Movie Diary: Three short films by Kenneth Anger.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine gave me a DVD called "The Films Of Kenneth Anger, Vol. One." It includes five of his earliest films, most notably "Fireworks." I was very excited to get the gift, but for whatever reason, wasn't in the right mood to watch it until tonight. I saw the first three of the included films tonight, following the viewing of each with its commentary track by Anger.

FIREWORKS is Anger's earliest extant film, made in 1947, when he was 20 years old. What I'd heard about this film before I saw it related primarily to its homoerotic content, and its place in the history of queer cinema and the representation of homosexuality in culture. Anger was arrested on obscenity charges at the time of release, but was acquitted, as the court judged the film to be art. I definitely agree that it is, and a fascinating piece of art at that. A lot of times, when I'm about to hear a record, or see a movie, that I've been hearing about for a long time, I prepare myself for an inevitable disappointment, as they are almost never as interesting to hear or see as they were to read about. This is definitely not the case with "Fireworks." This 15 minute film totally lived up to its hype, and was equal parts transgressive, fascinating, and frightening. The film is based on a dream, and its plot is as vague and at times surreal, even contradictory, as dreams can be, but it nonetheless paints a powerful picture. Anger is the star in addition to the writer and director, and at the beginning of the film, he is shown being carried by a man in a sailor uniform. This immediately cuts to him waking up in a bed in what appears to be a squalid apartment (in the commentary, I learn that it's the living room of his parents' house with all the furniture cleared out). He stumbles around the room with his shirt off and pants undone, staring confusedly at various sculptures, then gets fully dressed and leaves the apartment. He has a couple of encounters with men that he appears to be flirting with, but gets nowhere. Then a group of rough looking sailors with chains and other blunt instruments set upon him in the street, beating the shit out of him and finally tearing open his chest, inside of which, in place of his heart, is some sort of mechanical dial. More vaguely connected scenes follow, including one in which Anger lies naked and in a suggestive pose on the floor of a public bathroom (cruising reference, anyone?). Finally, the most famous scene in the film comes near the end, as a bodybuilder in a sailor uniform opens the fly of his pants to reveal a roman candle that shoots sparks triumphantly into the air. A burning Christmas tree is dragged through the character's apartment, and then he finally wakes up, to find the sailor lying in bed with him.

It's funny, I expected this film to seem tame now, 62 years after it was originally produced, and in some ways it does, but in other ways, it's just as surprising and transgressive as it always was. And if you think of the original context in which it was produced, it's even more interesting, as there are some pretty direct challenges to the viewer coded within it. One is forced to sympathize with the victim of a gay-bashing, which must have been unheard of at the time. Anger says on the commentary that the idea for the film came from the zoot suit riots of WWII era LA, but one can't help but imagine that he related the persecution of Mexican-American teenagers in those riots with similar persecution dealt out to gay men. A lot of the imagery used in the film is powerful and stays in your mind even if you are a post-milennial viewer with a completely different sociopolitical outlook than would have been standard at the time.

PUCE MOMENT, from 1949, was the least impressive of the three films I saw, and I blame that on the fact that it's actually just an unfinished fragment of a larger planned film called "Puce Women." This film was intended by Anger to be a tribute to the silent-film actresses of the 1920s, and the segment that he did complete, which makes up "Puce Moment," is a sequence in which a silent-era actress, played by Yvonne Marquis, selects a puce gown from her closet, puts it on, puts on some perfume, and takes several Borzoi dogs, which one assumes are hers, for a walk. This entire sequence is passes very slowly, with at least the first fourth of the six-minute film just consisting of gowns of various colors passing in front of the camera. This sequence has an impressive look--unlike "Fireworks," which was filmed in black and white, "Puce Moment" is shot in color, and in fact its colors are hyper-real, seeming even more overstated and glowing than those of the Technicolor process. The colors seem to burn, and when this is combined with Anger's use of variant film speeds in order to evoke silent-era film processes, it makes the whole thing seem dreamlike--a recurring theme in his work. There are fascinating elements to this film, no doubt, and I found it even more interesting that the gowns in it were donated by Anger's grandmother, who had been a Hollywood costume designer during the silent film era. The gowns in it were apparently all worn by real silent film stars. That's really cool, and the look of the film is really cool too, but I just wish Anger had completed the project. As it is, the incompleteness makes it far less interesting than it could have been, had more things actually happened in it.

