PRINT Summer 1965


Two Films and an Interlude by Kenneth Anger

Kenneth Anger, who has been making experimental films for almost two decades, made his first one, “Fireworks,” in 1947. It is probably the closest he will ever come to fashioning a picture out of his own personal beliefs. “Fireworks” has the declarative sound of a will affirming itself. As with all his work, the sensibility it reveals is prankish, mannered, and drawn to the outré. But like the best of Anger’s films—this one and the one for which he is now most famous (and mildly notorious), “Scorpio Rising,” the nearest thing to a popular favorite the underground has yet produced—the picture is about a fundamental pattern of behavior. On those occasions when Anger is not at his best, his films are no more than slight and wispy “jeux d’esprit” for the eye.

“Fireworks” unfolds with the disjointed, fluid logic of a dream, and tells a manifestly “decadent” story. A young man (played by Anger) wakes from a restless sleep, goes out into the night looking for a homosexual pick-up, and is violently beaten by a group of chain-swinging sailors. The film symbolically makes clear that the sailors achieve orgasm through the beating. Then the young man returns to his room, achieves his own, and the picture ends with him asleep, this time with another man in bed beside him. Anger treats these impious events with an impious wit. There is no trace of either self-pity or self-promotion in “Fireworks.” Through every grotesquerie and impropriety, the film maintains an attitude of deadpan aloofness.

Anger tells much of the story through a series of marvelously inventive visual conceits that seem almost to mock the events they relate. One of the funniest occurs immediately after the young man awakes. He reaches under his sheet where he looks to have an erection—the gesture is photographed to create a feeling of stunned anticipation—and removes from between his legs a miniature wooden statue of a man. The statue is primitive in style. He gives it a brief, quizzical look. His surprise, matching the audience’s, suggests the tone of wry amusement, as well as the intelligence, that modulates the entire picture. Even the beating, which is nightmarish in its violence (again mostly symbolic) and a painful sequence to watch, has a certain macabre, self-mocking humor. It begins with a gesture as extravagant as it is frightening and repulsive: fingers are thrust into the young man’s nostrils, and blood spurts out.

But “Fireworks” is something more than a bravura turn of a perverse wit. After the beating, its events take on a new dimension. The conceits, which symbolize the protagonist’s orgasm, become exuberant emblems of celebration. A sailor, pressing his pelvis forward, sticks a sizzling firecracker into the fly of his trousers. The young man returns to his room with a small pine tree (perhaps two feet high) clamped to his head. His head is tilted, so the tree juts out before him, and its tip—in a touch both ebullient and comic—is a dainty, delicate flame. Finally, in bed, the face of the man beside him is surrounded by radiating lines of burning light or fire. These conceits celebrate not just sex, but the triumph of a man who has faced his fate and survived the worst it can offer. They celebrate a man who has come through.

At the center of “Fireworks,” giving the picture its strength and vitality, is a tough-minded fable about the difficult business of being a man. The action of the picture follows the classic pattern of a “rite of passage.” The protagonist descends to the bottom of the pit, his worth is put to a test of severe physical pain (which explains the nightmarishness of the beating: the test, if it is to be meaningful, cannot be child’s play), and he returns. That the descent and return is by way of a door reading (literally) “Gents,” that the pit is a homosexual one and belongs, as well, to the even less decorous world of “cruising,” is all part of the film’s mixture of impiety and humor. Its story still concerns a man who accepts with courage the costs of the life he has chosen to live. The subject matter and attitude make it a black comedy, but the theme makes it a comedy of triumph.

After “Fireworks,” an unaccountable haze of insubstantiality falls over Anger’s films, and it lasts, even more mysteriously, for some fifteen years. The difficulty is not simply that his subjects in these pictures are totally removed from anything but the world of whimsy, but that the whimsy itself is flat and dull. This work offers one point of purely technical interest. “Fireworks” is in black and white, and the films that follow display an increasing mastery of color.

