Sweet cesspool

The name Kenneth Anger conjures different associations, depending on who you're talking to--and assuming, of course, that the person has heard of him to begin with.

Anger, who will visit Dallas April 28 and 29 in conjunction with Las Colinas' Mandalay Festival of Arts, is a multifaceted legend. He's a filmmaker, a bestselling author, an actor, and a cult celebrity who has run with the likes of Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, and Marianne Faithfull. Like Henry Miller, Billie Holliday, and other controversial American originals, he's a favorite adopted son of Europe; his early short films were championed by legendary French surrealist filmmaker Jean Cocteau. He is also the most famous follower of Thelema, a pagan religion espoused by occult theologian Aleister Crowley.

But when I hear his name, I always think of a single image, and it never fails to make me laugh. It's found in Anger's 1947 breakthrough experimental short film "Fireworks," a berserk Freudian carnival of over-the-top imagery that was suppressed by censors until a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court compelled its release. The film is a surreal narrative about a guilt-ridden young gay man (played by Anger, a lean, dark-eyed, smoldering specimen of beefcake who was all of 17) who dreams of being savagely beaten in a bar by a group of sailors. As the bleeding hero retreats into his own closeted subconscious, we're hit with a series of images linked to fertility, lust, and sexual liberation, climaxing with a shot of a beefy, bluejeaned hunk standing proudly with his fly open, a lit firecracker sticking out of it, spewing a fantastic geyser of sparks.

The image comes as close as any to encapsulating what Anger's life and work is all about: summoning up the moral and artistic courage not just to examine taboo subject matter, but to climb atop the highest peak and shriek its existence to the world while doing a merry little jig.

What makes Anger not only important and influential but genuinely entertaining is his playfully outrageous sense of humor. "Fireworks" could only have been made by someone who possessed both phenomenal passion and the self-awareness and good sense to stand back from that passion, groove on it, and laugh at it. Like so much of Anger's output, it's a carefully wrought work of art concerning a serious subject (sexual repression), but it's conceived in terms of spectacle. It can be enjoyed both as a seminal (pardon the pun) entry (pardon that one, too) in the field of experimental, abstract cinema, or as an unabashed piece of entertainment--a pure visceral experience, like a music video, an adult comic book, or a dirty joke with a knockout punchline.

If, as many sociologists have claimed, movies are the ultimate sensual art form, Anger is one of its most obsessive and disciplined masters, honing each effort with such intense care, frame by frame and cut by cut, that his filmography from 1941 to 1980 lists only nine significant items. Many more were lost forever--some through ineptitude, some to censorship. The negative of his 1950 film "A Love that Whirls" was destroyed by lab technicians who deemed it obscene. In 1961, toward the end of his stay in Europe, Anger managed to complete 20 minutes of a film adaptation of the pornographic novel The Story of O before the footage was seized by government officials and locked away in the Cinematheque Francaise because Anger had cast the 20-year-old daughter of France's finance minister as the film's sexually insatiable heroine.

But for an artist of such limited output, his influence on other imagesmiths has been incalculable. Anger's 1953 film "Eaux D'Artifice" is a rigidly arranged montage of water images in which a skittish woman in an evening dress wanders among the labyrinthine gardens of the Villa D'Este in Tivoli, Italy, her sexual repression gradually flowering into panic at the sight of menacing gargoyle statues and fountains gushing orgasmic sheets and plumes of water. "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome," released in 1954, makes the filmmaker's fascination with Dionysian themes even more explicit: set in a world of gods ruled by Shiva, the Hindu deity of destruction, and his female alter-ego, the Scarlet Woman, the film moves from a parade-like progression of supernatural beings through a drunken party, climaxing with an orgy amid hellish flames.

His best-known short film, "Scorpio Rising," plays like a primer for MTV: The Shirelles "I Will Follow Him" accompanied by Nazi rally footage, clips of a leather-clad Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and scenes of Jesus and his disciples from a Cecil B. DeMille silent movie. A montage of men donning blue jeans and leather set to Bobby Vinton's saccharine ballad "Blue Velvet" beats David Lynch to the pop-ironic punch by a good quarter century.

In 1980's "Lucifer Rising," Anger moves away from pop culture and into pagan imagery drawn from his religion. Shot over a series of years in Egypt, England, and Germany, the film mixes footage taken at sun worship sites with shots of cataclysmic natural events, including a lunar eclipse, erupting volcanoes, and churning water.  

Anger has often said that his lifelong fascination with the occult is probably a direct result of his childhood interest in fairy tales. He has also compared the process of filmmaking to invocation, or casting a spell. "Lucifer Rising" finds a visual equivalent for this equation: at the film's climax, the title figure summons a UFO over the great pyramids of Egypt. All of his preoccupations--pop culture, homosexual iconography, celebrity glamour, hallucination, dreams, the occult--come together in 1969's "Invocation of my Demon Brother," whose albino protagonist conjures mental images of gay sex, pot smoke, Vietnam, and Mick Jagger in concert, broken up by shots of Anger in pagan garb performing incantations.

