The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume I Review

Nowadays Kenneth Anger, who turned eighty earlier this month, is probably best known for his bitchy, scandalous and frequently very funny tell-all book Hollywood Babylon, which had to published in France in 1958 and didn’t see US publication for sixteen years. (A follow-up, Hollywood Babylon II, was published in 1984 and Anger has frequently hinted that a third volume is in preparation.) Such fame, or rather notoriety, has tended to overshadow his work as a filmmaker.

His output has been sparse, consisting entirely of short films, none over forty minutes long, many of them under twenty. His principal works, covering a period from 1947 to 1980, are known collectively as the Magick Lantern Cycle. Running a total of two and three quarter hours, these were a repertory and arthouse staple for years. They turned up regularly at the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross, London, throughout the 1980s. It was there that I first saw them, taking a day off University to travel to London, in 1986. Although he may not have been prolific, his influence has been widespread, particularly on later gay filmmakers like Derek Jarman…and also on such mainstream directors as Martin Scorsese, who took inspiration from Anger’s use of pop music as a counterpoint to his images.

Anger’s films are generally non-narrative mood pieces with no dialogue. They are not silent films as such: they are always conceived to be accompanied by music, either classical or 50s and 60s pop/rock. The late Stan Brakhage, who was a friend of Anger’s, also made non-narrative short films, a fair sampling of which can be found on the Criterion release By Brakhage: An Anthology. However, the similarity ends there: Brakhage, who was far more prolific, drew heavily on his own life (at times filming, amongst other things, his lovemaking with his wife, and the birth of his own child) and also breaking beyond the usual technical limits and “correct” use of film. Anger’s films are generally conventionally composed and lit, often displaying a bold use of colour. Although out of the Magick Lantern Cycle only Fireworks and Scorpio Rising (which attracted lawsuits for obscenity and which I’ll discuss in more detail as and when I review Volume Two) are explicitly homoerotic, there’s a distinctly camp sensibility, in the old sense, at work, in the elaborate costumes and interest in ritual. Later films draw on an interest in the occult, particularly the work of Aleister Crowley.

Another key influence on Anger was classic Hollywood, especially the films of the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Santa Monica (real name Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer), he had film-world connections from the outset. His grandmother was a costume mistress in silent days, and at the age of five he played the small role of the Indian Prince in the 1933 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A little later, he attended the Maurice Kossloff Dancing School at the same time as a young girl by the name of Shirley Temple. With a background like this, it was probably inevitable that Anger should begin to make films himself, which he began to do at the age of eleven. These juvenilia are now lost: the earliest of Anger’s films to be shown publicly was Fireworks.

Needless to say, these films are not for everyone, and anyone simply wanting to be told a story had best look elsewhere. This is undoubtedly a personal call, but the reason I much prefer Anger’s films to Jarman’s, say, is partly due to the length – as full features, Jarman’s non-narrative films can quite easily become endurance tests. while Anger, at short length, doesn’t outstay his welcome. Even with such a sparse body of work, Anger covers a variety of moods: there’s the homoeroticism and camp referred to earlier, but there’s a playfulness as well, and at times music and image come together to produce something quite beautiful.

Volume One of The Films of Kenneth Anger covers the first half of the Magick Lantern Cycle.

Fireworks (1947, 15:04)
You’re seventeen years old. Your parents are away for the whole weekend. What do you do? Most people would invite their friends round and throw a party. Kenneth Anger, on the other hand, made this film. Inspired by a dream, Fireworks shows the Dreamer (played by Anger) and his encounters with a group of sailors (played by friends from film school who had served in the Navy in the War, so the uniforms were genuine).

Fireworks, shot in black and white 16mm with a soundtrack by Respighi, had its premiere at a midnight screening in Los Angeles. In the audience were James Whale, the openly gay British director, and Dr Alfred Kinsey. It was the latter who bought a copy of the film to keep in his archive. Thus began an association between the two men, which involved Anger assisting Kinsey in his research into male sexuality.

You have to consider the time when Fireworks was made: a time when gay men (and lesbians) led highly closeted lives and discussion of the very subject was largely taboo, especially in a Hollywood governed by the Hays Code. It predates by three years Jean Genet’s even more explicit short film Un chant d’amour. For a film to tackle the subject of gay sexual fantasies (fantasies of a distinctly sado-masochistic kind) so forthrightly was explosive indeed, and all of a sudden Anger became a big name in avant-garde film circles. Fireworks owes a lot in style to Bunuel’s early surrealist work with Dali and particularly to Jean Cocteau. It’s not especially subtle: milk pours over the Dreamer’s body, there’s a pretty convincing gore effect, and the film reaches its climax (as it were) when one of the sailors unzips his fly, pulls out a Roman Candle and lights it.

Fireworks has been exhibited over the years in several versions: originally without any credits altogether, it now has a title card and a spoken prologue by Anger. The original negative is lost, as was a hand-tinted version shown in the 1960s.

Puce Moment (1949, 6:14)
Puce Moment is all that remains of an abandoned project called Puce Women. Anger’s first film in colour (though still 16mm), it is a riot of vivid shades as a woman (Yvonne Marquis) sorts through all her dresses – genuine ones worn by silent film actresses, donated by Anger’s grandmother – before settling on the puce one. She then leaves her house, a genuine one in the Hollywood hills.

Puce Moment is really just a fragment, but with its visuals accompanied by Jonathan Halper’s songs on the soundtrack, it’s a beguiling one.

Rabbit’s Moon (1950, 17:18)
Rabbit’s Moon was shot in Paris in August 1950, making use of four weeks in a studio that was normally closed. It was shot in 35mm, Anger’s only film in that format, donated to Anger by a Russian film crew. The cast are members of Marcel Marceau’s theatre of mime.

