Thursday, June 18, 2009


"What's terrible about the cinema," Roland Barthes remarked at the dawn of the Nouvelle Vague, "is that it makes the monstrous viable." Kenneth Anger concurs: "I've always considered movies evil; the day cinema was invented was a black day for mankind." The Luciferian auteur's oeuvre is a form of magical combat, a synaesthetic spell against the structure of consensus reality. In 1986 Mystic Fire Video released Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle on four long-out-of-print cassettes, while BFI later issued the films as three volumes of its History of the Avant-Garde (a label, along with "underground," Anger abjures). Fantoma's long-anticipated two-volume restoration allows viewers to (re)visit his equinoctial gems with the renewed wonder they deserve. Anger unleashes more dynamism in these nine shorts than most directors manage in a lifetime of feature filmmaking.

The artist, born Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer in 1927, evolved under the double spell of the cinematograph and the mountebank mage, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Anger's career is tangled in contradictions, if not downright dishonesty; he's as steadfast a self-mythologizer as the Great Beast himself. He claims to have appeared in several of the 1930's Baby Burlesks parodies, as well as--more pertinently--to have portrayed the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt and William Dierterle's extravagant A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935). Though casting logs and call sheets identify the performer in question as a girl named Sheila Brown, Anger's unofficial biographer, the late Bill Landis, insisted that Anger is indeed the Prince--an assertion challenged anew in historian Scott McQueen's audio commentary for Warner Brothers' recent Midsummer disc.

The fledgling artist staged puppet shows for friends and began making movies with his parents' wind-up sixteen-millimeter camera. He graduated from an interest in the French occultist Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) to the Thelemic work of Crowley, the Englishman who translated Levi's The Key of the Mysteries and proclaimed himself, among other outrageous identities, the magician's reincarnation. It is Crowley's antic post-Christian spirit that animates Anger's filmography, as well as his occasional literary endeavors. Mikita Brotman has argued that Anger was the first artist for whom "film, properly used and respected, is a spiritual form, a magical ceremony involving the display of trapped light." The Magick Lantern facilitates Crowley's "raising of the whole man in perfect balance to the power of Infinity," uniting microcosm with macrocosm through the incantatory medium of celluloid.