Of course, Anger is best known to the general public not as a cinematic poet of the supernatural, the taboo, and the profane, but as literary chronicler of mythic pop culture absurdity and degradation--the forefather of John Waters, Drew and Josh Friedman, Geraldo, Maury Povich, and dozens of other scandalmongers.

Born in 1932 in Santa Monica, California, Anger grew up hearing his grandmother, a Hollywood costumer, tell stories about various stars, filmmakers, producers, and hangers-on that even The National Enquirer might reject as too salacious. These tales were the spiritual inspiration for Anger's legendary book Hollywood Babylon, an anthology of Tinseltown scandals. This year marks the 20th anniver-sary of the book's phenomenally successful U.S. paperback publication (it was originally issued in France, haven to many a persecuted American taboo-breaker, 17 years earlier).

A masterwork of muckraking popular history, the book has influenced countless tell-all biographies. It's worth reading not only for prurient reasons, but for the pleasures of Anger's voluptuously purplish writing, which elevated a collection of vulgar anecdotes to the status of an epic poem of American debauchery.

"All through the twittish Twenties," Anger writes, "the tabs trotted out the oldie but goodie Hollywood Filth Parade...The sex-starved, sensation-thirsty, straphanger-shopgirl public lapped it up and dished out its pennies for more." Of mentally unhinged alcoholic actress Frances Farmer, railroaded into an asylum by cops and lawyers without any help from her fellow Hollywood celebrities, he writes, "Her merciless stars delivered her unto the Hell of straight jackets, leather straps, and raping, sadistic, bull-dyke guardian devils."

In a passage detailing MGM and 20th Century Fox's early-'60s auction of its props and memorabilia, Anger delivers a lament that would bring a tear to the eye of even the most unflappable cinematic icon. "Judy's high-buttoned shoes from Meet Me in St. Louis, Garbo's Two Faced Woman ski suit--what freak, fan, or fanatic is wearing you at this moment, parading up and down in front of what broken mirror of the mind?"

What Anger does in Hollywood Babylon (and in its 1984 sequel, Hollywood Babylon II) is deconstruct the nature of glamour via a series of ugly anecdotes, only to prove, quite intentionally, that glamour endures anyhow. Like other, older, more respectable kinds of faith, faith in the lords of entertainment has nothing whatsoever to do with facts or truth. Anger understands that film stars are more real and precious and omnipresent in the lives of many Americans than the gods they were taught to honor as children, that movie theaters hold more people in awe than houses of worship, and that popular culture is such a pervasive presence in our lives that even our dreams are often framed by the movies we consume when we're awake.

Which explains why his books ultimately seem so affectionate, so breathlessly awestruck, despite their wealth of damning detail. Page by overwrought page, they are charged with longing for transcendence, for liberation from every kind of constraint--sexual, cultural, financial, even physical. In this life, which Anger evocatively describes as "the Sweet Cesspool," we all thirst for deliverance. Consequently, we invest tremendous emotion in fantasies--even, or perhaps especially, in mass-produced fantasies. The fact that even soiled, broken, discredited idols can live on in our memories proves the power and allure of the moving image.

That's why Anger's alternate identity as a serious, respected, influential motion picture maker--a visual pioneer whose output is analyzed by film school students and raided freely by music video directors, cartoonists, musicians, and photographers--doesn't seem the slightest bit odd. His films are populated by lonely souls seeking escape from their mortal coil--men, women, and supernatural beings who seek to transform themselves into something else, something gorgeous, desirable, invincible. That's why, no matter how deep the hero of "Fireworks" sinks into humiliation and pain, he always seems inches away from a state of grace. To quote my colleague Jimmy Fowler, the central adage of Anger's art is the same one that drives the movies of the late Derek Jarman: in order to understand the sacred, it is often necessary to indulge in the profane.  

Mourning the death of old-style Hollywood glitz, scandals and all, in his first Babylon book--and understandably incapable of foreseeing its worldwide, multimedia resurgence decades later--Anger penned a final paragraph that could serve as a summary of his life and work. Of the decayed, neglected ruins of the old studio culture, he writes: "Sometimes after fierce rains and winds have swept the skies clean, the Egyptian blue reappears over a still-Spanished, still-palmed plain like the Cytherean isle Catalina, discerned on the horizon on a blue ribbon, the hulking, obsolete soundstages like secretive mastabas picked out below, and we can imagine what drew the ambitious and reckless men here, an age ago."

See the Repertory/Special section in Film Capsules for a complete list of Kenneth Anger-related events. For information on the Mandalay Arts Festival, see Calendar opener, or call 831-1881.

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