Thursday, June 18, 2009


The Films of Kenneth Anger, Volume One covers the first half of the director's Cycle, from finished projects to fragments and fragments to finished projects. (Regrettably, such teenage efforts as Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat [1941], The Nest [1943], and Demigods [1944] are nowhere to be found and likely no longer exist.) The set opens with the Prix Henri Chometter-award-winning Fireworks (1947; B/W, 15 minutes), lensed at Anger's parents' house when the Anglemyers were out of town (though Anger's brother Bob has located the shoot elsewhere), and unreleased for two years. J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum have credited its creator with "provok[ing] the first major scandal of American avant-garde" cinema, and it's easy to see why: when Anger's hallucinatory homoeroticism was unspooled at London's Royal Film Society in 1950, the Indian Ambassador's wife cried, "That film should be burned," and left in a righteous huff. Seven years later, exhibitor Raymond Rohauer was convicted of disseminating obscenity for reviving Fireworks at his legendary Coronet Theatre. His conviction was overturned in 1959 by the California State Supreme Court, which imperiously declared "that homosexuality is not to be approved of, but society should understand its causes and effects." Sexologist Alfred C. Kinsey was so impressed with the picture that he obtained a copy for his archives; this marked the beginning of Anger's decades-long relationship with the Institute, for which he did volunteer research.

Anger has pronounced Fireworks "all I have to say about being seventeen, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July." The Dreamer (Anger) wakes from his troubled sleep to cruise a darkened men's room, which opens into an alternative universe of freeways, a painted bar backdrop Anger liberated from an old western set, and swooning sexual violence. He encounters a body-building sailor (Bill Seltzer), who shows off by flexing his muscles and walking on his hands. Anger is swatted by Seltzer when he produces a cigarette and asks for a light (a common enough come-on, but one which, in Anger's psychoverse, contains magnetic resonance), has his arm twisted by another sailor, and is finally scourged by several chain-wielding tars, who rip open his chest to reveal a ticking electrometer. Anger's Eleusinian mini-epic offers male sadomasochism as mystery initiation, achieving apotheosis in the notorious money shot (seamen/semen) of a Roman candle phallus. Anger's subsequent transmogrification into a Christmas tree, which is consumed in the family fireplace, echoes his earlier Tinsel Tree (1942), while ritually lampooning the cult of the Dying Father. Sacrifice, a theme permeating Anger's work, would find further release in other projects, from the killing of an Aztec prince in 1950's Golden Bough-inspired The Love That Whirls--destroyed on grounds of obscenity, a then-frequent practice, by the Comstocks at Eastman-Kodak--to the more overtly Crowleyan ceremonies of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Lucifer Rising.

Anger prepared at least five different versions of Fireworks, two of which (an early draft and a 1966 hand-painted print) are lost. Anger's friend and fellow filmmaker, Ed Earle, notes that the sequence of the Dreamer lying naked in a public urinal was originally longer and contained additional violence. The director's narrated prologue has been restored by UCLA from the surviving prints; the original negative A/B rolls are themselves lost, leaving only positive copies. (Mystic Fire's and BFI's print, which contained red-lettered title and end cards, does not appear here but would have made a nice supplement; the title card is reproduced in the set's lavish booklet.) Emulsion scratches are present but scarcely distracting; if anything, they enhance the film's rich rawness. The source music, a melancholically martial excerpt from Ottorino Respighi's "The Pines of Rome," alternates with silence throughout. According to Anger, the original release also contained music by Ernest Schelling, but it is not retained in any video version.

The director states in his commentary that Fireworks was inspired by a dream, which was itself generated by Los Angeles' infamous Zoot Suit Riots. He identifies the actors as soldiers studying combat photography at the University of Southern California, though Earles has described the men as "tricks who had no inhibitions." Whatever the truth is (and that's sometimes a quantum question where this artist is concerned), Anger recalls them with obvious affection and protests that, despite his protagonist, he himself is an adamant non-smoker.