Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Cinema Strange #2. Kenneth Anger #1. Fireworks (1947), Puce Moment (1949), Rabbit's Moon (1950/1971)

Rabbit's Moon (1950/1971) by Kenneth Anger.

Born on 3rd February 1927 in Santa Monica, California, Kenneth Anger is one of the most well-regarded underground filmmakers of all time, an experimental magician who helped innovate cinema in the 40s/50s with his gritty brand of short films - often surreally disturbing, they celebrate homosexuality, rock music and the occult.

In order to understand his films, as far as they can be understood at all, one must first know of Anger's history of deception, myth spreading and involvement in the bizarre. He claims to have got a head-start in the film industry with a role as a child prince in Warner Bros./MGM's A Midsummer Night's Dream (William Dieterle, Max Reinhardt, 1935), but historians have actually proven the part was played by a little girl (Shelia Brown), to which Anger rebutted that his mother, a studio seamstress, had dressed him like a girl - which Gary Lachman, author of the BFI notes to the Magick Lantern Cycle release, notes as the likely beginning of Anger's fascination with gender, and "psycho-sexual transformations associated with magick and alchemy". Another example is found in Anger's alleged storming of the Film-Makers' Cooperative offices, and burning of the existing prints of his earliest films including Ferdinand And The Bull (1937) and Prisoner Of Mars (1943); of course, these dates would place him as 10 and 16 respectively, young even for a man famed for lying about his age (he claims to have made Fireworks, 1947, aged 17 - he was 20). Endlessly fascinating, Anger has a strange connection to the warped back-woods culture too - star of Lucifer Rising (1970-1981) Bobby Beausoleil stole the original print and gave it to Charles Manson, whose own killing spree would be ignited after Beausoleil, under Manson's instructions, took hostage and stabbed to death musician Gary Hinman, for the sake of a suspected inheritance - but Anger also has a connection to the world of real magic.

One of the first openly gay filmmakers, Anger changed his name from Kenneth Wilbur Anglemeyer while growing up in Beverly Hills (so he claims), which puts him in closer proximity with the excessive glamour of Hollywood than his probably more humble upbringing suggests. Attached to the stars from childhood Anger grew up on the films of Méliès (Le voyage dans la lune, 1902) but is famous for his admiration for magician Aleister Crowley (aka The Great Beast 666, providing an instant link to Anger's work), who faked his own suicide in 1930, only to turn up at an exhibition of his work in Berlin, much to the shock of his grieving fans who had turned out in their droves to celebrate the misunderstood genuis, who developed his real cult following in the swinging, psychedelic 60s, ending up as one of the faces on The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers album cover. Anger, fittingly, would take out a Village Voice ad stating the death of his career in 1967, reading 'In Memoriam. Kenneth Anger. Filmmaker 1947 - 1967.' Of course he was alive and well, mingling with the likes of Anton LaVey (Church Of Satan founder), Alfred Kinsey (sexologist), Jean Cocteau (artist and filmmaker) and Mick Jagger (musician; The Rolling Stones), at which point he was likely also a member of the Ordo Templi Orientalis, a Thelemetic organization (Thelema was a philosophical religion created by Crowley, of which he believed himself to be the prophet). Now, onto the films...

1. Fireworks (1947)
Narrator (Anger): "In Fireworks, I released all the explosive pyrotechnics of a dream. Inflammable desires dampened by day under the cold water of consciousness are ignited that night by the libertarian matches of sleep, and burst forth in showers of shimmering incandescence. These imaginary displays provide a temporary relief."