RABBIT'S MOON, from 1950, was the final film that I saw tonight. I knew nothing about this one before seeing it, but it made at least as powerful an impression on me as "Fireworks." In fact, the reason for that may well have been that I was prepared for what I'd see in "Fireworks," whereas "Rabbit's Moon" took me completely by surprise. The filming for it was done in Paris in 1950, on a stage that Anger only had access to for a month. He didn't complete the entire film until over 20 years later, and produced both a 16 minute version and a 9 minute version at two different times during the 70s. The version I saw was the 16 minute version, and I found it to be sublimely beautiful. I was really surprised to even have this reaction, actually, as the movie is basically a pantomime show. The title refers to a Japanese myth that the moon has a rabbit living within it (similar to the Western concept of the man in the moon, but transformed to a rabbit due to the differing angle from which the moon is seen in Japan than in the US and Europe), and the film combines elements of this Japanese myth with the Italian tradition of the Commedia dell'arte. The main character is Pierrot, traditionally a bumbling, foolish character. He is dressed all in white in the film, which is color but appears very similar to a black and white film most of the time, as Anger uses monochromatic lighting and sets that strongly emphasize light and dark. There is a dark blue tint to the film most of the time, which takes place at night. Pierrot is fascinated by the moon and its glowing light, and the first third or so of the film is taken up by his gazing lovingly upon the moon, timidly approaching it and then dancing away, as if it's a lover playing hard to get. Throughout the film, 50s doo-wop singles play, and they worked so incredibly well as a soundtrack that it made me glad that Anger took so long to finish the film. If he'd finished it in 1950, it would have been done before these doo-wop records existed, and I can't imagine any other soundtrack working nearly as well. The lyrics of the songs coordinate somewhat with the actions in the film, the first two being "There's A Moon Out Tonight" by the Capris and "Oh What A Night" by the Dells. Very little actually happens in this portion of the film, but the sounds and images are so beautiful that I found myself riveted. All of the actors in this film were members of Marcel Marceau's mime school, and all of their onscreen behavior is very much within the pantomime tradition. I've always been someone who made fun of mimes mercilessly, who saw the entire art form as a huge joke, and it was a revelation to see it the way it was used in "Rabbit's Moon." In fact, for me, this film completely validates the existence of pantomime. The extremely stylized gestures and actions of Pierrot and the other characters are completely anti-realistic, and yet it works to tell a story that rings emotionally true, in a manner that I'd say is even more effective than many realistic portrayals.

What eventually happens is that Harlequin, the classic commedia dell'arte character of the trickster, shows up to enchant Pierrot. At first he does this with his miming of illusory feats of acrobatics. Then he conjures up a Magic Lantern, and shows to Pierrot the image of Columbine, the female trickster, who bewitches Pierrot with her beauty. Whether she is even there, or merely an illusion created by the Magic Lantern, is open to question, but regardless, Pierrot falls head over heels for her. The film's predominantly blue color scheme is broken up by her arrival, as the first images we see that are cast by the Magic Lantern (various drawn images of the sun) are all shown with a bright red background. The film returns to the blue color scheme after these images are shown, and as Columbine dances around in front of a flowing silk backdrop, Pierrot attempts to win her over by presenting her with beams of light from his beloved moon. He wants to gain her love by showing her his own favorite objects of beauty, but Columbine dismisses these as trifles, and wants something more material from Pierrot, which he of course has no power to give. Harlequin, watching all of this in the background, is amused at Pierrot's rejection and despair, and eventually joins with Columbine to make clear to Pierrot just where Columbine's interest lies. Pierrot is overcome by this realization, and experiences it as an eclipse of the moon, which is enough to make him pass out in anguish. Throughout this entire sequence, the classic Flamingos song "I Only Have Eyes For You" plays. I've always loved this song, but still, I saw an entire new dimension of it when hearing it juxtaposed with the images in the film. The echoing, atmospheric elements of its performance and production give it an air of sublime, transcendent beauty. The song only has the sound that it has due to the primitive state of the art at the time of its recording, but this is completely irrelevant, and if anything, it's awesome that that primitive state of the art directly contributed to some of the best elements of the song.

Another element of this sequence that I found sadly beautiful was in Pierrot's idealistic worship of beauty for its own sake, and his attempt to win Columbine over through tactics that would only work on someone with a like mindset. This idea resonated with experiences that I've had in my own life, as I tend to care far more about ideals of love, art, and beauty, at the expense of practical considerations like stability and financial success. This has hurt me in my past romantic relationships, and I saw myself in Pierrot, trying to present someone with completely impractical beauty and finding that such things, which seem so wonderful to myself, don't matter nearly as much to the object of my affection.

I really enjoyed seeing these films, and if anything, they exceeded my expectations. I came into this viewing of Kenneth Anger's films prepared to be shocked, titillated, and impressed by his violent, homoerotic content. I found all of that in "Fireworks," as I expected. What I didn't expect was to experience a sublime, heartbreaking portrayal of stylized beauty, as I did in "Rabbit's Moon." Seeing that side of Anger's work, and realizing that he has a lot more to offer than just transgression, made this an even richer viewing experience than I expected. And there are still two films left on this DVD for me to watch ("Eaux D'artifice" and "Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome"). I'm excited to check them out, and hopefully I'll get to them soon.

I don't have mp3s of the doo-wop songs I wrote about above, but here are some posts on my blip.fm account featuring songs from "Rabbit's Moon":

The Flamingos - I Only Have Eyes For You
The Capris - There's A Moon Out Tonight
The Dells - Oh What A Night

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