Whither Kenneth Anger? Has his signature hot temper withered into kind, grandfatherly wisdom? If the commentary tracks of the marvelous Films of Kenneth Anger Volume One and Films of Kenneth Anger Volume Two (Fantoma) are to be trusted, this is the case. But one can't be faulted for suspecting that Anger has consciously decided to favor restraint over verbal fireworks when discussing his films. "There will always be mysteries," he decrees near the end of the second disc's last moments, just after pointing out smoke from Lucifer Rising's burning script in one of the 1981 version's final shots, a lingering, distant gaze at colossi in upper Egypt.
To say that the DVD issuing of Anger's films has been long awaited would be an understatement. As months gave way to years, grumbles about what might be slowing or even permanently preventing the process mixed with a chorus of hopes regarding the film restoration efforts of Ross Lipman and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Now that the restorations have been screened and the DVDs released, it's time to rain praise on Lipman. Not only has he directed his and UCLA's attention toward Anger and Charles Burnett two filmmakers whose non-Hollywood artistry would have deteriorated and vanished otherwise he's delivered superb restorations that will change the way you see classic works. Both Anger collections deserve a place next to the just-released Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection (New Yorker Video/Milestone Cinematheque) as one of this year's most vital and rewarding DVD collections.
The Anger DVDs seem ordered according to a masculine-feminine divide, with volume one showcasing Hollywood and European pageantry, and volume two gravitating toward motorcycle machismo, rock 'n' roll, and the occult. One thing that becomes clear on watching both is that the films that benefit most from restoration aren't necessarily Anger's best known or most canonical. In volume one, 1953's Eaux d'Artifice truly seems born anew: what was once black and blurred now pulses with distinct energy. I once saw Anger berate a projectionist immediately after the movie was screened; at the time it seemed like a peevish diva display, but now I realize what the projectionist (working with an old print) was up against and why Anger was enraged by the overly dim images that had just been projected. By shooting in sunlight on black-and-white film with a red filter, he created a unique, electric blue nighttime hue.
If it were merely crude, Eaux d'Artifice would be the ultimate water-sports fantasy, culminating in perhaps the longest and most gorgeous money shot in the history of film. (After using a totem as a hard-on in 1947's Fireworks, Anger rendered sexuality through playful metaphor or the more direct hint of nude eroticism.) Simply put, it's resplendent: in an extended pure-light-and-dark passage that echoes a hand-marked moment in Fireworks, Anger almost allows nature to do the drawing. The streams of water from the baroque fountains of Tivoli Gardens are Anger's chief material, creating an effect that's a more dynamic femme foreshadowing or Euroecho of Jackson Pollock's action painting.
They run hot, then cold, then hot again, but jewel-like strings or streams continuously run and spill through Anger's films, from the slo-mo-homo(genized) milky money shots of Fireworks in which fire also blazes next to the reflective surface of water to the beaded dresses of 1949's Puce Moment, through Eaux d'Artifice, to the snakelike lava flows and volcanic eruptions of Lucifer Rising. This love of ornamentation in motion might reach a hallucinogenic delirium in 1954's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, in which Samson de Brier literally swallows a series of jewels.