The Gorgeous (and Glorious) Artistry of Kenneth Anger

Kenneth Anger has been a voice in my head for almost twenty years. Ever since I fished my father’s first US edition copy of Hollywood Babylon out of the trash.

–Photo courtesy of eBay

The rough gold hardback had seen better days: the dust jacket was long gone. My sister and I had both doodled inside the front cover (in blue and black ink, respectively) when we were toddlers. Pages were torn and missing where Dad had excised the more explicit photos (one of which was Bugsy Siegel’s blood-soaked face, his brains splattered across the sofa and wall behind him). But, at ten years old, I was inexplicably fascinated. The book opens with a quote from Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law which, depending on who you talk to, is either a prophesy of the dawning of a new age or a volume of esoteric poetry. The first chapter I read was about Mary Astor’s diary — which unveiled her affair with playwright George S. Kaufman, was subsequently used against her in a very public divorce trial and, allegedly, was destroyed under orders from the presiding judge, who deemed it “pornography.” Many of the chapters are salacious, dubiously factual, and paint a picture of early Hollywood as a tragicomedy out of Pagan Rome. I still have the book and it has a special place on my shelf, next to my antique film camera.

As a teenager, I fell in love with John Waters’ movies and, when he cited Anger and the filmmaker’s seminal Scorpio Rising as an influence, I went in search of the infamous short film. It became my personal El Topo or Salo: that rarest of underground films, no longer on the midnight circuit and long out of print but possibly a few copies might have existed from a limited VHS print a decade or so before. Scouring Amazon and eBay never turned up much for me and, in the end, I had to wait until I was in my mid-twenties to see the film, when some generous person uploaded a digital transfer of their VHS copy to Google Videos. The following Yuletide, I used some gifted Amazon credits to finally buy Kenneth Anger: The Magic Lantern Cycle, a two-volume box set of the filmmaker’s work which included his earliest short films such as Scorpio Rising, Fireworks (a fantastic, historic piece of early queer cinema), and a (to me) lesser known short called Rabbit’s Moon.

Originally conceived as a feature-length adaptation of the Commedia dell’Arte story of Pierrot (with additional influence from Japanese and Aztec mythology), Anger shot the footage for Rabbit’s Moon in 1950 over a period of four weeks in Jean-Pierre Melville’s studio. The cast was students from the Marcel Marceau School of Mime and their costumes seem to have been inspired from Cezanne’s paintings of Pierrot and Harlequin.

Shot on nitrate film with a blue filter and inter-cut with animation, with sets designed and built-in perspective to make them appear larger to the audience (a trick out of F.W. Murnau and King Vidor’s playbooks), the film has a gorgeous, dream-like quality to it, emphasized by the doo-wop soundtrack in the 1972 edit of the film (the 1979 edit is considerably shorter and set to A Raincoat’s “It Came in the Night”). Pierrot’s story of longing, rejection and, ultimately, transcendence (he loses the girl, but reaches the moon) is told in lush and gorgeous detail, with an abrupt downbeat in the last ten seconds of the film, when Pierrot leaves his mortal body behind (and The El-Dorados’ “Tears On My Pillow” wails out its final notes).

Anger’s body of work appeals to me on several levels: their perspective on and re-telling of mythology — both ancient (Rabbit’s Moon, Invocation of my Demon Brother, Lucifer Rising) and contemporary (Hollywood Babylon, Scorpio Rising, The Man We Want to Hang, Mouse Heaven); his films’ emphasis on dream-like states (Puce Moment, Fireworks); their shirking of dialogue and conventional plot points in favor of pantomime and rousing music.

They also (Rabbit’s Moon, in particular) put me into a different head space watch them, where — like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — I’m encouraged to slow down and follow the narrative in a manner that is different from how I follow conventional, commercial narratives. Music and art changes our brains and, with Anger’s films, it’s considerably for the better.

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~ by blackmoodcraft on March 10, 2013.

One Response to “The Gorgeous (and Glorious) Artistry of Kenneth Anger”

  1. Reblogged this on Dirty Writing Habit.

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