August 3, 2011

DVD Review: The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. I

Lucifer himself, Kenneth Anger.
There is a moment in Ken Russell’s film of THE MUSIC LOVERS where Madame von Meck is commenting on Tchaikovsky’s destructive lifestyle as his friend and patron. “I don’t care if he chooses to stumble through life like a blind man, what does it matter. His music will live on long after my estates. We must help him if we can.” I always think of these words when the subject of Kenneth Anger comes up in conversation these days.

The DVD boxed set that Fantoma released back in 2007, "The Films of Kenneth Anger, Part I", contains the first five of Kenneth’s short films, complete with a 48-page booklet including an appreciation by Martin Scorsese, some storyboards from the productions themselves, and an excerpt from Anais Nin’s diary regarding her participation in the pleasure dome. This collection paved the way for a full-scale revival of Kenneth Anger and his work, and rightly so.

The very good news is this is a masterful DVD presentation with newly restored prints of FIREWORKS (1947) – the debut of a master film maker seeing his life, past, present and future, RABBIT'S MOON (1950) – Cocteau interplayed by Anger on a gorgeous dreamscape , PUCE MOMENT (1949) – Douglas Sirk on acid, EAUX d’ ARTIFICE (1953) – a stunning and wondrous work of art, and INAUGURATION OF THE PLEASURE DOME (1954) – where Gods and mortal lovers roam.

"Rabbit's Moon"
Each and every film is presented with a commentary by Anger, who is both thorough and candid without resorting to gossip, remaining true to the films in describing how they came to be made, and the circumstances surrounding the filming of each production. Since Kenneth cannot finish with any of his work completely, there is a disclaimer before each “version” of what you are about to see, however these are definitive prints, make no mistake, as no other company will likely go through what Fantoma did to insure this superb presentation of Anger’s genius.

The professionalism Kenneth displayed on these commentary tracks was quite surprising, since it could have just as easily gone the other way. I thank whatever sublime forces were at work on the days these tracks were recorded to insure that he was in the right mood and space to get it right, and he did just that, making this boxed set all the more precious as a document of his talent. In time, only the films themselves will survive, allowing Kenneth Anger’s art, and not his reputation, to be restored to the lofty pedestal the gods of cinema have bestowed on this artist, who single-handedly reinvented the American avant-garde cinema as we know it in the 21st Century.

"Puce Moment"
His hallucinatory non-narrative film-making, based on several variations of influences both subversive and childlike – everything from Aleister Crowley to Mickey Mouse – has been recycled into the decayed dreamscape of Kenneth Anger’s personal vision. Yet isn’t it remarkable that he has such an impact with less than three hours of film over the past three decades. This first boxed set clocks in at just under an hour and a half, with part two to follow.

Kenneth Anger regards his films as forces of nature with real power to transform and invoke primal forces that can affect the audience as well as the film-maker — the film- maker as terrorist if you will. ‘Film itself is an evil medium and as a director of film I am creating evil from it.” The demons of film that could destroy those who cross their path was well documented in his infamous ‘Babylon” books about Hollywood scandal and excesses.

"Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome"
Those of us who know him personally usually find it impossible to think of him as this iconic personality or maverick film-maker, when in reality his persona is more in keeping with the most negative creature you can imagine on earth. I have been told time and again by countless people that have crossed his path what dark and malevolent vibes he puts out. Kenneth literally wills all this darkness and negativity to surround him, creating a depression that must be a Hell unto itself. The impossibility of happiness and the bliss of despair… welcome to the pleasure dome.

To even begin to describe his day-to-day way of living is to envision the creature from LORD OF THE RINGS that follows Frodo to the mountain of doom, looking for the “precious, precious.” Kenneth has allowed his own hatred to devour him from within. For me it would be akin to having known Wagner personally and having to keep secret the knowledge that he is an anti-Semitic-Satanist-vampire. In fact I think Ken Russell had something to say about that as well in LISTOMANIA.

I had managed, much to my own surprise, to maintain a friendship with Kenneth Anger for over 25 years, from New York to Hollywood, In fact he stayed in my apt in Beverly Hills while he worked on the second Babylon book. In those days his personality was decidedly Jekyll/Hyde, most of his time with me being on the side of the good doctor, so we managed quite nicely.

By the time Fantoma started this DVD project, Kenneth was living in a small cottage in a rough Hispanic neighborhood which he detested. Having lived so many years in New York, he never drove a car, so the transit system also became his bete noir. All of this made him less and less able to cope with his fame; he had no money to live the way he could have if he had sold out to commercialism all those years ago.

There were many times during the preparation of this project that I feared Fantoma would pull out. There were Kenneth’s demands for more money and, far more seriously, the obstacles of finding all the elements from a film-maker who perpetually moved on, leaving his possessions with first one person and then another on two continents, things tending to get lost.

Kenneth once described his situation to me by comparing himself with fellow avant-garde film-maker Curtis Harrington: ‘Curtis is a miser and I am a spendthrift; that is why he lives in a mansion and I am on the street.” Kenneth could never have had the life Harrington chose for himself, working for producers like Jerry Wald within the studio system, and can you imagine Kenneth Anger directing an episode of DYNASTY?

Well, as Madame von Meck said earlier ‘let him stumble through life like a blind man,” he is still Kenneth Anger, who has spent his life living in Hell, but filling the screen with art, beauty, and most of all, magic.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad I stumbled across your blog! What a great post and kudos for 'The Music Lovers' quote!