Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Kenneth Anger: I'm Your Puppet

My idol spoke at Redcat last night. He is bronzed, aged, round in the middle, and possessed of a rare gift of speech. He has clearly modeled his manner after the movie queens of old. His eyes gleam and he pulls up his forehead muscles for emphasis. He uses words like valise, in reference to things like suicide bombings. As if a suicide bomber would carry a valise!

He did not like the projection of his films this evening. Too soft a focus, an “approximate focus,” he complained repeatedly. “These images are razor sharp,” because the focal point of the scene in question was a young man’s scarlet scar splashed across his forehead. He was right, the screen was fuzzy. Another scene in this introductory footage featured this same scarred young man carrying a Dopey lawn gnome. Apparently these are quite valuable, Anger said, but people don't know it and leave them out to rot in their yards. Personally, he likes a different, more intellectual dwarf better: Doc.

Kenneth Anger started making films at the age of 8, with his family’s wind-up Ciné Kodak. He moved from 16 mm to 35 mm, and proclaimed that once you start using 35 it’s hard to go back.
According to the program Kenneth Anger spent much of the time between the 60s and the present worshipping the devil or something else occult. He loves death, or, rather, death fascinates him endlessly.

We saw several films. The first screened was Mouse Heaven, a wonderfully moving homage to the image of the original Mickey Mouse. “I’m Your Puppet” played to great effect, what an ear for pop songs this man has! If only Phil Spector had turned to Kenneth Anger in the late 60s instead of to drugs and sycophants.

Next came Ich Will!, a re-editing of Hitler Youth films set to the symphonic splendor of Anton Bruckner’s 9th. Shots of teen boys in the mountains, conquering the Alps, plunging into presumably icy lakes, chowing down in the woods, and, of course, saluting their Führer, played across the screen, everything glowing redly. In one scene the boys jump off a building, one at a time, falling through space, and then, in what looks like a cobbled together sequence, they land on a sheet held by their mates and bounce, bounce back into the air. It’s strange, at first it looks like one boy after another jumps to his death, but then the sheet pops up in the shot. It is reminiscent of the child suicide in Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, whose young protagonist plunges to his death from a building. Yet in Anger’s film there is only joy and robust health personified in countless little embodiments of Nazi physical ideals. So unlike Rossellini’s starved, desperate child. Perhaps the shades are two sides of the same coin: had the chubby boys featured running alongside the Youth in Anger’s film survived the war, they might have thinned out in hardship and the failure of the Nazi dream to reify the Aryan people forever. Anger mentioned that he talked with Leni Riefenstahl, “the best female filmmaker ever,” about the enthusiasm of the crowds for Hitler in her Triumph of the Will. He asked if she had prepped the crowd to respond in an over the top fashion; Anger noted that it looked like a rock concert. No, Riefenstahl replied; her camera captured only one tenth of the real feeling in the crowd.

After Ich Will! we saw Elliott’s Suicide, a film brimming over with grief and loss. The musician Elliott Smith meant a lot to Anger, either in life, in death, or both, it wasn’t clear.
After that meditation on what Smith’s fans lost, they screened two homoerotic pieces, Foreplay and I’ll Be Watching You. Looks like Anger had some fun in a French parking garage last spring.

And then came Scorpio Rising, his early 1960s paean to the pain of desire and the ambiguous facets of male sociality and sexuality, and death. Although I’m a Puce Moment kind of girl, this film is shockingly energetic, alive, pulsing with sex, fun, and the loss of moral control. This is Anger’s genius: to make you feel through his images, through his projected visions. My favorite part of this film is when the music segues from “Heatwave” to “He’s a Rebel.” Fucking fantastic. And the colors! And the diabolical cats! And the juxtapositions of Jesus’ followers and a secret sexual society initiation.

A line formed next to Kenneth Anger’s table after the show. Fan after fan trooped up, thrusting materials at him for signatures, plying him with praise. This sort of thing makes me sigh, since there’s nothing for me to gain from adding my compliments to those of many others. There doesn’t seem to be any opportunity for a real interaction with an artist in a performance setting. But I dutifully got in line. My heart started pounding as I got closer, grinning foolishly, trying to create a script in my head. “Your films inspire me. I’m studying to be an anthropologist, and I make little films. Any advice?” He certainly wouldn’t tell me to go to film school.

The people in front of me made me want to throw up. Epitomizing the absolute inadequacy of heaped praise, this woman told him that if something happened to her copy of Hollywood Babylon, which she brought for him to sign (what a good idea!), she would just die, she loved the book, knew it cover to cover! More of the same.

So when I got to the front of the line I felt like Little Ralphie in A Christmas Story when he made it to Santa’s lap. What was I here for? Fortunately I didn’t ask Kenneth Anger for a football, but I didn’t say much before he brushed my grinny face off and moved on to the next person, who perhaps was prepared to be more engaging. I felt crushed. He did like my name, though.

Bobby brought up Puce Moment, which just made Kenneth Anger decry the fact that he never finished the film due to his parents’ unwillingness to finance production. They wanted him to be at Cal Tech studying aeronautic engineering. Well, Dr. Anger, what is a fragment to you creates worlds of possibility for anyone who watches it. Too bad I was too dazzled to tell you so.