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New Films from Kenneth Anger

Anthology Film Archives, Showing July 18-19

American avant-garde underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger has been at it for 60 years, and though his new films may be lacking somewhat in iconic, jaw-dropping imagery, and the dark, aesthetic superiority his earlier works possess, they are unmistakably his. Anger has made nearly forty films over the course of his career, 15 of which are now considered “lost.” Recurring themes in Anger’s films, to name a few:  Nazis, satanic rituals, homoerotism, celebrities, drugs, fetishism, studded leather, and the consumption of large, shiny rubies.  Dialogue in Anger’s films is non-existent, rather he scores his work to music ranging from opera and classical to 1960s pop to Mick Jagger tooling around in Invocation of my Demon Brother (1969), producing a demonic, monotonous track on the then-new invention, the Moog synthesizer. The score to Anger’s 1980 film, Lucifer Rising, was the first and only soundtrack ever to be recorded in prison by Bobby Beausoleil, Anger’s friend who appeared in Invocation of my Demon Brother, and who is serving a life sentence after being convicted for the murder of Gary Hinman (per order of Charles Manson). Beausoleil was granted permission to record the music for the film with several other inmates after Jimmy Page (who makes a brief appearance in Lucifer) failed to deliver the music because, according to Anger, he was too strung out. Anger’s work is as fascinating as his life. He attended the Maurice Kossloff dancing school with Shirley Temple and Judy Garland, and wrote the tell-all book Hollywood Babylon, exposing the lives and scandals of early Hollywood. While viewing Anger’s work one has the rare experience of seeing though the eyes of a voyeur, obsessed with his hauntingly beautiful, violent, glittering, grotesque, demonic, and overtly sexual subject matter.  Anger’s films are an overstimulation to the senses, and the majority of his work is not for the faint of heart, or those afraid of the darker side of life.

<i>The Man We Want to Hang.</i>
The Man We Want to Hang.

The Man We Want to Hang
(2002, 15 min, video)

Anger is blessed with the ability to bring the lifeless to life with a camera. Much like the shots of the devil statues spouting water in Eaux d’Artifice (1953), the documentation in The Man We Want To Hang of the artwork of English occultist Aleister Crowley has a similar effect: creeeeepy.  Anger became fascinated with Crowley in his late teens, even dedicated his 1954 film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome to him. Crowley founded the religion of Thelema, among other occult-related organizations, and is given perhaps the best description ever on Wikipedia:  occultist, writer, mountaineer, poet, spy, yogi, chess player, painter, astrologer, hedonist, bisexual, drug experimenter, and social critic. He was also dubbed “the wickedest man in the world.” The Man We Want To Hang is shot in digital, and scored with rather upbeat classical music. The soundtrack is an odd juxtaposition against the film’s content: 666 pendants, sketches of horned beasts, fanged devils, and serpents. Interestingly, many of the drawings have a naiveté, and could almost be the work of a child. A colored pencil drawing of a man standing behind a woman, at first glance, appears elementary. But Anger holds the shot fifteen seconds too long, zooms in, and forces one to meditate on it. The woman holds a serpent, which is wrapped around the side of her face and rests on her head, smiling. Her eyes look dazed, unfocused, and drugged. Behind her a devil-man stands, arms wrapped around her, and his eyes, unlike hers, are hyper-alert, and one sinister eyebrow is raised. There are long pauses between songs, producing eerie silences as the camera moves slowly, like a ghost, over tight, fragmented shots of black rimmed eyes, elongated noses, and pointed chins. A drawing of a red-hooded posse carrying a beast towards an asymmetrical, far-off castle in the clouds possesses similarities to Invocation of My Demon Brother, where a strange procession of red-cloaked Satanists march, carrying sacrificial objects, overlapped with footage of a group smoking pot out of a skull, and of a cat being burned alive.