Rabbit’s Moon is a film of considerable charm. It draws on Japanese myth (instead of a Man in the Moon, they see a rabbit) and Commedia dell’Arte, in its use of the standard characters of Pierrot, Harlequin and Columbine. All of this is filmed on an Von Sternberg-influenced artificial set in blue-tinted monochrome with certain key images in pink, and set to a 50s Doo-Wop soundtrack. Rabbit’s Moon was never finished, and wasn’t released until 1972. This is Anger’s full-length version: a seven-minute version has also been shown.

Eaux d’Artifice (1953, 12:57)
The title is a pun on feux d’artifice, the French word for “fireworks”. One of Anger’s most abstract works, it was filmed in the gardens and fountains of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy. Shot in blue-tinted monochrome (with a fan hand-tinted emerald), the film’s plot, such as it is, involves the water witch (Camillo Salvatorelli) who wonders through the gardens and finally becomes one with the fountain. The film is suffused with images of water, gushing from fountains, from the open mouth of the face of God, and in one shot pouring down the stairs the witch walks down.

Anger shot the film in sunlight through a heavy red filter, causing a day-for-night effect. The garden features are made to seem much larger and imposing than they really are by the simple method of casting a midget in the central role. Salvatorelli was only four feet tall, and was recommended to Anger by Federico Fellini.

More of a film poem – set to the Winter movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons - than a narrative, Eaux d’Artifice is an oddly compelling piece and at times an eerily beautiful one.

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954, 38:20)
Anger threw a Halloween party, inviting his guests to “Come as Your Own Madness”. Many of them turned up in costume as figures from mythology, which fascinated Anger so much that he made this film around them. Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome was filmed in the home of Samson De Brier, who played several roles. Also in the cast were the striking redhead Cameron (first name Marjorie), Anaïs Nin, Curtis Harrington (himself an experimental filmmaker who went on to a conventional Hollywood career) and others. Anger himself appears, heavily veiled with just his eye visible, as Hecate. Returning to full colour 16mm, Inauguration is a riot of vivid hues – if you think it’s a bit lurid, remember that someone actually lived in this house. Anger’s cinematic vocabulary now includes multiple superimpositions, and he throws into the mix the image of Aleister Crowley at one point, plus footage from his own earlier film Puce Moment and the vision of Hell sequence from the 1935 film Dante’s Inferno. The music is Janacek’s Slavonic Mass.

Inauguration is Anger’s longest, most ritualistic film. It’s possibly more obscure than most, unless you’re well up on various mythologies, including Crowley’s, and even vintage experimental cinema (Curtis Harrington plays Cesare the Somnambulist, from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari). It does indeed go on a bit. But that it’s one of Anger’s major works is not in doubt.

The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume One is a single dual-layered DVD encoded for all regions. One quibble is that the entire Magick Lantern Cycle at some two and three quarter hours could be fitted onto one DVD-9, or if you preferred, a two-disc set. That said, Fantoma’s release is certainly reasonably priced. (For lack of value for money, the original 1990 UK video release of the Cycle by Jettisoundz takes some beating: this comprised no less than four tapes, each available separately at a RRP of £9.99.) Volume Two will presumably complete the Cycle with Scorpio Rising, Kustom Kar Kommandos, Invocation of My Demon Brother and Lucifer Rising.

Given the age of these films, and the fact that all but one of them was originated on 16mm stock, they look as good as they are ever likely to. Some of the imagery is on the soft side, but that’s inevitable in the circumstances. The jump in quality and sharpness with Rabbit’s Moon, originated in 35mm, is quite noticeable, but each of these films has been digitally restored and in Anger’s preferred versions. In the case of Rabbit’s Moon that also involves having the picture the right way round: some previous copies were mirror-reversed. All the films are in the original 4:3 aspect ratios.

As for the soundtracks, they are in the original mono (though a two-channel mix). This consists entirely of source music (classical or pop), and as such sounds fine. No subtitles are necessary for the features, though including them for Anger’s commentaries might have been a good idea.

All five films have their own submenus, accessible via the main one. There is a “Play All” option, but I’d suggest not doing that: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome in particular benefits from being watched in isolation rather than at the end of a 90-minute session.

The main extra is a commentary by Anger on all the films. You can either “Play All with Commentary” or select the commentary as an option from each film’s submenu. Anger is an entertaining speaker, though with an odd habit of referring to himself in the third person when he appears onscreen in Fireworks and Inauguration. He does leave some gaps but is often quite revelatory about film-making technicalities. He also elucidates some of the more obscure mythical references, particularly in Rabbit’s Moon and Inauguration. He also drops a good few names, many already mentioned in this review. Others include Louise Brooks, who found Eaux d’Artifice to be Anger’s most sexual film, with all that running water.

Also on the disc are some (untinted) black and white out-takes from Rabbit’s Moon (2:57) and restoration demonstrations for the other four films.

However, it doesn’t end there. Along with the DVD, Fantoma have included a nicely-produced 48-page booklet. Along with credits and restoration notes for all the five films, this includes an introduction by Martin Scorsese, rare stills, Anger’s sketches from the abandoned Puce Women project, and an extract from Anaïs Nin’s diaries describing the making of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.

It says something of the maturity of the DVD format that the work of such avowedly uncommercial avant-gardists such as Kenneth Anger can be released to a larger public. Fantoma’s collection of the first half – and for beginners, the most accessible half - of Anger’s career is very well put together. My only quibble is that it would have been nice to put the whole of Anger’s output in one package. But Volume One is a reasonably priced introduction to the work of a major filmmaker, and let’s hope that Volume Two is not far away.

8 out of 10
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