They are films composed around a single fancy. In a picture called “Eaux d’artifice” (1953)—the title is a good measure of what was happening to Anger’s work—the fancy concerns waters, real and metaphorical. Shot through a blue filter, the picture looks as if it were set in the poetic facsimile of an underwater grotto. The actual setting is the Tivoli Gardens in Italy, and Anger weaves together its fountains, staircases, hedges, and watery by-ways with shots of a capricious figure wearing an eighteenth-century gown and a towering headdress of feathers that shakes with a water-like ripple. The figure is the spirit or sprite of the gardens. She materializes from a spray of water, descends staircases, trips besides a low row of bushes, then finally merges with a fountain. The film is like nothing so much as a travelogue for people convinced that the location is worth visiting, or who already have been there.

So too with “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome,” a considerably more ambitious picture that Anger made in 1954. Three times as long as “Eaux d’artifice” (about forty minutes), with a cast of over a half-dozen characters (a good number for an experimental production of this sort), the film is meticulously designed, and Anger has photographed it in rich, burnt tones. (It also offers a remarkably lovely opening title done in art-nouveau lettering by Paul Mathison.) Various revelers, sumptuously clothed in never-never finery of silks, fur, and drapery, engage in such decadent splendors as eating jewelry. Their enjoyment resembles the relish of a Hollywood-style Roman emperor popping grapes into his mouth. There appears to be a thread of plot to the picture, but its exact form never becomes clear. (A program note that accompanied a recent showing of Anger’s work in New York and that apparently was written by Anger himself, describes the film as “a convocation of Theurgists in the guise of figures from mythology; a magic masquerade party at which Pan is the prize.”) As with “Eaux d’artifice,” the initial charm of the fancy behind “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome“ quickly becomes dissipated. Both pictures give the impression of having been spun out for the amusement of a small group of personal friends.

Anger’s interlude of insubstantiality ended in 1963 with the appearance of “Scorpio Rising,” which he had begun the year before. Scorpio is a return to the observable world and to another bizarre and homosexual corner of it: the community of American motorcyclists (homosexual in emotional ambience if not completely so, as the film briefly suggests, in practice). And as in “Fireworks,” the underlying concern of the picture is with the way men confront the world.

It is extremely difficult to describe the tone of “Scorpio Rising.” “Fireworks” is a comedy of celebration. “Scorpio Rising“ is more like a satire and, at the same time, a study of self-destructiveness. In certain ways, its portrait of the cyclists is devastating. On the other hand, Anger clearly does not scorn them. (Indeed, he may even be one of them.) His attitude is perhaps one of amusement. Yet the film asks for no specific emotional response at all, either empathetic or antagonistic. It re-creates a certain kind of conduct and style of life; it makes no attempt to tote up or define the worth of the people who live it. The effect is a kind of crystalline quality, an aura of detached coolness whatever the frenzy, sadness, or ridicule of the picture’s immediate context.

There is no story to “Scorpio Rising.” Except for a brief, decisive coda, the film consists of four sequences, each of which shows a different aspect of the life, world, and self-image of the cyclists. In each of these sequences, Anger weaves a strand of associative material that illuminates the significance of their action and simultaneously comments on the attitudes they reveal. Musically, he has scored the picture with a barrage of rock-and-roll songs whose lyrics provide another stream of comment. These three different elements—the substantive images, the interpolated parallels, and the music—reflect off one-another like images in a hall of mirrors. The effect is kaleidoscopic, a tour-de-force of satiric counterpoint.

The picture is superbly structured. It begins with the everyday activities of the cyclists—working on their cycles—and gradually moves deeper and deeper into their fantasy life. As this happens, the associative material becomes more and more incongruous, as do the cyclists’ delusions, and the sheer visual distinction between their objective activities and their fantasy becomes more and more blurred.

The associative material in the first sequence is by way of providing a comment and quick look at the origins of the cyclists’ interests. Interspersed with the scenes of the cyclists working on their machines are shots of a young boy, photographed at floor level to intensify the point, playing with a set of toy scooters. (In the background, the song is “Wind-up Doll.”) There is a special fillip to this first parallel: the mouths of the toy riders are scarlet cupid’s bows. In the second sequence, the focus is on the cyclists’ heroes and culture. Cut into scenes of a cyclist reading the comics in a room no bigger than a monastic cell, its walls covered with pictures of James Dean and Marlon Brando, are shots from “The Wild One,” the movie in which Brando played the charming and bellicose leader of a motorcycle pack. The associative material here no longer refers to the world outside the cyclists but begins to reveal their own self-image. However, the context is still a literal one. One even has the sense that the movie is being watched on television. In any case, the identification is patently quite conscious on the part of the cyclists.

