A kinder, gentler DVD magus leads a magic-lantern tour
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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. While 1964's Scorpio Rising is partly renowned for its subliminal qualities, trances invoked via overt repetition are another Anger motif, most at the fore in the lunar views of Rabbit's Moon (195071; 1979) and the solar worship of Lucifer Rising.
Fantasma's volumes of Anger's films may not expose their mysteries or hocus-pocus, but the DVDs further reveal Anger's impact on equally iconic but less experimental directors. That Martin Scorsese and David Lynch drew from Anger's pop soundtracking is obvious but one could also argue that the all-American family-room surrealism at the climax of Fireworks predates the Christmas tree rampage at the start of John Waters's Female Trouble. Influence runs both ways, of course, and Aleister Crowley's on Anger is also apparent, thanks to the presence of Anger's 2002 slide show appreciation of Crowley's frankly lousy paintings and drawings, The Man We Want to Hang, in volume two. The same wild eyes and crazed gazes that Crowley loved to draw dominate some of acolyte Anger's far superior films, Inauguration and Invocation in particular.
Anger's DVD commentary shares next to nothing about his soundtrack choices or his interpersonal dynamics with the many men who have stepped before his camera lens. But he does utter select camp trivia, witty anecdotes, and even symbolic explanations without giving away magic tricks. He repeatedly praises his interior designer grandmother, whom he considers a sorceress. He says Louise Brooks told him Eaux d'Artifice was his sexiest film, and that the film's midget protagonist was discovered by Federico Fellini. He gossips that the star of his Puce Moment was a mistress of Lázaro Cárdenas, claims that Inauguration star de Brier "was rumored to be the bastard son of the King of Romania," says Invocation actor Sir Francis Rose is the in-joke inspiration behind a certain famous Gertrude Stein line, and notes with a tinge of irritation that Jimmy Page outbid him at a Sotheby's auction of Crowley paintings. "Cameron thought she was a witch, and I'm in agreement with that idea," Anger says about the late painter-poet whose flame-haired appearance is the most vibrant of all of Inauguration's many grand entrances.
Only Lucifer Rising star Marianne Faithfull seems capable of sparking some off-the-cuff impish remarks from the cozy incarnation of Anger who recorded commentary for Fantoma's DVDs. During a travel guide's discussion of Lucifer Rising's journey through Icelandic, Egyptian, and Germanic Black Forest sites, Anger takes the time to softly but repeatedly chide Faithfull perhaps because she mocks him in her autobiography? According to Anger, the mosquitoes of Egypt loved to bite Faithfull's "tender inner thighs." But that tidbit is nothing in comparison with an anecdote he shares about her disguising heroin as face powder in order to smuggle it into Egypt. Whether this is true or false, it's impossible not to laugh out loud when Anger states that, had this ploy been revealed, he and Faithfull would have faced a fate far different than though just as dramatic as the stories they've gone on to live: death by firing squad.