and selected films
by Kenneth Anger
Thursday, August 19, 2005
Eyedrum, Atlanta, GA
Fireworks (1947), 15 minutes, b&w, sound, 16mm
Eaux D'Artifice (1953), 13 minutes, color, sound, 16mm
Scorpio Rising (1963), 29 minutes, color, sound, 16mm
Mouse Heaven (2004), 10 minutes, color, sound, DVD
Out of a filmmaking career spanning over sixty years (his first film is dated 1941), there is currently available for public viewing just over three hours of material by Kenneth Anger. Most of this material is considered by Anger to be one large work, known as the Magick Lantern Cycle (from which tonight's films are drawn, though it is unknown whether Anger considers Mouse Heaven part of the Cycle). His films are distinguished by both their brevity (the longest is about 40 minutes) and their density (the filmmaker Stan Brakhage once likened watching an Anger film to reading an Ezra Pound canto on the news ticker in Times Square). Though each of Kenneth Anger's films are quite different from each other, there are threads, concerns and stylistic techniques that run through them all.
First, light. In his book Light Moving in Time, William Wees quotes a 1970 interview in the journal Friends, in which Anger said, "I'm an artist working in Light, and that's my whole interest, really." And the quote goes on to link Anger's obsession with light to a specific deity: "Lucifer is the Light God, not the Devil, that's a Christian slander. The devil is always other people's gods. Lucifer has appeared in other of my films; I haven't labelled him as such but there's usually a figure or a moment in those films which is my ‘Lucifer' moment."
Wees goes on to link Anger's use of light in his films to Aldous Huxley's "preternatural light" explored in the book Heaven and Hell: the idea that visionary experiences are accompanied by and linked to the luminosity of objects – for instance precious stones – and that the glittering reflections of these objects are, in Huxley's words, "capable of inducing, if only in a partial and attenuated form, the visionary experience." In Anger's films there are many such examples of these luminous objects. Points of light appear as totems in Fireworks: the headlights which confront the protagonist when he first walks out into the dark; the glittering Christmas tree worn as a hat, with the glowing candle on top; the "light" which the protagonist seeks for his cigarette; and the phallic Roman Candle seen at the film's climax. A closeup on a burning torch at the beginning of the film presages the fire which signals the end of the dreamer's dream. Scorpio Rising's motorcyclists dress in studded leather jackets which gleam from the screen; the polished chrome on their bikes catches the light and sparkles for the viewer. Colored red bulbs in the spokes of bike wheels flash to the strains of "Party Lights." The revolving police lights at the film's end echo the bike wheels and also Scorpio's whirling flashlight. And in the final moments of Mouse Heaven, Anger switches from the more conventional series of Mickey Mouse toys to shots of silvery Mickey figures which shine almost outrageously brightly. (For good measure, he adds a final, artificial-looking sparkle from a Mickey Mouse head constructed of coins.)
Eaux D'Artifice is perhaps the film of Anger's which most relies on this visionary quality of light. It is in fact a film about the pure enjoyment of light, as reflected in the waters of the fountains in the Gardens of the Villa D'Este in Tivoli. In this film, Anger uses a number of techniques to create these beautiful images of pure light. Different camera speeds are used, sometimes to slow the movement of the jets of water across the screen. Anger also makes use of pronounced zoom movements on the stone faces around the fountains, some of which can be seen spewing water. (Most of the transitions between shots in Eaux D'Artifice are through dissolves, rather than the hard cuts that characterize Anger's most common editing style as seen in Scorpio Rising). Finally, the costume of the Water Witch who traverses the gardens almost glows in the dark – a parallel with the glittery costumes seen in many of Anger's other films.
As Wees has noted, these "'Lucifer' moments" use the pure representation of light to attempt to induce a visionary experience in the viewer. Parallel to this use of light to effect liberation is the way that the narratives in Anger's films center on a moment of transcendence for the protagonist. Often these dramatic moments in the films are achieved through what the English occultist Aleister Crowley – whom Anger admires – identified as a prime element of occult practice: "the passionate union of opposites." This takes place most shockingly in Fireworks, where the dreamer seems to reach fulfillment through undergoing a brutal sadomasochistic attack by a group of strapping U.S. Navy sailors – who literally pull open his body, only to reveal a ticking gas meter in place of a heart (an unexpected moment of humor and a nod to the Surrealists). This combination of Eros and Thanatos, sex and death, would reach an apotheosis in Scorpio Rising.
