Monday, August 03, 2009

The Films of Kenneth Anger: Vol. II

Over the past two days, I watched all the films of Kenneth Anger Volume II. I got the DVD from Netflix, and I’ll admit it sat on the sidelines for a few weeks, but after checking it out I was shocked by just how good all these films were. I’d previously been familiar with Anger’s work from seeing “Scorpio Rising” in Intro to Film Part II in my days at Wesleyan, and I really liked it, but it turned out to be only the start of Anger’s work.

The thing that makes me like Anger’s work so much is the fusion of pop iconography and mystical imagery in an avant garde structure. Anger is one of the all too rare artists out there who manages to skillfully jump between low culture and high culture styles, making things that could seem pretentious, like Scorpio’s cuts to Jesus, work because they’re mashed up with the over the top sounds of an early 60s pop song.

Bringing in the magical component makes him even more like Grant Morrison, another artist who incorporates the style of low culture into avant garde narrative structures. The distillation of narrative to a series of iconic images and pop moments in Final Crisis feels like comics’ answer to the sort of jump cutty visual language Anger employs here. One of the major problems with most avant garde films is that they forget that on some level every piece of art is meant to entertain. It can be thought provoking and challenging, but there should be that visceral spark of fun, and all of Anger’s work has that.

The first couple of films in the collection are scored with the same sort of 50s and early 60s pop songs that David Lynch used to such wonderful effect in many of his films. Even after hearing it a bunch of times, a song like “Blue Velvet” feels utterly alien, I really like the song, but it feels like a transmission from another world. These pop songs are caught at the crossroads of a changing culture, moving from the crooner era of the 40s into the rock era of the 50s. Pop music essentially coalesced into the film it now inhabits with the arrival of The Beatles, who laid the groundwork for basically everything that’s followed. So, the more prog sounds of the later films feel more comfortable and familiar than the songs in “Scorpio.”

“Lucifer Rising” is the other long work in the set, and it’s a really fascinating film, a more concise and effective version of a lot of the themes that Jodorowsky explored in The Holy Mountain. I have a soft spot for the sort of mystical imagery that I’m sure a lot of people would call pretentious wank. I think film does have a legitimately mystical component, and the best filmmakers are the ones who manage to turn cinema into a kind of religious experience. Telling a story is fine, but casting a spell is much more challenging and ambitious. Malick is a filmmaker who does this, as are more recently Gaspar Noe and Wong Kar-Wai.

Anger draws on religious imagery as a way of building a cosmology within “Lucifer.” I’m not sure exactly what the film is saying, but watching it, the combination of images and music succeeded in drawing me into the world of the film. I love the visuals, particularly the astounding on location shots at the Sphinx and pyramids, as well as the arrival of the UFO at the end.

Grant Morrison has talked a lot about how his comics aren’t about magic, they are the magic, and that’s how I feel it is with these films too. In neglecting traditional narrative, Anger targets the subconscious directly and is able to draw you in. It’s the kind of filmmaking I love to see. Film can do so many things, it’s tragic that it’s been trapped in this prison of the three act narrative, composing the work on a page not on screen. I think that’s one of the things that makes filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai and Malick so significant, the fact that they work off script so often, and actually build their films out of images not just translating the words on a page, and Anger does the same thing here, creating works that are distinctly cinematic and enthralling.


Bob Temuka said...

I love Anger's films, but would never recommend them to anybody else. The pretentious wank factor is just too high for most.

I really like the fact that Anger's use of pop songs to score his movies was one of the first, and have seen Scorcese explicitly refer to Anger's films as an inspiration for using modern rock and pop music in his own movies. It's another case where the avant garde gets absorbed by the mainstream and becomes more understandable, but I doubt that Anger's more esoteric themes will be that easy to absorb.

My favourite Anger film is still Invocation of my Demon Brother, because it was the first one I saw on a terribly damaged video tape in the early nineties, but I got to sit down and watch some of his earlier films recently and they're also worth a look. Fireworks is bloody remarkable, especially when its hard to imagine much of a positive public reaction to the unashamedly gay short when it released 60 years ago...

Patrick said...

I'd agree Anger isn't someone whose work you can recommend to everyone out there. There may have been specific messages or narratives intended, but what I get out of it is more just a general impression and mood, and interesting moments of juxtaposition of the music and the images he chooses. But, I could easily see someone struggling to make it through the full half hour of Scorpio or Lucifer, just because it's essentially the same thing over and over again, with only minor building.

I'm going to check out the first volume of his films shortly, so I'll see how those compare to the later stuff.