Boot Camp

Melissa Gronlund at the London debut of Kenneth Anger's Ich Will!

Kenneth Anger in front of T. E. Lawrence's motorcycle. (Photo: Damon Cleary, Imperial War Museum)

WELL, HE’S STILL ALIVE. At filmmaker Curtis Harrington’s funeral last year, Kenneth Anger predicted that he himself would die on October 31, 2008—the date that he later chose for the London premiere of his two most recent videos: Ich Will!, comprising found footage of a Hitler Youth rally, and Uniform Attraction (both 2008), a study of US Marines. (“I’ve always found men in uniform very attractive, and I think a lot of women do, too,” he told the rowdy crowd at the debut.)

The screening’s venue, the Imperial War Museum, turned out to be more portentous than the forecasted Halloween date; gone were the Aleister Crowley occultism and rich, decadent symbolism the now-eighty-one-year-old filmmaker deployed in such classics as Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) and Scorpio Rising (1964), which was also screened. Instead the recent work carried forward, a little thinly, Anger’s interest in the eroticism of masculine subcultures, made manifest through found footage and military propaganda rather than via the extraordinary ceremonies, rites, and pageantry the filmmaker orchestrated in his earlier work.

It has been widely acknowledged that Anger’s best period is past, and the boisterous mood in the museum seemed less enthusiastic for a new Anger video or film than nostalgic for the older, tried-and-true Anger flair. His mythos was palpable: Seen through the Anger prism, the Imperial War Museum looked wonderfully camp, with two enormous cannons pointing at spectators as they entered the courtyard, and a fat, shiny motorcycle (T. E. Lawrence’s, apparently) guarding the cinema. The audience greeted Scorpio Rising as if it were an old friend, and moments that originally functioned as parody—the biker striking a match with the back of his teeth, for example—appeared tinged with affection: Ah, men were once like that!

Left: Kenneth Anger, publicity poster for Ich Will!, 2008. Right: Kenneth Anger, Ich Will!, 2008, still from a black-and-white and color video, 35 minutes.

The Nazi-era footage of Ich Will! was presented largely unaltered, with one scene given special effects (distorted colors and mirrored images) and sepia and red tones added throughout. The young men are shown exercising, marching, saluting, and serenading “Fräulein” with accordions, with the footage culminating in the spectacle of a Nazi rally, where companies spell out the initials AH and form the shape of a swastika. Humor is the reigning mode in Uniform Attraction, where a troop of poorly acted (though apparently real) marines exercise in skimpy shorts and T-shirts, some of them coming to full (ahem) attention as they are addressed by their pudgy sergeant.

As with Scorpio Rising, Ich Will! and Uniform Attraction present their subjects as objects of lust, and it is clear that Anger’s declaration of his desire for men in uniform was intentionally provocative. I wish more had been made of this problem of eliciting inappropriate lust in the spectator, or that said inappropriateness had been approached with more complexity. Since his earliest films, Anger has used swastikas and Nazi paraphernalia as ambivalent symbols of violence and passion, enticing the audience to both identify with and reject them. With Ich Will!, the audience’s disgust seems assumed; against this aversion, Anger overplays his alignment with the period, adding an exclamation point to the title (which means “I Want!” in German), setting the opening credits in Fraktur, and dedicating the film to his cousin Karlheinz Anger, who had been a Hitler Youth and was killed, Anger explained, in World War II. Whether the latter is true or not is impossible to tell.

The videos, however, uphold Anger’s larger move away from dramaturgy and toward citation. The artist’s work has always demonstrated an impulse to collect—Pop songs, for example, in Scorpio Rising, Tinseltown scandals in the tell-all book Hollywood Babylon (1959), and iterations of Mickey Mouse in the video Mouse Heaven (2004)—and the explorations of men-at-arms in Ich Will! and Uniform Attraction can be read as samples of a ritualized homosociality. Ich Will! succinctly calls to mind American and British obsessions with World War II footage, but while prior explorations of the erotics of violence—and its larger cultural implications—have been the subject of both profligate veneration and generous satire, here the only complications to the libidinal theme are those supplied by irony and farce. The works made for a lively afternoon at a War Museum on Halloween, but something of the old Anger, with his corruption, subversion, and saturnalia, was lacking.