Stare into the magick lantern of Kenneth Anger, the single degree of separation between Scorsese and John Waters 

Anger Management

Anger Management

Few avant-gardists have had the same impact on the mainstream of cinema and TV history as the great Kenneth Anger — and frankly, that has stuck in the man's craw just a little bit. In interviews, he has evinced great pride in the fact that narrative film artists such as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and R. W. Fassbinder have been influenced by his work. At the same time, when Anger is referred to as "the father of music video," he understandably bristles, and wonders where his residuals went.

The five films showing 7 p.m. Thursday at Third Man Records' Light and Sound Machine (the first of two programs) are all part of Anger's magnum opus, "The Magick Lantern Cycle." Although each film is a self-contained, individual piece, all the films in the Cycle (works Anger, who is still active, made between roughly 1947 and 1980) share certain characteristics. As a filmmaker, Anger's interest in the occult always manifested as a specific — one might even say "fundamentalist" — understanding of the cast-out Lucifer as the angel of light. As such, his films attempt to induce near-hypnotic states through the incorporation of images of dazzling, glinting light.

Thus a relatively placid film such as "Eaux D'Artifice" (1953), which depicts water moving through a Baroque set of garden fountains, becomes a high-key study in light rippling off water. And the exquisite "Puce Moment" (1949) uses vibrating, anthropomorphic dresses to activate sequins as optical hotspots. These cinematic phenomena become pure vision, overwhelming the capacity to harness vision for the usual purposes of perceiving "things." As such, Anger allows for the possibility that these moments could be epiphanic, even narcotic.

Anger's first film, "Fireworks" (1947), is the film that most directly literalizes this idea of light as ecstasy, although in other respects it is the man's most atypical work. A psychodrama in the mold of Jean Cocteau, "Fireworks" is perhaps Anger's most directly narrative film, following the dream/nightmare logic of troubled desire. A gay man (played by Anger) goes out in search of love and sex, and encounters some very rough trade. A group of sailors beat him with chains. Eventually the protagonist is transfigured as his penis erupts into a flaming roman candle. A film that was charged with obscenity upon its release, "Fireworks" has become an unqualified classic of queer cinema.

Building from his interest in hard bodies, rituals and the power of raw, untamed lumen, Anger produced his signature film in 1963. "Scorpio Rising" is the film that harnessed Anger's visual concerns with the emotive capacities (and ironic counterpoint) of classic rock 'n' roll, providing an early template for MTV's vocabulary of sound and image. We see a lone biker primping, getting ready to join his mates in a motorcycle club-cum-cult meeting that combines and conflates Christian, satanic and Nazi symbology. Anger's exacting use of music has allowed "Scorpio" to reach a somewhat wider audience. Who can argue with pairing a BDSM sequence with Kris Jensen's "Torture," showing footage of Jesus and his disciples set to Little Peggy March's "I Will Follow Him," or depicting an all-enveloping group mentality with Gene McDaniels' "Point of No Return"? But the enduring strength of "Scorpio" is its politically incorrect portrait of male desire, to say nothing of its consideration of conformity and toadyism as masochistic pleasures all their own.

While it's true that "Scorpio Rising" is probably Anger's most fully realized film, it's an earlier film, "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome" (1954), that seems to go furthest in articulating Anger's obsessions in their most unadulterated form. The film is deeply influenced by, and at times a direct illustration of, the principles of Aleister Crowley, particularly his philosophy of Thelema ("Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law"). After a reveler gets himself ready before joining the larger group, a sequence that has become somewhat customary for Anger, we soon enter a space of radical ambiguity.

Radiant figures, reflecting a kind of mythological all-star team, interact against a stark black background as Leoš Janácek's "Glagolitic Mass" establishes a tone of holy fervor. Eventually, Anger uses superimpositions of dancing fabrics (á la "Puce Moment") to create a kind of shimmering, cut-rate Xanadu. Once again, Lucifer is "present" as a cinematic idea, pure luminosity seducing us out of total darkness. At the same time, the ardent devotional tone of "Pleasure Dome" belies the cheap, gaudy costumes and makeup, the atmosphere of queerness on a budget reminiscent of the films of Jack Smith. "Scorpio Rising" will always be Anger's most influential film, but "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome" could be his most untamable.




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