I’ve been looking forward to Kenneth Anger‘s visit to the IU Cinema for quite a while. The 300 tickets for the evening showing of some of his films sold out at least a month ago, so I was not the only one. My understanding of Anger was actually pretty received and second-hand. I own his scurrilous early-Hollywood tell-all history Hollywood Babylon (first published in France in 1959; the version I have is the 1970s one that sold 2 million copies, I believe) but had never seen full versions of any of his films.
The evening showing included two of his most famous, 1947’s Fireworks and 1964’s Scorpio Rising, along with a few very recent short films.
Fireworks is quite amazing. It’s actually difficult to imagine it being made at that date. It’s a 15-minute fantasia in which a good-looking young man played by the 19 or 20 year old Anger dallies with and is beaten up by some buff, muscle-flexing sailors. Blood spurts out of Anger’s nose and milk pours on his head; it culminates with the fiery explosion of a Roman Candle sticking out of a sailor’s crotch. Anger says he was influenced by early-cinema pioneers like the Lumiere brothers and Melies; it’s easy to see the influence Fireworks must have had on David Lynch and queer cinema of the 1980s and 1990s by Gus Van Sant and others.
Scorpio Rising seems similarly way ahead of its time. Anger himself has aptly described it as “a death mirror held up to American culture… Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans.” Biker dudes caressing their motorcycles, reading comic strips, petting a Siamese kitty, buckling their leather jackets and slipping into leather boots. Death’s heads, Nazi insignia, and grim reapers. Pop songs of the moment: “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton, “Torture” by Kris Jensen and “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March. And “Wipeout” for the inevitable fiery crash. David Lynch must have been inspired by Anger’s use of “Blue Velvet.” I believe Anger invented the jarring juxtaposition of cheerful, peppy pop songs with scenes of violence that directors like Martin Scorsese (who’s said he’s a fan of Anger’s) made so much a part of their method; there’s no question that Scorsese’s use of pop songs in Mean Streets had to be directly influenced by this movie.
We went (with our visiting friend Jane) to see Anger’s afternoon talk as well as the evening show, which also featured a Q&A. Not sure we really had to go to both. Anger was for the most part very unreflective about his work, sometimes almost hilariously so. One example: someone asked a question about the origins of Fireworks. Anger told a story about the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in L.A. when sailors beat up zoot-suit-wearing Latinos, explaining that it was the inspiration for the movie. OK, fair enough, but someone followed up to ask, “could you say a little more about how those events turned into this film?” Anger basically had nothing more to say other than that it was based on a dream he had in which he the one beaten up by the sailors, and that he considers it to be an anti-war film. In the two hours or so of on-stage discussion I saw, he had almost nothing to say about the homoeroticism of his films (though to be fair, he was asked very little about this directly) nor about their formal innovation and experimentation. From his conversation, you might never guess that his movies were anything but fairly straight-forward narratives. He seemed mostly interested in technical issues about the camera and film stock, and about his continual difficulties in finding funding. (He’s never made a feature film, despite various efforts.) Another example, when someone asked him about his ground-breaking use of sound and music in Scorpio Rising, his answer was something like, “well, those were the songs that were popular on the radio that summer.”
One funny thing happened. In the Q&A he mentioned that he had been going to show three recent films, but that the IU Cinema director Jon Vickers (who was standing right there) had told him one of them was too racy for the “mixed audience.” Anger implied that the film had one “explicit” scene as seen through a peephole, but that it was fairly tame. Someone pressed him about this — the audience was not happy –and finally Vickers took the mike and explained that since the audience had not been warned about very explicit content, he had not wanted to spring this one on us. He suggested that after the Q&A, there would be a brief break allowing anyone who wanted to leave to do so, and then the movie would be shown.
It was 9 p.m. and I was starving and sort of wanted to go eat dinner, but of course we could not be the prudes to get up and leave at that point!
The movie turned out to be, basically, a little piece of arty porn featuring closeups of some kind of wealthy industrialist receiving fallatio from his bodyguard while another titillated guard watches on a surveillance camera. This to the soundtrack of the Police’s “I’ll Be Watching You.” Pretty lame, actually — and definitely pornographic, so I felt kind of sympathetic to Vickers’ actions (after all, this is a public institution in Southern Indiana and you don’t necessarily want to get the attention of Republicans in state government), even though he came off initially as the bluestocking censor.
Despite Angers’ generally low-affect tone, his affection for the Kinsey Institute came through clearly. He told a neat story about how he met Alfred Kinsey in the late 1940s, who turned up at an early showing of Fireworks and asked Anger if he could purchase it for the Kinsey collection. Anger said, sure, you can have the reel we just watched, so they made the transaction on the spot, and Anger later (in the early 50s) visited Bloomington and did interviews with Kinsey.