Forget anger management, after these films Judge Jesse Ataide now needs therapy...or an exorcism.
"He is the original queer cinema maker."—Gus Van Sant
Every time you turn on your television set it's impossible to avoid the imprints of Kenneth Anger's influence on nearly everything that flashes across the screen. More widely known for his dishy Hollywood exposés Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II than his influential body of short films, the maverick director, along with his contemporary Andy Warhol, explored the ways commonplace images and objects can be subverted to project different meanings. But Anger's most lasting and pervasive influence (to which everybody from Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson to every non-reality television show is heavily indebted) is his innovative use of pop songs as the basis for a film soundtrack.
Facts of the Case
Earlier this year, Fantoma Films released The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 1, which contained six films from Anger's early career: Fireworks, Rabbit's Moon (1950 version), Eaux d'artifice, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, and Puce Moment.
The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 2 includes nearly all the films of the second half of Anger's career: Kustom Kar Kommandos, Invocation of My Demon Brother, the 1979 version of Rabbit's Moon, Lucifer Rising, and perhaps most importantly, Anger's most famous film, Scorpio Rising. Similar themes, images, obsessions, and neuroses pulse through these films, though Anger utilizes wildly different approaches—leather-clad bikers in Scorpio Rising on down to the pyramids of ancient Egypt in Lucifer Rising—to explore different facets of sexuality, queer identity, occultism, religious rituals, modern technology, and machinery, among other things. Some of the films are more successful than others, but taken as a whole they form a really fascinating film experience.
The set starts out with Scorpio Rising (1964), a half hour short that is almost certainly Anger's most well-known and influential film. Enlisting a gang of bikers that he had befriended, the first half of the film essentially follows various members of the gang around, almost documentary-like, quietly observing as they work on their beloved motorcycles, carefully adorn themselves in their leather biking regalia, and hang out in their cluttered garages and tawdry bedrooms. The second half is more frenzied, featuring what appears to be a gay orgy, the desecration of a church altar and a bike race that culminates in tragedy.
Scorpio Rising showcases Anger in peak form as both an experimental visionary and a social commentator. Much like Warhol—another pioneering queer artist—Anger appropriates countless familiar, commonplace items and slyly refashions them into means to simultaneously celebrate and condemn modern society and its preoccupation with technology, machinery, celebrity, and the general commodification of both individual and group identity. Through a number of disparate images and objects—chrome, leather, James Dean, Marlon Brando, shots of Jesus gleaned from a grainy Sunday school film, comic books, swastikas, skulls, and crosses—Anger layers, remixes and cheekily plays with the contradictions of the connotations each image and object hold. Along the way, Anger was one of the first to really identify and explore the inherent homoeroticism found in the camaraderie and exclusivity of biker gangs and the cult that sprung up around (bisexual) actors James Dean and Marlon Brando.
Adding additional layers of irony—and the main reason why many thought Scorpio Rising would never see a legitimate DVD release—is the soundtrack Anger fashioned out of 1960's Billboard hits, which now plays more or less like a greatest hits list of the decade. From Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet" (he got to it before David Lynch did, Anger smirks on his commentary) to the Angel's "My Boyfriend's Back" as well as hits by Elvis Presley, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Ricky Nelson, the Crystals, Ray Charles, and others—Anger compiled what he now admits is a "million dollar soundtrack." The effect is brilliant, as the calculated innocence of the lyrics and melodies take on new, subverted meanings when paired with images of motorcycles, leather jackets, and groups of men boozing it up. All in all, Scorpio Rising is one of the landmark films of American experimental cinema and, going one step farther, the case could certainly be made that Scorpio Rising is one of the great films of American cinema. It's worth seeking out this collection just to experience it. But that would mean missing out on a number of other interesting shorts, including:
Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), a three-minute short originally intended as a much longer film that was abandoned due to lack of funds and the untimely death of the main actor, further delves into the seemingly erotic charge some men get from their cars and motorcycles. As a muscled young blonde lovingly runs his hands and a fluffy white duster over the gleaming metal of his car to strains of "Dream Lover," it not only brings to mind the ancient myth of Pygmalion (an artist who fell in love with a statue he had created), but also serves as sobering indictment of a youth culture that was increasingly centering its obsessions onto the fleeting thrills—and dangers—of the speed and sensations of the car culture.
With Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) Anger is at his most abstract. Anger himself appears as character called "the Magus" somewhere among the lightening-fast shots of the head of an albino man, scenes from Satanic and other occult rituals, Hells Angels, Egyptian eyes, footage of the Rolling Stones in concert and psychedelic bursts of color. Mick Jagger, a friend of Anger's at the time, composed the repetitious (headache-prone would more accurately describe the lines of "droning") synthesizer score. There's a narrative embedded within the jarring imagery, revolving around British occultist Aleister Crowley's interest in "the passionate union of opposites," (Anger's commentary is very helpful in this respect) but I tend to find the most apt characterization of the film comes from Anger himself, who says that the short is "a fragment made in a fury…the last blast of Haight consciousness." In a way, Invocation of My Demon Brother plays like an arty music video—though ironically, for the first time on The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 2, a pop song soundtrack is conspicuously absent.
