Judge Joe Armenio looks back in Anger.
"…[T]he structure, the form, the feel of these films appears to be
less invented than received, from a source hidden from the rest of
The former Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer (born 1927), native of Southern California, avant-garde filmmaker, occultist, bohemian, and chronicler of Hollywood scandal, was already making mature and lasting work when he was twenty years old, and this Fantoma release contains five of the short experimental works that he produced from 1947 through 1954. Anger is a Hollywood-raised surrealist, an artist whose interest in dreams and the irrational is inseparable from his love of the glamour and artifice of the movies. At the core of all his films is the tension between the real and the artificial, between the world and the way the artist shapes it.
Facts of the Case
This disc, the first of two Anger releases in 2007, contains his early films Fireworks (1947), Puce Moment (1949), Rabbit's Moon (1950), Eaux d'Artifice (1953), and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954).
Anger says that Fireworks was inspired by a dream of the Zoot Suit riots, wartime incidents in which soldiers stationed in Los Angeles attacked zoot suit-clad Hispanic youths. Anger shot the film in his parents' house, over a single weekend while they were away; he himself plays a young man who passes through a door marked "Gents" and encounters a bodybuilding sailor. When he propositions the man by asking him to light his cigarette, a group of sailors attacks and beats him. With its dream-logic and focus on images of sexuality and violence, the film is Anger's most classically surreal; in its exploration of troubled adolescent sexuality and its association of homosexuality with violence (and finally with a kind of liberation), it is also one his most immediately personal. In one memorable image, blood spurts from Anger's nostrils; in a (literally) visceral sequence, Anger's attackers rummage through his insides in search of his heart, turning up an electrical meter instead. Compared to the other films on the disc, the images are stark and rough, less obviously stylized. There are, however, some moments of mysterious, abstract, almost serene beauty, such as the night shots of cars on the highway, the halos of their headlights interrupting the blackness.
The star of Puce Moment is a rack of vividly colored gowns, formerly worn by silent film actresses and bequeathed to Anger by his costume designer grandmother. As the film's only human character, played by Yvonne Marquis, flips through the gowns in search of something to wear, the camera focuses on them in close-up, allowing them a life of their own, a sort of dance. Eventually she picks out a dark-purplish number, (the "puce" of the title), applies some perfume, and reclines on a chaise lounge; throughout the film Anger adjusts his camera speed to give her movements the slightly jerky quality of silent film projection. The chair, with Marquis in it, glides mysteriously to the deck, where she prepares to walk her four dogs (borzoi, a popular Hollywood dog, as Anger points out). It's a short piece, about six minutes, whimsical and mildly creepy, as opposed to the ferocity and angst of Fireworks. Anger had planned a longer film called Puce Women, of which Puce Moment was to be the "mid-day" segment, but he was never able to complete the movie.
This disc contains the 16-minute cut of 1950's Rabbit's Moon, a film which has been more widely seen in a truncated version (this shorter Rabbit's Moon is on the second volume of Fantoma's Anger collection). Anger made the film over four weeks in the Films de Pantheon studio in Paris, using French mimes ("from Marcel Marceau's school," Anger says) as actors. Rabbit's Moon is Anger's take on the Commedia dell'arte tradition, featuring a melancholy Pierrot, who begins the film alone in the forest. He pines for a cutout moon until his solitude is disrupted by Harlequin, who conjures an image of Columbine from a magic lantern. The pantomime is accompanied by a soundtrack of doo-wop songs (Anger obviously made his soundtrack choices years after the original film was shot). The pop songs create a effective contrast to the somewhat fey aestheticism of the pantomime, and they comment wittily on the action ("There's a Moon Out Tonight" by the Capris and "Oh What a Night" by the Dells are two of the selections). Shot in 35mm black-and-white with a blue tint, the images dominated by a silvery movie-set forest, Rabbit's Moon is an extraordinary-looking film, an unabashed celebration of artifice (Anger says that the film's look was influenced by old Hollywood's master of the artificial, Josef von Sternberg).
1953's Eaux d'artifice was shot in Garden of the Villa D'Este in Tivoli, Italy, a spectacular water garden full of cascading fountains and baroque statues. The only human figure is a woman in what seems to be an 18th century dress, who strolls through the park (eventually her movements get more fevered, and in the end she seems to become one with the water). Anger chose a dwarf for the role, a woman who was recommended to him to Federico Fellini, in order to make the park itself seem larger. In a way this is one of Anger's more elemental films, in its focus on the interplay of water, light, and stone, but it is also intensely stylized, shot on black-and-white film through heavy red filters. (The resulting images of flowing, cascading water suggest another masterpiece of the American avant-garde, Ralph Steiner's H2O.) Eaux d'artifice might seem at first glance to be an anomaly in Anger's work, but I think it's a key work which represents his purely formal concerns, divorced from his usual mythological and esoteric preoccupations. The film bears the same relationship to the water park as the park does to the water and stone which are its materials; both film and park are wildly stylized manipulations of reality, celebrations of the tension between the real and the fake.
By contrast, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, the longest film on the disc at 38 minutes, revels in myth and the occult. The film was inspired by a Halloween party at which guests were invited to "Come As Your Madness"; Anger gathered a group of bohemians at the home of Samson De Brier (described by Anger as a "Hollywood recluse") to recreate the gathering. The film follows the cryptic revels of elaborately costumed and painted figures who each represent some figure from the mythology of the Greeks, the Egyptians, or the occultist Aleister Crowley, of whom Anger was a follower. They gaze into the camera, consume some sort of ambrosia, assess and consult and conspire with each other (silently; like the other films on this disc, Inauguration is dialogue-free, and this time the music is courtesy of Leos Janacek). I personally have no real affinity for the myths that Anger held so dear, so I value the film mostly as a riot of color, of a green-painted face or a yellow dress, a swirl of red against a black background. It's also an interesting documentary of sorts on an outsider's Hollywood in the 1950s; the most famous figure in the film is the novelist and sexual adventurer Anais Nin.
All of the films on the disc have undergone extensive restoration, and Fantoma proves it with the impressive "Restoration Demonstration" which accompanies each film, comparing the restored movie with previous versions. Anger himself provides commentaries on all the films, and uses the opportunity to talk about the circumstances of production and to reflect occasionally on the meanings that he intended in his movies. They aren't chatty commentary tracks, and Anger doesn't take the opportunity to gossip, or to reflect on his beliefs or vision of cinema. Some may find this disappointing, but as one who's ambivalent about the value of commentary tracks, I found his restraint admirable. A few minutes of outtakes from Rabbit's Moon is the only other extra. The disc comes with a 48-page booklet, which I found attractive but slightly disappointing. Instead of featuring an in-depth essay or two about Anger, it instead consists mostly of credits, stills, and drawings, including some of Anger's plans for the unrealized Puce Women. Martin Scorsese provides a brief introduction to Anger, and the booklet reproduces Anais Nin's "Come As Your Madness" and an excerpt from Samson De Brier's "The Making of The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome."
Anger is a major figure in the history of the American avant-garde, and has been highly influential among narrative filmmakers as well. His most famous film, Scorpio Rising, can be found on the second disc of Fantoma's Anger series, but these five are certainly major works in themselves.
"We all felt we needed to know the meaning of Kenneth's dream, so we could act in it. But he did not confide in us."—Anais Nin
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentaries on All Films by Kenneth Anger
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