Another moment of transcendence through union occurs at the end of Eaux D'Artifice, in one of the most surprising shots in all of Anger's work. Throughout the film the Water Witch, who runs through the gardens "in pursuit of the night moth," is juxtaposed with the gushing fountains and jets of water, which appear as abstract shapes animated by the light of the moon (the film was shot on black-and-white film during daylight, but Anger printed it through a blue filter, giving it a moonlight quality). Finally, the Water Witch approaches the camera and is overtaken by the fountain. In a moment of great beauty, her image literally becomes one with the water, and she becomes a shadow within the fountain.
Fire and water: the union of opposites. At the beginning of Fireworks, a burning torch is doused in water. In Eaux D'Artifice, water merges with light. And this union works between the two films as well. "Eaux D'Artifice" is a phrase invented by Anger, which translates literally to "Water Works." By naming his film thus, Anger places it as a companion piece to the earlier film and establishes a dialectic between the two.
Finally, Anger's most celebrated filmic achievement is one that runs through all his movies – namely, his use of music. From Fireworks on, there is no dialogue in his films. Instead, Anger uses music to heighten the narrative thrust, as dialectic with his images, and to add another level of complexity to his "montage" style of editing. For example, the images in Eaux D'Artifice are edited to precisely coordinate with the "Winter" movement of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons."
Up until Scorpio Rising, Anger used classical music for his films. With Scorpio, he chose to use current popular songs (and though all of these songs now carry a nostalgic charge, it's important to remember that they were all recent at the time Anger made the film). This decision not only represented a departure for Anger, but had enormous impact on Hollywood filmmaking and, of course, music videos. Still, to this day few have combined popular song with images of pop culture in such subversive, ironic, complex and critical ways. In Scorpio Rising, the music is an equal partner with the image. The energy and brightness of some songs perfectly matches Anger's rapid, complex editing; the symphonic studio sweep of others proves a thrilling counterpart to the grand tracking shots of the motorcycles. A particular lyric may subvert or heighten the effect of an image, or give it a new meaning altogether, while at other times a combination with a particular image will give a lyric an almost mythological force. The songs are also arranged so that the lyrics reflect the narrative of the film:
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread; wind me up, here's a key; he went away and you hung around; you're a big man now but he'll cut you down to size; softer than satin was the light from the stars; and I still can see blue velvet; I got wise, you're the Devil in disguise; hit the road, Jack; don't you come back no more; see the way he walks down the street; he's a rebel and he'll never ever be understood; you just can't get off a train that's movin' down the track; I'm at the point of no return; I will follow him; wipeout.
A decade before Scorpio Rising, another American occultist and filmmaker named Harry Smith had compiled and released his Anthology of American Folk Music, subsequently counted as a major influence on a generation of American musicians such as Bob Dylan. For the Anthology, Smith collected dozens of folk, blues, and gospel performances from old 78 rpm records, and arranged them into an epic three-volume set which created a panorama of American life in the 20s and 30s, brought to the level of mythology by his artful organization of the songs and his commentary. In Scorpio Rising, Kenneth Anger accomplished much the same thing for modern pop music. By putting songs like "My Boyfriend's Back," "(You're the) Devil in Disguise" and "He's a Rebel" in the context of a scathing critique of pop culture – which through his editing he linked with both religious repression and fascism – Anger showed that the powerful forces at work inside these songs ran as deep as those of "Stackalee," "John the Revelator," or "Prison Blues." This insight has had a enormous cultural resonance over the past forty years, particularly on the next generation of Hollywood filmmakers. Among others, Martin Scorcese was greatly affected:
Scorpio Rising had been banned, but the shocking thing about it wasn't the Hell's Angels stuff, it was the use of music. This was music I knew, and we had always been told by our professors at NYU that we couldn't use it in student films because of copyright. Now here was Kenneth Anger's film in and out of the courts on obscenity charges, but no one seemed to be complaining that he'd used all these incredible tracks…That gave me the idea to use whatever music I really needed.