Foreplay (2008, 7 min, video)

Leave it to Kenneth Anger to turn footage of a very non-professional men’s soccer team warming up for practice into a sweaty, sexy, homoerotic seven minutes.  Rarely does an entire figure appear in Foreplay, but rather snippets of sweaty, twitching muscles, well-endowed groins, and sculpted calves kicking balls, producing flesh-slapping sound effects to a score of techno music. Initially Foreplay looks like a crappy home video of soccer practice, but it’s also reminiscent of Anger’s pop/fetish films Scorpio Rising (1963) and Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965).

My Surfing Lucifer (2008, 5 min, video)

My Surfing Lucifer is a brief, rather uneventful but nonetheless enjoyable film of  “Surfing’s divine prince of decadence,” Bunker Spreckels (who inherited fifty million dollars at age 21), surfing to the Beach Boys Good Vibrations. Though My Surfing Lucifer mostly consists of medium/long shots, Anger produces some interesting close ups as Bunky surfs in a slippery, jet black wetsuit in emerald green water against a heavily saturated blue sky.

Elliott’s Suicide (2007, 15 min, video)

A homage to the late American singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, Elliott’s Suicide is a sentimental 15 minute tribute, lacking Anger’s usual irony for obvious reasons. The film begins with shots of friends’ and fans’ last words written on Smith’s memorial on Sunset Boulevard, then to footage of a Macy’s parade, focusing closely on the oddly outfitted participants, some in renaissance attire, cowboys with lassos, and beauty queens.  The film is scored with Smith’s music, resulting in a melancholy effect, especially in the segment that follows Smith through the woods and films him as he digs up a guitar, then plays a song. This footage is repeated in the end of the film, but in a negative reversal print, suggesting pretty damn clearly that the subject matter has moved beyond the veil.

Mouse Heaven (2005, 12 min, video)

Mouse Heaven is twelve minutes of footage of mostly worn out, distressed, depression-era Mickey Mouse paraphernalia; long shots of hundreds of sorry looking Mickeys, old, wooden Mickeys, scary puppet Mickeys, Mickeys against dark red, ominous looking backgrounds, Mickeys behind storefront windows, against bright purple screens, dancing and spinning on platforms to James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet” (1966). It’s mouse overkill, and a comment on the power of the Disney brand, or any brand, and the dolls march like soldiers in symmetrical patterns. The vast numbers of mice spinning about the screen produces an overpowering, somewhat nauseating effect: the strangest image is an ancient set of carved wooden Mickeys playing guitars, and the most pleasing: a golden Mickey statue rotating in the center of the screen blasted in light. 

Ich Will! (2008, 35 min, video)

Ich Will! is footage of Hitler’s youth in the early 1930s, and was commissioned by the DonauFestival in Krems, Austria, who granted Anger creative freedom to process, edit, and tint the footage.  Scored to the Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner, Ich Will! is footage of bright blonde Nazi youth camping, singing around bonfires with happy faces, moving in unison, even as they march to the edge of a building and free fall. It all appears to be lighthearted fun as the boys play tug of war, climb a mountain and plant a gigantic Nazi flag atop it, only their silhouettes showing. As the film progresses, some of the footage turns to color, as the boys grow older, and the reds and blacks from the uniforms are shockingly bright after twenty minutes of black and white.The screen is washed in red as the soldiers march into the center of a kaleidoscope, spin and disappear as the music escalates. Anger has family in Germany, and the film was dedicated to “his fallen cousin” who was perhaps a member of the Nazi party. Some of the scenes in Ich Will! resemble the identical Mickey Mouse dolls marching in unison, as it’s been that said the two greatest icons of the twentieth century were the swastika and Mickey’s head.

Also screening in the series are Brush of Baphomet (2009, 7 min, video), I’ll Be Watching You (2007, 5 min, video) Death (2009, 1 min, video), Uniform Attraction (2009, 18 min, video) plus Anger’s classics: Fireworks (1947, 20 min, 35mm) Rabbit’s Moon (1950-70, 15 min, 35mm), and Scorpio Rising (1963, 30 min 35mm).


Mary Hanlon


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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