But beyond this point, the associative material loses all literalness and must be read metaphorically—and-perhaps represents aspects of a self-image that are not entirely conscious. The third sequence is a party-orgy at which the homosexual theme of the picture reaches its peak. The material Anger cuts into this sequence are shots from a Biblical movie about Christ and his followers. He affects such startling conjunctions as Christ gazing over his shoulder to watch with benevolent serenity the leap of one boy toward the bare-assed figure of another. The sequence is the most comic of the film. On the occasion of the cyclists’ greatest improprieties, “Scorpio Rising” explains, symbolically, that in addition to thinking of themselves as Deans and Brandos, the cyclists also regard themselves as a holy sect.

The fourth sequence contains the most lunatic twist of all. Here the distinction between the real and the imagined almost ,completely disappears. The cyclists are photographed in poses and backgrounds that together look like a cross between Hollywood’s Nazi pictures of the forties and Leni Riefenstal’s “Triumph of the Will.” The associative material is nothing less than swastikas and images of Hitler. On the sound track, a squeaky all-girl chorus pledges: “I’ll follow him wherever he goes.” The point is not that the cyclists are politically comparable to the Nazi movement but rather that they are emotionally comparable. (There are behavioral consequences, of course, but Anger is not referring to political or quasi-political behavior). The cyclists not only see themselves as Brando and as a holy sect but also as charismatic leaders of supermen.

These four sequences present with mordant humor what probably is one of the most grotesque inner landscapes of contemporary life. Then, in a stunning coda, the film abruptly reverses itself and returns to the everyday world. There are several staccato shots of cyclists gunning over the countryside, then a crash; a cycle lies on its side, its rider obviously is dead, and the picture stops, rather than ends, with the images of the flashing red light atop an ambulance. Death is the culmination of all the cyclists’ grand illusions. The coda reveals that what the cyclists are in fact, has nothing to do with what they think themselves to be. Outside their fantasy, they are only the most typical kind of daydreaming Walter Mittys—with the crucial, terrible difference that they try to live their dream and that in the attempt, the dream kills the dreamer. (The scorpion, which gives its name to a sign of the zodiac associated with such personality traits as aggressiveness, eroticism, cruelty, and tenaciousness, is also, according to astrological lore, the one living creature which can, and often does, sting itself to death.)

It is only after “Scorpio Rising” ends that one recalls its first image: the words “A Puck Production” over the famous emblem of Puck, a bow in one hand, standing beside his motto, “What fools these mortals be.“ These words contain the whole of the film, which is neither more nor less than a portrait of a group whose members, whatever the spiralings and arabesques of their fantasy, are precisely this: foolish and mortal. The last image of “Scorpio Rising” evokes a diffused sadness, not for the self-destructiveness of the cyclists but rather for the human silliness and waste this extreme example of self-delusion represents. “Fireworks” is a picture about a man who faces reality. “Scorpio Rising” is about a group which lives only in fantasy.

The response that has greeted “Scorpio” is a story in itself. The picture, first of all, has resurrected Anger to a star position among the new generation of American experimental film makers, whose work differs considerably from that of their predecessors (in much the same way, for example, that the “collage” made of “Scorpio Rising,” with its heavy borrowings from popular culture and its use of a group as a protagonist, differs from the more “surrealistic” mode of “Fireworks,” with its dream-like atmosphere, psychological symbols, and its focus on the quest of a single individual, all to the accompaniment of music by Respighi). “Scorpio” in fact has become one of the foremost works of the “new” cinema, admired and acclaimed by its several factions. More than that, it is one of the few such works to find approval even among more general audiences (censors notwithstanding, whose foolish ban against the film in New York recently was lifted). The film has also helped Anger to win a Ford Foundation grant awarded to non-commercial, creative film makers. Perhaps there is a moral in all this, in the achievement of “Scorpio Rising,” coming fifteen years after “Fireworks,” as well as in the film’s reception, and perhaps it lies in the fact that Anger seems always to have made only such films as he wanted to make, and has made them, good or bad, exactly as he wanted to make them.

Harris Dienstfrey