Looking Back at Anger, or, We Always Have Paris

In our last exciting episode (The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 1), Fantoma Films gathered five lovingly restored films from the first half of the career of Kenneth Anger, an avant-garde filmmaker whose slices of celluloid combine personal dreams and symbols, extravagant colors and gestures, and campy pop-culture detritus into dizzying pre-MTV fever dreams. The back cover puts it well: “Anger’s works serves as a talisman of universal symbols and personal obsessions, combining myth, artifice and ritual to render cinema with the power of a spell or incantation.”

To refresh our memories, those works were: 1947’s Fireworks, a frankly homo-erotic delirium about sailors and violence; 1949’s Puce Moment, a brief burst of color about a woman dressing and striking poses; Rabbit’s Moon from 1950, a gorgeous blue-and-white spectacle of dance and wispy dreams, shot in a French studio and featuring the commedia dell’arte characters of Pierrot, Harlequin, and Columbine (during this period Anger met Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet); the equally blue-and-white Eaux d’artifice (1953), shot in a garden of fountains; and 1954’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, the first of Anger’s brightly colored multi-character films with his pals (including Anais Nin and Curtis Harrington) enacting scenes of esoteric relevance partly inspired by the art and writings of British occultist Aleister Crowley.

Here’s how Anger has described that film, as quoted on the Subterranean Cinema website at SubCin.com: “A convocation of magicians assume the identity of gods in a Dionysian revel. Lord Shiva, the magician, awakes. The Scarlet Woman, whore of heaven, smokes a big, fat joint; Astarte of the moon brings the wing of snow; Pan bestows the grapes of Bacchus; Hecate offers the sacred mushroom, yage, wormwood brew… The orgy ensues — a magick masquerade at which Pan is the prize. Lady Kali blesses the rites of the children of light as Lord Shiva invokes the godhead with the formula Force and Fire.” Now you know.

Volume Two, like the first volume, presents its films with the option of Anger’s chatty, comfortable commentary. Since all his films are shot silent with added musical tracks, some viewers may be drawn to the commentary option right away, though one should first try to figure out the films in their pure state.

Anger refers to all these films collectively as his Magick Lantern Cycle. He is squarely in the Romantic tradition of the artist as visionary (e.g., Coleridge, William Blake) and sexual outsider (Byron), which also partly explains his affinity for Crowley. His films are suffused with the stuff of the Romantic Id: dream-logic, transgressive eroticism and taboo subjects, attention to color and music, literary references, religous and mythical elements, experimental editing and superimpositions. We won’t address his status as an “acid trip” filmmaker, since that’s reductionist anyway.

The first film here is probably the most famous: Scorpio Rising (1964), which laminates a bunch of contemporary teeny-bopper songs like “Blue Velvet” (we trust the rights have been cleared by now) over images of hunky Brooklyn motorcycle enthusiasts. He explains that this film is the closest he got to a standard documentary, although he picked out the details that struck his eye and juxtaposed them in a manner that underlines the fetishized or ritualized nature of the cyclist’s lifestyle.

He also explains that when filming the famous “orgy” (really a wild Halloween party), the simulated sex antics and initiations make the situation look “queerer than it really was”, since the boys were partly clowning for him and deliberately keeping their girlfriends behind the camera. He also explains why he included sequences from an educational film about the life of Christ, which arrived by cosmic mis-delivery on his doorstep during the editing. As for the Nazi flags and regalia (which Anger says were his own and got stolen), the director says the cyclists had no political consciousness or intention beyond the desire to shock the squares through the power of the symbolism itself. One can understand why such a mishmash became notorious, and it probably isn’t scheduled for prime-time TV even today.

Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) is a shorter, simpler follow-up in the same style, focusing on one particular custom-car fetishist. The fourth film is a shortened version of Rabbit Moon made by printing every other shot.

In between these two items is Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), assembled from footage left over after (claims Anger) Bobby BeauSoleil stole most of the original Lucifer Rising. (BeauSoleil is in jail for a murder associated with the Charles Manson “family”.) This has more of Anger’s friends dressing up in home-movie occultism, going up and down stairs, striking poses, and doing magic amid superimposed images. Mick Jagger provided the rhythmic, gurgling electronic soundtrack, and he can be briefly glimpsed along with Keith Richards, Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull.

Which brings us to the 1981 remake of Lucifer Rising, Anger’s most expensive-looking production, thanks to cash from an English foundation and German TV. It was shot mostly in England and Egypt, with side trips to Germany and an erupting volcano in Iceland. It was shot in the ’70s and finished after BeauSoleil completed the soundtrack from prison, a story told by Lessley Anderson in a San Francisco Weekly article, “Lucifer, Arisen” (by Lessley Anderson, 17 November 2004).

The article, written without Anger’s participation, summarizes the film’s mythical background: “Crowley believed the world was governed by a series of ages personified by different gods and goddesses. His own age, represented in the Western world by Jesus Christ or the Egyptian god Osiris, was coming to an end, according to Crowley. On the rise was the age of Horus, or Lucifer. Like the mythical Lucifer, angel of light, who rebelled against God and was cast down to hell, people in this new age would discover their true natures, turn against polite society, and throw the world into chaos and ugliness. After that, however, harmony would return, and Lucifer/Horus would be restored to his rightful place in heaven. There was only one rule for this new age, wrote Crowley: ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.’ ” That may be Crowley, but it also resembles Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”

In Anger’s commentary, he distances Lucifer from the popular Christian understanding of Satan and links him with Roman mythology of the morning star that heralds the dawn. He also identifies the characters and actors, such as Lilith (Faithfull), Isis (Myriam Gibril) and Osiris (Donald Cammell, director of “Performance”). He points out the special effects shots by Wally Veevers, known for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jimmy Page, who was originally going to do the soundtrack, also appears, as does Mick Jagger’s younger brother, Chris.

