The Films of Kenneth Anger Vol. One
Release date: Jan. 2, 2007
A consummate movie fan who possesses the magic to transpose his passion for film and Hollywood into treasures that would enrich the souls of all who share his interests, Kenneth Anger contributed substantially to Fantoma's release of "The Films of Kenneth Anger Volume One" (retail, $24.98), and is undoubtedly aware that it will eventually bring a knowledge and appreciation of his films to a wider audience than ever before. An American Jean Cocteau, Anger dabbled in a number of media. His most popular works have been his compilations of gossip in the "Hollywood Babylon" books, although, if you see his films, you realize that the essays the books contain are not just the regurgitation of dishy stories about movie stars, but are, simultaneously, creating a cubist portrait of the concept of gossip and the juxtaposition between reported and unreported celebrity news. But it is his films that are his crowning achievement as an artist, and the five that are featured on Volume One rise to a crescendo of cinematic expression on their own, even though his later works would reach a higher pinnacle still.
Today, gay films are admired for how studiously kitsch has been vacuumed away from their design and content -- "Brokeback Mountain" seems to be widely appreciated precisely because it does such a thorough job of eliminating any hint of it -- but in Anger's day (too young to have served in WWII, he began making films shortly after the war was over), kitsch was almost the only thing gay artists had to call their own, and it was to be celebrated and not excised. Anger embraced kitsch wholeheartedly, but he possessed a prodigy's mastery of the dynamics of film that enabled him to utilize both the images and atmosphere of kitsch without allowing it to interfere with his technique or cinematic sensibility -- imagine, to use a crude analogy, Picasso drawing with crayons or Mozart composing on a toy piano. The overindulgent designs of the objects, costumes and settings within his movies, the blatant or barely disguised exaggerations of gender or sexuality of his performers, and the hypertheatricality of his narratives are neutralized, or, rather, purified, by the frame-for-frame perfection of his cinematography and editing. His application of music to each film, whether he is employing Vivaldi or doo-wop, is not just a beat-for-cut alignment, but a constant, incredibly dense and brilliant integration of musical and visual components, a comprehensive collusion that is on par with the works of Sergei Eisenstein.
The five films on the DVD, which can be accessed separately or with a "Play All" option, run a total of 90 minutes. Each is presented in full screen format, and each picture transfer is thrilling, bringing colors to their original intensities and clarities, and revealing details long lost to haze and wear. The monophonic sound is refreshingly clean and invigoratingly free of distortion. The films have no dialog, although, as we indicated, their musical scores are integral to their impact and artistry. Nevertheless, you may wish to choose to watch them with Anger's commentary track instead. The music is still present behind his talk and he speaks intermittently in any case, describing the circumstances under which each film was made, identifying the players ("That's Anais Nin with her net, and she was nude under that net."), name-dropping with glorious abandon ("My protagonist was suggested to me by Fellini ..." "I showed this film to Louise Brooks and she told me ...") and, most helpfully of all, explaining the basic meaning or narrative of each work. His explanations do not remove the mystery of each film's inherent power, but instead allow the viewer to move beyond the impediments of comprehension in the exploration of those mysteries.
The first film, "Fireworks," from 1947, Anger explains, was made in his house when his parents went away for a funeral, adding another layer of naughtiness to its antithetical On the Town depiction of a young man hanging out with and eventually getting beaten by a group of sailors. The 15-minute black-and-white effort has a balletic lyricism in both the movements of the performers and the shifts in the film's perspectives, and the virtuosity of talent in its creator is immediately apparent, as if the title referred not just to the action within the film, but to the announcement of the artist's arrival.
The colorful 1949 "Puce Moment," running six minutes, is a film that is greatly helped by Anger's narration. It opens with a sequential view of sequined dresses and then moves back to show a woman, who has put on one of the dresses, choosing other adornments and makeup, and then leaving a house to walk her dogs. It's pretty dry stuff, despite the gilt nature of every bauble and accessory on her dresser, but when Anger pitches in to identify the house he's shooting in, where the dresses came from, where the perfume bottles come from, and, eventually, that the actress would later spend time as the mistress of the president of Mexico, the movie is suddenly much harder to dismiss or ignore.
The 1950 "Rabbit's Moon," running 16 minutes, is in a kind of bluish black-and-white to convey its nighttime setting. Shot on a Parisian soundstage, it is a blended enactment of several fairy tales and myths involving the moon, using mimes to embody its principle characters. Lest you cringe at the thought of French mimes coming within an imaginary ten-foot-pole of anything having to do with fairy tales, Anger's almost defiantly American sensibility led him to apply a musical score of Fifties doo-wop numbers. The combination is absolutely riveting, leaving the viewer as spellbound as the hero at the movie's beguilements. The program is accompanied by 3 minutes of what look like costume and makeup tests, and other outtakes.
Another bluish black-and-white effort, the 1953 "Eaux D'Artifice" depicts a woman in a formal 17th Century gown strolling through an elaborate garden of fountains (it was shot in Trivoli, Italy). How many films, videos and so on since it was made have utilized the "Winter" passage of Antonio Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," and yet not only was Anger the first to do so in his 13-minute work, but no artist since has ever come as close to merging that music so thoroughly with the chosen images -- the geometry of the garden, the liquidity of the fountains, and the feminine psyche of the heroine express as much about the timing, the harmonic dynamic and the explosive lyrical freedom of the music as the music unveils the spirit of every object, light reflection or thought of movement within the images.
Finally, there is the climax of the DVD, the 38-minute "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome," from 1954. "The inspiration for the film came from a Halloween party that was called "Come as Your Madness,' and when I saw how everyone who came to this particular party imagined themselves as some kind of god or goddess, which maybe shows where peoples' egos were in the Bohemian world in Hollywood at that time, I decided that it could be wonderful to preserve all the costumes and the interpretation; put all these people in my film." Yes, it's rich people, or people permitted in the company of rich people, dressing up in wacky costumes and parading about amid expensive furniture and exotic decorations, while acting out formalized emotional interchanges that suggest a story of desire and betrayal. It is a kitsch epic; a masterpiece of social apathy and insulation; an appropriately decorated, Hindu-like myth re-enactment, with its spiritual core utterly rotted away; a disturbed revelry of desperate souls clinging to the outdated fashions and orgiastic memories of their lost time; or a group of intellectually astute and gifted iconoclasts having fun at the behest of a ringmaster who not only could take any sow's ear and turn it into a silk purse, but then make that purse not just fly, but soar.
The complete database of Doug Pratt's DVD-video reviews is available at dvdlaser.com. A sample copy of the DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter can be obtained by calling (516) 594-9304.