Since the premiere in 1980 of Lucifer Rising, Anger has completed films only sporadically, and few are available for public viewing. The release in 2004 of Mouse Heaven is particularly welcome. Mouse Heaven is a study of the large Mel Birnkrant collection of vintage Mickey Mouse toys. It harkens back to Scorpio Rising in its evocative musical soundtrack, and finds Anger's wicked wit in full play. Originally planned in the late 1980s, it was finally filmed in 2004 with grant money. Mouse Heaven is a surprisingly playful film, but is also (unsurprisingly) irreverent toward the object of its study. In a recent interview on www.topy.net, Anger elaborated:
I'm actually being very respectful of early Mickey Mouse. I hate later Mickey Mouse, because from "Fantasia" on the Disney people decided to humanise the mouse, remove his tail - which is a kind of castration - and turn him into a little boy who is a sort of a goody-two-shoes. And he's no longer the mischievous, sadistic mouse that he was in the beginning. He used to do nasty little tricks like twist the udders of cows and things like that. And that's the only mouse I'm interested in, I mean this kind of demon 'fetish' figure.
Obligingly, Anger gives
us a procession of hundreds of toys, each with its own unique tweak on the
Mickey Mouse legend. (The uniqueness that the film imparts to each toy echoes
another of Aleister Crowley's maxims, which Anger used as an epigraph for his
book Hollywood Babylon: "Every Man and every Woman is a Star.") There are
Mickey Mouses smoking cigarettes, dancing with strange ritualistic abandon,
leering. The wicked opening sequence implies sexual activity through camera
zooms and repetitive motions of the dolls. Mouse tattoos appear, and out of
nowhere a stunning montage sequence incorporating the grotesque merry-go-round
climax of Alfred Hitchcock's film Strangers on a Train. (The editing here
is Anger at the top of his game.) As the film progresses, the close-ups of the
Mouse faces seem to take on an increasingly strange, alien quality. Yet just as
clearly as Mouse Heaven subverts the mass-culture Mickey, it is also an
homage to the old Mickey Mouse, just as Anger says. There is an unexpected
warmth and light-heartedness to the film, despite its occasional undercurrents.
Its editing techniques certainly call to mind Scorpio Rising, though the
two films are almost diametrically opposed in tone. Given this, as well as both
films' preoccupation with Hollywood icons, Mouse Heaven could be thought
of as a companion piece to Scorpio – a union of opposites – in the same
way that the abstract, lyrical beauty of Eaux D'Artifice is a tonic for
the intensity of Fireworks.
Anger is one of the film avant-garde's most written-about artists. Start with Kenneth Anger by Alice L. Hutchison (Black Dog Publishing, 2004), featuring analyses and background of the films, the most complete filmography and bibliography yet, and many well-chosen, beautiful stills approved by Anger himself. Moonchild: The Films of Kenneth Anger, edited by Jack Hunter (Creation Books, 2002) is another recent book on Anger, providing useful exegesis on the occult symbolism in his films. One of the classic studies of Anger's oeuvre is P. Adam's Sitney's chapter titled "The Magus" in his Visionary Film (Oxford University Press, 1974). William Wees' excellent 1982 Cine-Tracts article on light in Anger's films is reprinted in his book Light Moving in Time (University of California Press, 1992). Scott MacDonald's Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society (Temple University Press, 2002) collects letters and other interesting documents regarding the early distribution of Anger's films in America. [In 2006, the University of California Press published Scott MacDonald's A Critical Cinema 5, containing a long interview with Anger covering his entire career. –AD, 6/06]
For assistance with tonight's screening, thanks to Robbie Land, David Brodeur, and special thanks to Kenneth Anger.
Program notes 2005 Andy Ditzler
back to Film Love
Andy Ditzler 02/05/2011