Lover” by the Paris Sisters. Sadly, due to lack of funding and the death of Trent in a car accident, this is all that was filmed. As with Scorpio Rising, this was a real person who probably took Anger’s request to film him at face value: it’s Anger’s camera eye which makes it “queer”.
Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969, 10:51)
In the late Sixties, Anger made an abortive attempt to make Lucifer Rising. The fragments were put together as Invocation of My Demon Brother. The result is a hermetic, difficult work, intercutting scenes of occult ritual with late 60s news footage from Vietnam. One clip features the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park; Mick Jagger became involved with the film, improvising the score on a Moog synthesiser. The repetitive car-siren figure that dominates his score will likely drive you to distraction over the film’s eleven minutes. Featured in the film are Anton Szandor LaVey (founder of the Church of Satan) and Bobby Beausoleil, the Manson associate who would later provide the score for the eventually-completed Lucifer Rising.
Rabbit’s Moon (1979, 6:48)
The complete Rabbit’s Moon, made in 1950, is featured in Volume I and I reviewed it at length in that review. This short version, produced by printing every second frame, was made as a seventh-birthday present for Stan Brakhage’s son Roark. The soundtrack is different to the longer version: here it’s “It Came in the Night” by A Raincoat. At any length, this film is quite delightful.
Lucifer Rising (1981, 28:07)
Anger’s first version fell apart due to disputes with Bobby Beausoleil. Anger went on to make the present version in the early 1970s, re-editing it into its current form in 1981. After plans to have Jimmy Page produce the score fell through, Beausoleil – then in prison for murder – stepped in. He performed the music with The Freedom Orchestra, with twelve other incarcerated musicians, most of them in prison for drug offences. The film features 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. As with Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome in Volume I, this is a dense, ritualistic work that is best watched in isolation: viewing it at the end of a sequence is too much of a good thing. And so the Magick Lantern Cycle comes to an end.
Fantomas’s second DVD of Anger’s works is, like the first, a dual-layered disc in NTSC format encoded for all regions.
All the films are in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and have been digitally restored for this DVD. Apart from Rabbit’s Moon, they were all originated in 16mm, and the results are inevitably somewhat soft and grainy, but then they have always looked that way. The difference in sharpness with Rabbit’s Moon, shot in a film studio in 35mm, is very noticeable. Given the source materials, I very much doubt these films could look any better than they do.
None of the films have any dialogue and instead have soundtracks made up of music scores or one or more songs. Lucifer Rising in particular sounds impressive in Dolby Surround, with Beausoleil’s score coming out of all speakers. The other films are all in mono, as would have been the case with the songs they use. Invocation has an alternate score performed by the Magic Powerhouse of Oz (who can be seen in the film itself during its ritual sequences).
Anger comments on all the films here. Sometimes he is curtailed by the shorter films’ length, but in the longer works here he is able to give a considerable amount of background information – particularly useful in the case of the more obscure films in this set such as Invocation and Lucifer Rising. He also tells us some anecdotes, such as Marianne Faithfull’s smuggling in of heroin into Egypt during the filming of Lucifer Rising, something that would have attracted a death sentence if she had been caught. Also on the disc are restoration demonstrations for each film.
Finally, as an extra, is Anger’s 2002 film, “The Man We Want to Hang” (13:48). This is presented as an extra as it is separate to the Magick Lantern Cycle, but otherwise it receives the same treatment as the other films, in other words a commentary. Presented in 4:3, it displays a series of Aleister Crowley’s artworks to music by Anatol Liadov. None of the artworks are identified or contextualised, so Crowley novices are recommended to watch this with Anger’s commentary turned on.
As with Volume I, Fantoma have accompanied the DVD with an admirable booklet. Along with credits and restoration notes for each film, the booklet contains some rare stills, an introduction by Martin Scorsese, notes by Anger (including his prospectus for the abandoned Kustom Kar), short essays by Anger admirers Gus Van Sant and Guy Maddin and an account of the making of the music score for Lucifer Rising by Bobby Beausoleil.
Much of what I said about Volume I applies here too. Fantoma have done an excellent job of packaging Anger’s major works, and the discs are reasonably priced considering how uncommercial the contents are likely to be – and on the whole Volume II represents the more “difficult” half of his career. Given that the entire Cycle runs around two and a half hours (nearly three if you add the alternate Rabbit’s Moon and The Man We Want to Hang), this could perhaps have been packaged on one disc or maybe a two-disc set. But given the low price you can hardly complain.