Avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger at NYC's P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center
By Noah Michelson
His seminal Fireworks (1947), Anger’s emblematic breakthrough film, shows a young man as he is gang-assaulted by sailors in an unconscious dream setting. Shots of tinsel-strewn Christmas trees and limbs intersperse the action, until the film culminates in a dazzling ‘money-shot’; a sailor’s gaping pants zipper reveals a sparkling roman candle protuberance, suggesting vindication through orgasm. Fireworks, a violent, revelatory ‘wet nightmare’ (if there is such a thing) details the hidden longings of an unconscious gay teen, and as such introduces many of the central themes addressed in Anger’s work. Each of the other seven films on display -- Puce Moment (1949), Eaux d’artifice (1953), Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954-66), Scorpio Rising (1963), Kustom Kar Kommandos (1964-65), Invocation of my Demon Brother (1969) and Lucifer Rising (1970-81) -- are equally as evocative and relevant to the gay community.
Invocation of my Demon Brother, 1969, 16mm, 11 minutes, Color, courtesy of the artist
The films are situated in the 2nd floor Kunsthalle, which has been transformed into a red latex lair evocative of Anger’s aesthetic -- an aggressively sensual and at times frightening immersive dream world. Each visitor enters the dark space like a spelunking cineaste let loose in a private sex club. The slick interior makes one feel as though they are not only immersed in the world of Anger’s oeuvre, but also as if they are located in the thumping interior of Anger’s very body.
It’s evident that much of Anger’s work draws inspiration from the vibrant personalities that populated his life. In addition to his filmmaking, Anger was a notorious Hollywood gossip and grew up tap dancing with Shirley Temple, palled around with the Rolling Stones, was invited to live with Jean Cocteau in Paris, and masturbated (on film) with Alfred Kinsey, a life-long friend and collaborator. What could be more deliciously gayer than Shirley Temple and leather chaps? Okay, Shirley Temple in leather chaps, but this is not a John Waters retrospective, kids. Anger’s mixed-bag cadre of subculture icon friends also includes Marianne Faithfull, Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, and drug-addled occultist and self-proclaimed sex magician Aleister Crowley. Abetted by his libidinous crew, Anger’s uniquely lascivious yet meditative gaze brought gay perspectives to the forefront of avant-garde cinema, as well as to film at large (he accomplished a landmark victory in California’s Supreme Court over permissible nudity in film, so we have him to thank for that full frontal of Kevin Bacon in Wild Things).
Scorpio Rising, 1964, 16mm, 28 minutes, Color, courtesy of the artist
In addition to anticipating the modern music video through his novel appropriation of pop songs to soundtrack his films, Anger has also had significant impact on the films of directors like Gus Van Sant, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Werner Fassbinder. He spent much of his life in the Hollywood Hills accruing immense stores of juicy celebrity gossip that would eventually catapult him into mainstream recognition with his two-volume dish-fest, Hollywood Babylon, which details the perverse exploits of the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich, published by the same publisher that took on the Marquis de Sade.
While he is known by some crowds for his gossiping and others for his film, the intersection is clear; Anger seems to delight in using subculture exotica as artistic raw material, whether it be the opulently beaded fabrics of Hollywood cocktail gowns populating the frames of Puce Moment or the gleaming sinew of motor vehicle parts in Kustom Kar Kommandos. Age brings little to bear on this tendency; the eighty-two year old’s latest films are about sex and Elliott Smith, and he plays the theremin in his band Technicolor Skull (he’s friends with Peaches on MySpace!).
Kenneth Anger is on view at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center until September 14th, 2009 and is curated by Susanna Pfeffer.
-- JOCELYN MILLER
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