Kenneth Anger didn't invent American avant-garde cinema. But he made it American. A heaping spoonful of camp helped domesticate dour German expressionism and cynical French surrealism. And a dollop of the Brill Building sound completed the job.
The result was Scorpio Rising, Anger's luridly homoerotic tribute to biker culture. Perhaps the quintessential underground film, Scorpio Rising made avant-garde cinema sexy, and essentially created the music video. Its influence on Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets is obvious, and readily acknowledged.
Until recently, Anger's films were largely unavailable on video, but Fantoma has released the first volume of its Anger DVD set, including his first five extant films: Fireworks, Puce Moment, Rabbit's Moon, Eaux d'Artifice, and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Transferred from recently restored prints and digitally remastered, the films look great. Extras include Anger's breezily amusing commentary, which ought to be taken with a grain of salt, given his reputation as a fantabulist.
Born in Santa Monica in 1927, Anger's Hollywood childhood included a role in Max Reinhardt's 1935 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. While he made his first film at 9, Anger burst onto the film scene in 1947 with Fireworks, his outrageously sadomasochistic fantasy of being raped by a gang of sailors on leave. Although the moody chiaroscuro of its photography recalls the high-toned artiness of the respectable avant-garde, its crassly sexual innuendo—milk poured on Anger's face and a roman candle poking out of his fly—made it an instant classic. Controversy didn't hurt. The cops busted Anger for obscenity, but the California Supreme Court eventually decided Fireworks was art.
The sadly ignored Puce Moment is Anger's tribute to the fabulosity of the silent-era divas. A twitchy, garishly painted lady admires her collection of rhinestone gowns, lounges on her divan, then steps out on the town, her Afghan hounds in tow. In Rabbit's Moon, Pierrot pantomimes his love affair with the moon. Shot in 35 mm on a Paris soundstage, it represents Anger's re-creation of the theatrical Hollywood fantasies of his youth.
But Eaux d'Artifice is Anger's version of high camp. Filmed in the gardens of the Villa d'Esti in Tivoli, it features an extravagantly gowned midget bustling past spurting jets of water, to the strains of Vivaldi. (The title is a play on "fireworks": feux d'artifices.) Anger increased the artifice by shooting the film "day for night," creating the illusion of a dusky dream.
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome highlights Anger's fascination with the occult. A coterie of friends (including Anaïs Nin) dressed as Egyptian and Indian deities acts out secret magick rituals. The result is a wonderfully fey evocation of the early days of flaming creatures.
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Shorts by Kenneth Anger—including the world premiere of Elliott's Suicide—follow Un Chant d'Amour at Northwest Film Forum, Thursday, April 26 at 7:00 p.m.