The 1979 version of Rabbit's Moon, a reworking of a short film Anger had made in 1950, couldn't be more radically different than Invocation of My Demon Brother. A whimsical fairy tale indebted to silent film aesthetics, Japanese mythology, and the poetic cinema of Jean Cocteau (an early Anger proponent who allowed Anger the use of his Paris studio to film Rabbit's Moon), it's a quick pantomime about a Pierrot with a moon obsession. A Harlequin and then a Columbine—all characters from the Commedia dell'Arte tradition—appear to distract the smitten Pierrot, to no avail. Compared with some of Anger's other films, Rabbit's Moon might come off as too slight, but it's a charming film that shows a different side to the seemingly relentless darkness and…well…anger of most of Anger's other work.
In some ways, the backstory of Lucifer Rising (1981) overshadows the film itself. The one found in this set is actually the second version of the film—the first, a follow-up to Scorpio Rising in the mid 1960's, is rumored to have been buried in the California desert by Bobby Beausoleil, a young experimental musician playing the film's title character before gaining international notoriety (and jail time) for being a member of the Manson Family. Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page was tapped to provide a score for the second, completely re-shot version of Lucifer Rising, but when Anger was unimpressed with Page's final score, it was none other than the prison-bound Beausoleil who offered to write another score. Anger agreed and, according to IMDb, the resulting soundtrack is the only film score ever completely recorded in prison (Beausoleil describes the process in detail in an essay found in the set's accompanying booklet).
But for all the fascinating rumors surrounding the film, Lucifer Rising is one of the highlights of this set. Not a sequel or even a follow-up to Scorpio Rising as the title would seem to suggest, Lucifer Rising is set in ancient Egypt among the pyramids and towering statues of Egyptian gods, and features Anger the filmmaker at his most epic and, in many ways, his most elegant. With long, enigmatic shots of people dressed as walking mythological figures—including a stoic, gray-faced Marianne Faithful as Lilith—Anger weaves together elements of mythology with the natural world into a meditation on non-Christian rituals and religiosity that is, rather atypically for Anger, more prosaic than confrontational. It's a beautiful often hypnotic film, enhanced by Beausoleil's alternately pulsating and ethereal score.
It's obvious that Fantoma is proud of the restoration work they have put into these films, for each is accompanied by a "Restoration Demonstration" featurette that shows several examples of the work performed on the general image quality of every film (and judging from several of the examples, the restoration process was quite extensive). The image quality varies greatly—there's a great difference between the quality of Scorpio Rising, the oldest film on this set, and Lucifer Rising, the most recent—most likely due to factors such as difference in budgets and equipment. It's the same with the audio quality, though it must be said that the Bobby Beausoleil's score for Lucifer Rising sounds absolutely terrific.
Along with the restoration demonstrations, each film is accompanied by a commentary from Anger himself. Those expecting the man behind Hollywood Babylon to offer up juicy insights into his films are going to be largely disappointed, though he does have a few gossipy tidbits to offer about Marianne Faithful and her drug habits on Lucifer Rising. But more often than not Anger is matter-of-fact in his presentation, focused on interpreting his dense symbolism and obscure narrative threads (which is admittedly helpful), and occasionally commenting on these productions and people involved. The other bonus features include an alternate score for Invocation of My Demon Brother, which is made of fragments of Beausoleil's supposedly "lost" original score for the first version of Lucifer Rising; and the short film The Man We Want to Hang (2002), one of Anger's most recent forays into filmmaking, which is a documentary-like look at the colorful, rather grotestque artwork of Anger hero and famed occultist Aleister Crowley. The most valuable bonus feature is certainly the 40-page booklet accompanying this set. Containing an introduction by Martin Scorsese and essays by Gus Van Sant and Guy Maddin, the generally fawning comments and tributes offered up by these significant directors serve as further proof of Anger's profound and continuing influence on contemporary cinema. Also quite interesting and enlightening is an extensive interview with Beausoleil on his involvement in the first, fated production of Lucifer Rising (though he doesn't elaborate on some of the more fascinating rumors), as well as the production of his score for the second version. Overall, it's an extremely well presented booklet full of stills and loaded with great information.
Obviously the subject matter and experimental style won't appeal to all tastes, but serious film fans should be required to spend a little time acquainting themselves with this rather enigmatic cinematic figure and his body of work that until now has been extremely elusive. And I can't think of a better way to do that than with The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 2.
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Scales of Justice
• Screen specific audio commentaries by Kenneth Anger
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