“Lucifer is the patron saint of the visual arts. Color, form—all these are the work of Lucifer.” —Kenneth Anger, avant garde filmmaker
As inaccessible as they are beautiful and haunting, the works of pioneering art film director Kenneth Anger vacillate somewhere between high art, complete trash, and cinematic legend. For lovers of cinema as an art form (as well as music video directors and film students the world over), these bold, independently-produced musings are some of the finest early examples of the playfulness of the form, not to mention it’s propensity to provoke. For people who go to the movies to see romantic comedies or stuff being blown up, the glossy set pieces will be likely be incomprehensible to the point of annoyance.
Anger, an acclaimed independent filmmaker and author (he is responsible for the notable Hollywood Babylon book series, which salaciously brings to light the seedier side of the American film industry), took his stage name at the precocious age of five and began making films shortly thereafter (Who’s Been Rocking My Dreamboat?” was released at the ripe old age of nine!). Many of his earliest works deal with his burgeoning homosexuality, captured most poignantly on the dream-like, quasi autobiographical Fireworks, a cinematic breakthrough that is included in the new compilation The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 1. Anger himself stars as the troubled protagonist in the homoerotic mini-epic.
Fireworks (filmed while his parents were out of town in one weekend), begins with Anger getting out of bed and lighting a cigarette, only to be severely beaten and tortured by a gang of sailor-thugs. There are unmistakable images of gay bashing, flowing blood, and subtle man-on-man action that are, while not exactly graphic, still vivid and haunting given the short was made in 1947. It’s a fascinating look into one gay man’s fantasies and experiences lived in a time where the subject was utterly taboo. The loneliness and longing implied in the film’s short running time is staggering. The frank sexuality (as well as Anger’s unabashed lust towards the hunky men in the film) was seen as incendiary by most, yet Anger handled the film’s subject matter without a hint shame or pretense. A brave move on the part of the director given societal climate towards the idea of “gay”; it was also an artistic statement that could have killed a director’s fledgling career.
Fireworks was such a landmark that it was eventually purchased by Dr. Alfred Kinsey, of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research, whom Anger (who was actually filmed masturbating for Kinsey’s research purposes) helped build up his film archive. The film went through an epic obscenity trial, in which the California Supreme Court anointed it to a film with merit, largely because of its refined editing, and cinematic visual style—because of this Anger’s film could not be considered pornography; a landmark decision in a time where overt, filmed homosexual content was a huge no-no.
Anger’s fondness for outrageous, often violent themes (like equating sexual pleasure with pain) didn’t win him any allies (or financing) in Hollywood: the director shot most of his important work in France. The poetic, entrancing Rabbit’s Moon is a short that plays with a Japanese myth of seeking advice from a rabbit who lives on the moon, and takes place in a dark fairytale forest with an all-mime cast. It is shot in a shockingly clear, cryptic blue-tinted black and white film stock to convey the foreboding feeling that darkness brings to those lost in the woods (the soundtrack, made up of all doo wop songs that are about nighttime, helps drive the point home). There isn’t really much of plot, so to speak. The beauty of the images as they cascade while the mincing Harlequin (the film’s protagonist) prances around, make up for anything you might miss. The images are ageless, grotesque, and absurd.
Although he was known primarily for being arcane and on the fringe, Anger was also able to hold his own with using eloquent, poetic images of staged dance performances, such as in his 1953 short Euax d’artifice, considered by many film historians to be his masterpiece. In the film, which is propelled by a sumptuous Vivaldi soundtrack, Anger is able to convey more in 12 minutes with simply-lit, gorgeous images of water and light (imagery that recalls the evocative silent films of Jean Cocteau, an Anger associate) than most filmmakers can in hours.
By 1954’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Anger was displaying a keen gift for creating some of this period’s most truly hallucinogenic, sensual, and infuriating imagery. Bold hints of Aleister Crowley’s Thelemic occult theories (which the esoteric Anger was a follower of), are more than touched on here, as are elements of Satanism, Egyptian ritual, and eroticism. It’s hard to tell if the filmmaker is taking himself way too seriously; the term “camp” wasn’t yet officially coined when Pleasure Dome was conceived, but the film could very well be the beginning of the genre.
Openly gay male film directors like John Waters or Todd Haynes (whose Poison plays like a grand rip-off of Anger’s jagged styling) owe a debt of gratitude to Anger, whose use of color and light is just as innovative and dazzling as a picture made today. While it is easy to point out the gay themes in his films, Anger can be seen not only as the godfather of queer cinema, but also of indie cinema: his budgets were virtually non-existent, and the production values might have been low; but the finished products were always regarded as works of art.
The debate will rage on, probably forever, over what constitutes a “proper film” or an “art film”; or what is simply “art” or simply “trash”. Anger’s complex, engrossing musings on the subjects are likely going to be at the flashpoint of such discussions for years to come as well. His intentions may be impenetrable and elusive, but they are daringly original and crisp, and even 60 years later come across as being intrinsic to the history of cinema. Modern filmmakers (gay, indie, or anything in between) all should applaud Mr. Anger for breaking down stereotypes and barriers before they were even born.