Aside from cursing Roger Ebert’s prostate six years ago, what has Kenneth Anger been up to lately? The recent DVD editions of his classics have cemented his status as a godhead of postwar cinema—not that it was ever in doubt. His enchantment has also breached the white cube. Like the art world’s belated celebration of Jonas Mekas, Anger’s dark star has been rising in places like the Whitney, where pride of place in the 2006 Biennial went to an installation of his work, and P.S.1, where a retrospective of his canonical films is now on view—on video.
Local cinephiles largely balked at the P.S.1 show, imported from Germany’s Künstlerhaus Bremen, where the womb-like plastic curtains, video screens, and floor-level elements rejiggered the celluloid magician for the gallery space. Film snobbery is, as ever, at play in the beef, and not without reason: Witnessing Anger’s voluptuously stylized films well projected on a good print remains one of the cinema’s transformative encounters.
Setting aside the fact that he supports the P.S.1 contextualization (co-curator Klaus Biesenbach confirms that Anger was “very appreciative” of the installation), Anger is now—deal with it—essentially a video artist. For some years, “A Film by Anger” has been a misnomer, as evinced by the two-hour program of recent work, all on video, screening this weekend at Anthology Film Archives.
As if in response to his recent retrospectives, most of the new titles function as a memorial of one kind or another—a look back in Anger. Half the program qualifies as sentimental marginalia. The Man We Want to Hang (2002) and Brush of Baphomet (2009) offer slideshows of the paintings and drawings of Aleister Crowley. Elliott’s Suicide (2007) is a poignant, uncomplicated eulogy for the departed songwriter Elliott Smith. My Surfing Lucifer (2008) dashes hopes of a sequel to the magisterial Lucifer Rising (1970–1980), presenting a straightforward homage to a surfer buddy catching waves to “Good Vibrations.”
Sportier yet is program highlight Foreplay (2008), a portrait of soccer lads at practice. Delivering on the eroticization of its title, this flurry of taught limbs, choreographed routines, and ball play, charged with intermittent bursts of club techno, suggests a California riff on the hieratic fantasias of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail—or the setup for a gay-porn orgy.
The longest, most ambitious of the new videos is Ich Will! (2008). The culmination of 10 years’ archival research, this ecstatic montage of Nazi youth daringly bids to recoup the élan vital of fresh-faced proto-fascists. Scored to Bruckner bombast, the carefully calibrated montage organizes horseplay, bonhomie, calisthenics, and rituals of discipline into a queer fantasy of halcyon homosocialism. The mood darkens through increasing regimentation and abstraction, climaxing in the mechanized spectacles of mass Nazi rallies. Ich Will! documents the manufacture of raw material into product, innocence subsumed by ideology.
The magic, it must be said, is decidedly subdued in late Anger, though Mouse Heaven (2005) revives something of the master’s impish touch. “I’m Your Puppet,” croons 1960’s r&b duo James & Bobby Purify over an animated array of Mickey Mouse memorabilia. Advancing Anger’s enduring fascination with Hollywood as “matrix and adversary,” in the words of film scholar P. Adams Sitney, Mouse Heaven surveys the Mouse as robot, automaton, simulacrum, and secret agent of control.