Film Reviews

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.

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Matt Zoller Seitz

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