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January 24, 2007

DVD Journal: Kenneth Anger

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I posted back here about Bernardo Bertolucci and his legendary thriller "The Conformist," a film that had been unavailable on DVD (and hard to find in any form) until very recently. Another rarity is about to go on sale in DVD form too: the short avant-garde movies of Kenneth Anger. Film buffs, as well as those simply interested in how our culture became what it is, might enjoy giving Anger's movies a look.

Born Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer and turning 80 this year, Anger might well be almost as big an influence on popular culture as Andy Warhol. He's perhaps best-known for his 1958 book "Hollywood Babylon," a volume of salacious and amusing "inside" gossip and fantasies about the American movie world. The book -- available in Europe for many years before it was finally printed in the U.S. -- helped make indulging in sleazy and bitchy gossip seem deadpan cool and hip.

His almost-no-budget films have been just as influential. Not many filmbuffs would disagree with the statement that Anger has been one of the most important American film avant-gardists, along with Maya Deren, Bruce Connor, Stan Brakhage, and a few others. In his films, Anger barely bothers with narrative at all, cutting instead straight to the erotic chase. Typically, he fetishizes youth, bikers, blue jeans, hot rods, and Lucifer, and he sets the lip-smacking, montage-y, hyper-eroticized stew to rock and roll and opera.

Don't say you weren't warned

He was one of the first, in other words, to fixate in frankly seamy ways on the hot-'n'-throbbing quality that's such an important part of the appeal of pop music, opera, and movies. As the underground maestro of near-camp sensationalism and lasciviousness, he was a big influence on devil-tempted artists as diverse as Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese. I see that Scorsese has in fact has written an intro to the booklet that's packaged with the new Anger DVD, and fans of "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver" who watch Anger will certainly learn where Marty lifted a lot of his early moves from. (Other main early-Marty source: John Cassavetes.)

And, yes, in case you haven't picked up the clues, Anger isn't just gay, but gay-gay-gay! The sensibility that he has brought to movies and to popular culture is gay-gay-gay! too. And no, it wasn't a coincidence that the French gay-gay-gay! genius Jean Cocteau was one of the first to discover and encourage Anger. In many ways, that's what Anger's movies are like, come to think of it: rock 'n' roll versions of Cocteau's freakier efforts.

I look forward to watching Anger's work again. Do his films seem laughable these days? Do they retain their old power to disturb and upset? The movies are -- why not be honest about it? -- basically homoerotic hallucinations. I'm curious to see what they look like now that the homoerotic-hallucination approach to imagery and popular culture so permeates the mainstream. Will Anger's films still have their power to derange, provoke, and arouse, or will they look like nothing more evil and hypnotic than underproduced Chevrolet ads?

Is Anger -- who has peddled camp, salaciousness, Satan-worshipping, and self-arousal per se -- someone to be celebrated? I think it can certainly be argued that his influence, like Warhol's, has been a malign one. But why must all pleasures be healthy ones? What do we make of creepy art geniuses? It isn't as though we can banish them from the face of the planet after all. Perhaps it's up to us to learn how to take them and enjoy their work without losing our poise in the face of what they represent. And -- though parents would probably be wise to discourage the kiddies from hanging around Kenneth Anger's backyard -- it's hard to dispute that the man has a lot of talent and has made quite an impact.

The Observer visits with Anger, who sounds like one seriously difficult dude. A search on YouTube will turn up a number of Anger clips and shorts, but the YouTube visual quality is so awful that it does the films a serious disservice. The least-mangled of them seems to me to be this hilariously enraptured bit from "Kustom Kar Kommandos." A high-quality trailer for the DVD suggests what the weirdo intensity of Anger's work can be like. Takes a while to download and play, though.



posted by Michael at January 24, 2007


The only Anger film I've ever seen is "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome." A pretty interesting film, mostly because it looks like edited home movie footage of a load of bored rich people playing dress-up (which is what it really is, I guess). The Janacek music used as a soundtrack is awesome and is an inspired choice. Nice title design, too. It's not particularly "gay" either ... at least not in the strictly homosexual sense of the term.

Posted by: stephenesque on January 24, 2007 5:51 PM

I saw both of the "...Rising" films years ago, at the auditorium of a Catholic school, oddly, or appropriately, enough. I thought they were totally lame and cheap to the point of hilarity. I had no idea how influential they were. "Hollywood Babylon" however, was a riot. I loved it.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on January 24, 2007 6:36 PM

Back in '76 or thereabouts, I saw an evening of Anger's films presented in Wheeler Auditorium at Berkeley. There were perhaps a dozen of them, hosted by the filmmaker himself and presented as "The Anger Magic Lantern Show." It was certainly the most direct encounter I had had with gay culture to that point in my (unduly sheltered?) life. The Anger aesthetic struck me as simultaneously fascinating and creepy. One image at least -- from one of his relatively early films -- has refused to permit itself to be erased: a classic hunky-biker type undoes the fly of his jeans and pulls them open to reveal flaming sparklers (or perhaps a lit stick of dynamite) where his genitalia ought to be. Freaky, man.

As a child Anger appeared as the Changeling Prince, the stolen human child who is the object of the tiff between Oberon and Titania, in the Max Reinhardt film version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Make of that what you will.

Posted by: George Wallace on January 24, 2007 7:12 PM

I watched a bunch of Anger movies when I was in film school a few years ago. I've forgotten most of the details except for the same image of the biker with a firecracker in his pants that George mentioned. My general impression is that they seemed to me to be a lot like the other avant-garde films we were watching (Maya Deren's, Bruce Connor's, Stan Brakhage's): stilted, mannered, way too literal in their attempt to be poetic.

The only avant-garde films that I really enjoyed from those classes were Harry Smith's weird little animated movies and Andy Warhol's "My Hustler" (which actually seemed more like the kind of stuff Cassvaettes was up to than it did these other avant-garde films). (Now that I think about it, I kind of liked what I saw of Bruce Connor's work, too).

I'm mixed on the more general creepy artist question: I think its good that these guys are out there doing their thing - it can be interesting/fascinating and I often get a kick out of it. But I think its screwy the way other people in the art scene start taking them so seriously, and, because they take them seriously, they ignore or rationalize away the creepiness.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on January 25, 2007 9:46 AM

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