3.10.2016

"That spangled moment": Kenneth Anger (I)




Even in fancy dress films the people are still as I see them and how they see themselves.  In Rio you have people who live in shanty towns and save up all year for the fab costume they will wear for the Carnival, and that's what they live for the whole year.  For that spangled moment, during the Carnival when they're all dressed up, that's really them. Kenneth Anger, Visionary Film

Of all the great avant-garde filmmakers—Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Bill Morrison—Kenneth Anger may be the most invested in the artificial and sensuous properties of cinema.  His films derive from the tradition of Georges Melies, for whom cinema was a magic trick, a form of conjuring, as well as from the fake backdrops and glossy surfaces of Hollywood cinema.  Where other filmmakers use the camera to hold a mirror up to nature, Anger uses his to create dazzling fantasy worlds.  Rewatching five of his early films this weekend I was reminded of their, and his, brilliance.    


In his commentary track for Fireworks (1947), Anger makes the specious claim that his character’s violent assault by a gang of beefy sailors is meant to dramatize the conflict between the individual and the mob.  But if that were really the case Fireworks would never have become a classic.  It’s as a shocking and visceral realization of a gay teenager’s rough trade fantasy that it means anything.  For P. Adams Sitney it is a drama of psychological revelation [...] cast in the form of a dream.  That Anger made the film at the age of seventeen twenty lends it an even more powerful intensity.  Its rawness, the furtive quality of its production (allegedly made while Anger’s parents were out of town for the weekend), even the sophomoric humor feel like the expressions of an extremely talented, and beautifully green, young gay artist.


Puce Moment (1949) is the only surviving piece of a larger project on 1920s movie stars that Anger never completed.  But what a piece!  A series of vintage gowns—beaded, fringed, glitteringfly at the camera like a stream of oncoming traffic.  Finally one is chosen by the film’s heroine before she emerges from her Beverly Hills hacienda to walk her Borzois.  Consider it Anger’s version of the dressing-table scene from The Rape of the Lock, with Belinda re-cast as a Hollywood actress.


Rabbit’s Moon (shot 1950; re-edited and released 1971) is in many ways an exemplary film within Anger’s body of work.  It shows a gorgeous command of mise en scene (it takes place in a forest made of white paper and silver tinsel, bathed in electric blue moonlight); it draws on Anger’s interest in myth and fantasy (including the idea that the movie camera itself is a magic object); and it demonstrates his genius for editing images to music that would seem to be all wrong.  Who but Anger would ever have thought to set the antics of Pierrot, Harlequin and Columbine to 1950s doo-wop?  And yet when the beam of Harlequin’s magic lantern reveals Columbine, and we hear The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You,” the effect is nothing short of sublime.  I want to live inside the world of this film.



Like Rabbit’s Moon, Eaux d’Artifice (1953) has a spectral beauty, especially in its languorous and dreamlike beginning, set to the slow movement from Vivaldi’s “Autumn.”  The rest goes on a bit long.  But as a protracted sex joke (those spurting fountains!), a music video avant la lettre, and the moving-image equivalent of a Doré engraving (see above), it remains a key work.  


Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), one of Anger’s longest and most ambitious works, also strikes me as one that would benefit from some cutting.  What should be a phantasmagoric experience of a pagan ritual—one that eventually devolves into a bacchanal—slowly congeals over the course of its thirty-eight minutes until it feels tiresome and numbing.  Nevertheless, Anger’s love of artifice and surfaces has perhaps never been so outrageously indulged as it is here.  It deserves to be placed alongside Puce Moment and Scorpio Rising as a film about the fetishistic pleasures of dressing up in order to fashion the self.        


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