The story of a young gay man (played by Anger, named Dreamer) who is brutally beaten and raped by navy sailors after trying to pick one of them up in a bar, Fireworks was a controversy upon exhibition in 1948 as Anger was arrested after the films premiere on charges of obscenity. The case was thrown out of the California Supreme Court on the grounds of the film being a work of art, a view also shared by James Whale (legendary out director of Frankenstein, 1931) and playwright Tennessee Williams. As well being being a deeply personal film, Fireworks is also something of a homage to the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein (especially Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925), who Anger briefly addresses in the essay 'Modesty and the Art of Film (Cahiers du cinéma, 1951). It is perhaps apt that the essay appeared here, as it was the nouvelle vague initiator/rebel Jean-Luc Godard himself who printed the information that during his time in France during the 1950s (where most of his later films were shot) Anger edited a version of Eisenstein's ¡Que viva Mexico! (1932). As a work of art Fireworks is an extraordinarily brave and accomplished work, beautifully shot in black and white and with a delicate score accompanying the final dazzling sequences; after killing Dreamer, the navy sailors rip open his chest (horrifically peeling back layers of skin and flesh), only to reveal a clock ticking inside. The Dreamer is now dead, but wakes up next to another man. Anger would later say of the film "this flick is all I have to say about being 17", but what he likely meant to say was 17 for him, as the clock likely represents a countdown to death as initiated by AIDS, a very real threat for homosexual men in the early 1940s, who were experimenting without precaution. The man he wakes up to is likely the literal personification of the nightmare, as one of the final shots of the dream sees a sailor standing over Dreamer, then cutting to a close-up of the victims beaten face and body as a thick white liquid pours over it - frequently interpreted as semen, which could represent the climax of the lovers in the real world. Anger also said the film was a statement on "the United States Navy, American Christmas and the Fourth Of July." Exactly what he meant by that, only repeat viewings shall tell...

2. Puce Moment (1949)
Essentially a 6-minute love letter to Hollywood and the starlets that lit up the silent screen of his youth, Puce Moment is Anger's least angry film - presented more like a music video, it's actually one of his most enjoyable. He would say of the films subjects "They were to be filmed in their homes; I was, in effect, filming ghosts." The film begins with folk rock music (originally it was released with Verdi opera music, but Anger added the music of Jonathan Halper in 1966) playing over a static shot of 1920s style flapper gowns being taken off a dress rack - and flying toward the screen like a ghost were inhabiting them. The dresses belonged to Anger's grandmother, a costume designer in the silent film era, which only adds to his bizarre pre-connection to Hollywood. A glamourous actress, played by Yvonne Marquis, dresses in the sparkling puce gown in a surrealistic sequence which uses alternating camera speeds and colour-tinting in the editing of the sequence. Marquis applies perfume before Borzois appear and she takes them for a walk, in a peculiarly low-angled final shot. The film is only 6 minutes long as that's all Anger could afford at the time - his next project, The Love That Whirls (1949) was to be destroyed by technicians for containing nudity that they deemed inappropriate and offensive.

3. Rabbit's Moon (1950/1971)
After receiving an excitable letter from filmmaker Jean Cocteau (he was a fan of Fireworks) Anger moved to Paris in 1950 and set himself up at the Films du Panthéon Studio. He began work on a film called Rabbit's Moon (working under the title of La Lune des lapins), an avant-garde concoction of Japanese mythology and Commedia dell'arte (a theatrical sort of mime, based on 'types', or personalities, that originates from Italy). Using popular doo-wop songs of the time (The Capris, The Dells and The Flamingos among them) the film tells the story of a lonely clown named Pierrot (André Soubeyran) who pines for the moon, and reaches for it - for inside lies a white rabbit. Pierrot tries and tries again, romantically reaching for the stars, but always falls to the floor of the blue forest which he inhabits, which resembles a theatrical stage. Another clown suddenly appears - an exuberant force, he wears a darker costume; his name is Harlequin (Claude Revenant). The music still plays as Harlequin seemingly threatens Pierrot, but he soon reveals the sight of a beautiful woman named Columbine (Nadine Valence; in Commedia dell'arte Columbina (little dove) is Harlequin's mistress, and a comic fool - the slave). Pierrot immediately falls for her, but he fails to win her heart. Poor Pierrot, heartbroken, is then shown the entrance to a mysterious realm, supposedly on the moon, where he finds the rabbit, and Columbine and Harlequin dancing in perfect motion. To the sound of The El Dorado's (Tears On My Pillow) Pierrot throws himself from the moon, resulting in his death as he crash lands back onto the harsh land of the forest. Anger was forced to leave production in 1950 but he kept the footage at the Cinémathèque Française, which he retrieved it from in 1970, finally releasing it in 1972. Anger re-edited and re-scored an alternative 7-minute version in 1979, which used the obscure track 'It Came In The Night' by British band A Raincoat, on a loop. The film was sped up and more surreal, but the original 1950 version remains one of Anger's definitive works... beautifully shot and performed, the perfect music cues define this as a mini-masterpiece.

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