Anger is refreshingly different from other directors who remark on what a pleasure and privilege it was to work with everyone. He dishes enough dirt to remind us he’s the author of Hollywood Babylon, though he remains reticent about many details we’d like to hear. This isn’t a tell-all commentary.

As a bonus, we get Anger’s related film from 2002, The Man We Want to Hang. It documents paintings and drawings by Crowley in a museum exhibition. According to Amazon, the DVD also comes with a 48-page book with pieces by Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant, Guy Maddin, and BeauSoleil, notes for each film, and more. I haven’t seen this and can’t comment upon it.

These Anger volumes join a constellation of important DVDs devoted to avant-garde cinema, including Kino’s two volumes on the subject, Mystic Fire’s Maya Deren films, Criterion’s Stan Brakhage set, the James Broughton box from Facets, and Cult Epics’ release of Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour.

But it’s important to point out here that avant-garde cinema isn’t a dead movement, fit only for digital mummification. A few venues are devoted to new works, and one significant label is Lowave, a Paris-based company whose most original contribution is a simple decision that makes their discs playable all over the world. Not only do they make their discs region-free but double-sided, with one side in NTSC and the other in PAL. Why is no one else offering this breathtakingly ingenious solution?

Nos Stars/Le Petit Dieu are two letterist films from Maurice Lemaître, a protean artist in many media. Letterist film was defined by Jean Isidore Isou’s film, Venom and Eternity (available on Kino’s Avant-Garde Cinema: Volume 2), and the aesthetic basically refers to leaving the soundtrack and the image as separate entities and also to carving or layering visual effects onto the image.

Nos Stars (2002) is based on the idea of fetishing images of women on film. These images are layered with colors, decaying emulsion, and generally hallucinogenic effects. We hear a woman reading the aesthetic statement and also a letter that explains the method and invites a woman to participate.

The English subtitles are so un-synchronised with the words they are translating that the viewer may begin to suspect this isn’t a mistake but a third addition to the disjunctive experience, at least for English viewers, and this is confirmed by the co-feature from the same year. Le Petit Dieu recounts a fable on the soundtrack, which is translated not by subtitles but by graphic titles of whimsicality and style that go all over the screen without regard to the speaking voice. Nothing is obscured, since the image consists mainly of moving colors reminiscent of Brakhage.

Hybride consists of six films by Johanna Vaude, who uses video, Super 8, still photos, painting and digital effects, all scored with electronic music tracks. Her primary element is color — all colors, usually at the same time and flickering rapidly. For example, Wild Eye uses close-ups of human and animal eyes on Super 8 and video, along with images of a white horse and what look like dice made of tofu. These images are treated with painting to offer a meditation on vision itself.

Our Icarus plunders graphic images of violence from the news (war, execution, bodies, surgery) and juxtaposes them with a man who floats in an emulsified sea of greens and purples. “Samurai” continues the obsession with a culture of violence, this time rapidly editing and treating images from samurai movies. The punningly titled De l’Amort is a barrage of images from horror movies, notably Nosferatu and Night of the Living Dead.

The base images in Totality Remix include Da Vinci drawings and other things intended to convey the totality of human achievement, all subjected to what looks like dyed negative photography, while the only recognizable elements in Exploration are crystals, floating sperms and the universe; this is the most abstract, least representational, most blindingly colorful work here. We resort to the lame adjective “psychedelic”. Fascinating stuff, but epileptics beware.

Resistance[s] collects eight film and video works of North African and Middle Eastern artists. Most are based in Paris, though Jayce Salloum is Canada-based and Usama Alshaibi is in the US The latter contributes the only animated work, a black-and-white mandala/ kaleidoscopic abstraction. The artist explains that some forms of Islam forbid the depiction of the human form, and this is his playful response. One crucial element of this disc is the welcome chance to hear each artist explain what he or she was doing, though one artist is too avant-garde to let us hear what he says.

Salloum’s work is about Lebanon, as is the film by Waël Noureddine, and both of these are basically documentaries that combine clear-eyed images (bodies in a Palestinian refugee camp in 1982, the city of Beirut) with “poetic” narration and juxtapositions. In Salloum’s video, one of the original refugees from 1948 tells about having a dialogue with his house. Noureddine mixes surreptitious images of soldiers with shots of young people taking drugs. Taysir Batniji’s Transit is a series of still photos, also taken secretly, that document the journey of Palestinian refugees in waiting rooms from Egypt to Gaza.

Several films have a feminist interest. The simplest and most charming is Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s Dansons, which is a close-up of a belly-dancer’s “tropic of cancer” as she dons bangled red, white and blue scarves (the colors of the French flag) and begins shaking her hips to “La Marseillaise”. Thus, says the artist, she expresses her acceptance of her own multiple identities. Frédérique Devaux’s K3 (Les Femmes) applies Letterist/ Brakhage techniques of layering to old decaying footage of woman in various activities. The soundtrack is also a layered melange.

Lamya Gargash, from the United Arab Emirates, made Wet Tiles, an elliptical tragedy of a woman in bedroom and bathroom, resisting her lot as a candidate for arranged marriage. The young artist states in her commentary that she wasn’t thinking so much in the charged feminist terms that viewers have extracted from the film, but basically took the material for granted while trying to work out an aesthetic.

Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi appropriates video images of naked women, news reports and other items, distorting the video to deconstructive effect in Dieu me pardonne, presumably to re-evaluate the images and question their sources. (This is the artist whose “interview” gives no information.)

RATING 8 / 10