A song of love -- that answers one with Anger?
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Kenneth Anger and Jean Genet are two greats with outlaw tastes that still taste salty together. So a viewer discovers via a program that marries for two nights this pair of master onanists. In compiling the showcase, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts film curator Joel Shepard follows in famous fancy footsteps none other than Jean Cocteau once showed both Anger's 1947 Fireworks and Genet's 1950 Un Chant d'Amour at an event called the Festival of the Damned Film. Presenting a Poetic Film Prize to Anger's movie, Cocteau said the piece blooms "from that beautiful night from which emerge all true works." Such a poetic evening must have included Cocteau's own 1930 The Blood of a Poet, because its influence is apparent on Fireworks and Un Chant d'Amour, a pair of vanguard works that arrived roughly two decades in its wake.
Balls-to-the-wall sexuality has never been rendered so tenderly as in Genet's Un Chant d'Amour, a prison scenario from which video-era gay porn Powertool codes have picked up next to nothing in the way of imagination or humanity. (In terms of love triangles in lockup, the one here is rivaled only by the bond between Leon Isaac Kennedy, cutie Steve Antin, and Raymond Kessler as the one and only Midnight Thud in retrospective-worthy Jamaa Fanaka's unbelievable Penetentiary III a TeleFutura stalwart flick that might even improve when dubbed into Spanish.)
The phrase "That's when I reach for my revolver" might be the chief unspoken thought of Un Chant d'Amour's repressed warden figure that is, when he isn't reaching for his belt. He wields societal control and loses the pride and the power that come with maintaining a strictly straight sense of self while overseeing or more often spying on a pair of inmates. The older prisoner, as bristly and worry furrowed as his cable-knit sweater, lusts for the younger one, a muscular cross between Sal Mineo and the young James Cagney, complete with his thieving sneer. (According to Edmund White's bio Genet and Jane Giles's Criminal Desires: Jean Genet and Cinema, both prisoners were Genet's lovers. In an irony the author-filmmaker must have enjoyed, the younger one, Lucien Sénémaud, to whom Genet dedicated a 1945 poem titled Un Chant d'Amour, missed the birth of his first child due to filming.)
In Screening the Sexes, the too-oft ignored critic Parker Tyler locates the antecedents of Genet's butch characters in Honoré de Balzac, but Cocteau's influence on Un Chant d'Amour is apparent as well in areas ranging from the whimsically scrawled title credits to the movie's hallway-roving voyeurism (a more sexual, less effete echo of the dream passages that are the narrative veins of Blood of a Poet). Genet made Un Chant d'Amour after writing his novels and before the playwright phase of his creative life, and as in his novels, the film's dominant prison setting, with its hated and celebrated walls, creates (to quote Tyler) "rituals of yearning and vicarious pleasure." Some images such as blossoms (romantic symbols bequeathed by Cocteau?) furtively tossed from window to window are heavy-handed. Others are as light as a naturalist answer to romantic expressionism can be, as when tree branches seem to echo prison bars. The most vivid and intoxicating visual has to be the prisoners passing cigarette smoke mouth to mouth via a long straw poked through their cell walls. Smoke gets in their eyes and gets them to undo their flies.
Official stories have it that Genet made Un Chant d'Amour for private collectors, and in veteran high-society petit voleur fashion, often fleeced them with the promise that he was selling the one and only copy. The 26-minute version showing at the YBCA is both more explicit than anything that sprung from Cocteau's less rugged cinema and more graphic than the censored 15-minute version that has often showcased in underground public circles. (According to Giles, a benefit screening for the SF Mime Troupe in the '60s was raided by the police.) Just as the character Divine in Genet's book Our Lady of the Flowers gave John Waters's greatest star, Harris Glenn Milstead, a stage and screen name, Un Chant d'Amour's smoke trails and imprisoned schemes have inspired visions from James Bidgood's 1971 Pink Narcissus to the "Homo" sequence of Todd Haynes's 1989 Poison.
Still, these same smoke trails came in the immediate wake of Anger's Fireworks, and both Giles and Anger claim Genet viewed Fireworks before he began shooting his only movie. Unsurprisingly, the child of a midsummer night's dream in Hollywood Babylon who partly inspired Un Chant d'Amour had his own copy of the film, but tellingly (according to Bill Landis's unauthorized bio, Anger), he'd edited out the pastoral romantic passage in Genet's movie because "it's two big lummoxes romping." Such a gesture, typical of Anger, shows just how wrong it is to assume Genet's comparatively masculine aestheticism means he is less sentimental.
Greedily inhaled and ultimately drubbed, the cigarettes of Un Chant d'Amour are a not-so-explosive, if no less effective, très French response to the American climactic phallic firecracker of Anger's landmark first film and initial installment in the Magick Lantern Cycle. Unlike the SF International Film Fest's once-in-a-lifetime (I'd love to be proven wrong) presentation of the latter at the Castro Theatre, the YBCA's program features a rare and new 35mm print of Fireworks. It also includes similar prints of Anger's exquisite, blue-tinted vision of commedia dell'arte, Rabbit's Moon (which exists in three versions, dating from 1950, 1971, and 1979); his most famous film (with a pop soundtrack that essentially paved the way for Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, not to mention music videos), 1963's Scorpio Rising; and his beefcake buffandpowder puff soft-touch idyll with a pair of dream lovers in a sex garage, 1965's Kustom Kar Kommandoes.
Viewed together, these movies cover dreamscapes of a length, width, and vividness beyond past and present Hollywood, not to mention a new queer or mall-pandering gay cinema that even in the case of Haynes's son-of-Genet portion of Poison remains locked in a celluloid closet of positive and negative representation. Anger's relationship with the gifted Bobby Beausoleil might be an unflattering real-life variation of Genet's adoration of murderous criminality, but whereas Un Chant d'Amour resembles almost any page from any Genet novel, Anger's films are a many-splendored sinister parade. For all of his flaws and perhaps even evil foibles, his films are rare, pure visions. "Serious homosexual cinema begins with the underground, forever ahead of the commercial cinema, and setting it goals which, though initially viewed as outrageous, are later absorbed by it," Amos Vogel writes in the recently republished guide Film as a Subversive Art. Many of the films in that tome seem dated today, but in Anger's case, the forever to which Vogel refers may indeed be eternal. *
JEAN GENETKENNETH ANGER
Fri/12Sat/13, 7:30 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, screening room, SF