Nothing suffers more on home video than avant-garde film, by its nature inclined to explore the outer limits, innate qualities, and subtlest effects of its medium. Yet nothing is more exciting, from the perspective of the living-room cinematheque (a/k/a the future of cinephilia) than the recent boon in experimental DVDs. Sure, they suffer on the small screen—and Flaubert is better in the original French—but that doesn’t prevent translations of Sentimental Education from blowing minds.
The latest blast from the avant-garde cannon, The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume One, arrives this week on DVD in a terrific package from Fantoma. Proto-pop genius, gay maverick, hardcore occultist, master of montage, and, through his pioneering use of unauthorized pop songs and intensity of vision, one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century, Kenneth Anger is a cornerstone of the American avant-garde and a gift that keeps on giving. This long-overdue DVD crests a wave of fresh critical interest: 2004 saw the publication of an invaluable scholarly monograph on his life and works by Alice L. Hutchison, and 2006 offered a screening of Anger’s latest short, Mouse Heaven (2002), in the Whitney Biennial.
Scrupulously restored and transferred in high definition, the DVD is a dream come true for newbies, devotees, students, scholars, artists, stoners, black magicians, fetishists, and Martin Scorsese. “Like many people, I was astonished when I saw Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising for the first time,” Scorsese writes in his introduction to the accompanying booklet. “Every cut, every camera movement, every color, and every texture seemed, somehow, inevitable, in the same way that images of the Virgin in Renaissance painting seem inevitable—in other words, pre-existing but dormant, and brought back to life through some kind of evocation.”
“Some kind of evocation”: in its vague way, an exact definition of Anger’s enchanting oeuvre. It’s easy enough to place Fireworks (1947), radical as it was for the time; here is cinema’s most exquisite fantasy of gay gang rape by hot teenage sailors. On the sparse yet fascinating commentary track, Anger claims his inspiration was the Los Angeles Zoot Suit riots, but the influence of Cocteau is far more evident on the film’s brazenly oneiric and onanistic pulse of images. Indeed, on discovering Fireworks at the Festival du Film Maudit, the legendary poet awarded it a prize, encouraging Anger to spend the next decade in France.
Rabbit’s Moon (1950), a lunar pantomime rife with autobiographical implications, derives from this period, as does Anger’s involvement with the Cinémathéque Française. At the invitation of Henri Langlois, Anger set to work editing the recently discovered original reels of Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! This deep immersion in the theories and practice of montage would have a direct impact on Anger’s future work, starting with the astonishing Eaux d’Artifice (1953).
Shot in the famous water gardens of the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, a marvel of 16th-century engineering and baroque imagination, Eaux d’Artifice deploys two ingenious formal strategies. Circus midget Carmilla Salvatorelli was flamboyantly costumed and sent wandering the gardens, her four-foot frame the only reference point of scale, resulting in a splendidly subtle warping of perspective. The film was shot on black-and-white film through a red filter, then printed on color stock with a blue one, lending the image a ghostly luminescence. Part trance film, part landscape study, part rapturous abstraction, Eaux d’Artifice floats along on sensuous dissolves and builds to one of the most visionary (and moist) climaxes in the Anger oeuvre. Some kind of evocation indeed: It is, somehow, his sexiest film.
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) has the coolest title of any Anger film and many fans, though I’ve always found it a tad tedious. An orgiastic fantasia of mythic personages, crazy costumes, pancake makeup, hallucinatory superimposition, and lysergic colors, Pleasure Dome posits a model of pagan cine-ritual that would reach fuller expression in later works.
For all his emphasis on magic, myth, symbol, and rite, Anger is as material a filmmaker as Brakhage. Puce Moment (1949) opens with a voluptuous shuffle of evening gowns in close-up, a rainbow shimmy of silk, chiffon, sequins, and beads. Emerging from the dazzle is Yvonne Marquis, styled like a Warholian Elizabeth Taylor, who proceeds to dress, primp, and prepare for the day, finally exiting her Hollywood Hills abode leading a pack of wolfhounds on leash. Afragment of an abandoned feature about Hollywood women of the 1920s, Puce Moment crystallizes Anger’s feverish obsession with the dream factory and his genius for wresting master pieces from aborted projects.