BY Jason Simon in Reviews | 06 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 29

Kenneth Anger

BY Jason Simon in Reviews | 06 SEP 96

The 100 year life and death of cinema is an increasingly widespread subject for filmmakers who want to note their millennial moment. If the 20th century has been written for and on the screen, completing the footnotes occupies some of the best authors of the period. Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire du Cinéma television pieces, Chris Marker's Silent Movie video installation, and Mark Rappaport's two films, Rock Hudson's Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg, belong to a first tier of epithets that is growing exponentially around film'scentenary. In the effort to excavate the present, now being buried by the future, the avant-garde cinema of the 60s, 70s and pre-MTV 80s, (alternately called the underground, experimental, abstract or personal cinema) looks like it might just stay buried. In the rush to interpret the effects of 100 years of movies, the filmmakers who have been doing just that for decades are standing at the back.

Pop culture's visual vocabulary refers incessantly to its own filmic make-up, to the point of eviscerating the idea of reflexivity as well as belying its video heart. Attuning audiences to the material of film while they watched, was invented and refined by experimental filmmakers for whom reflexive gestures held powerful meanings far out of proportion to their actual impact upon audiences. The 8mm blow-ups, multi-screen projections and non-narrative visual portraits were bound to get drawn away to productions where looking cool was more than enough, effectively making creative free agents of the filmmakers. That images and stories from avant-garde cinema continue to filter into the art world, reaching for a permanence that film never grants, looks like a reasonable recourse, if not just creative pragmatism. Crossover from film or single-channel video to the gallery is an option that some filmmakers have long-since taken as a given (Bruce Conner, Peter Greenaway), others have more recently committed to with great success (Beth B, Tony Oursler) and still others experiment with in a halting, touching way (Chantal Ackerman, Chris Marker).

Joining this last group is Kenneth Anger, whose earliest extant short film, Fireworks (1947), made at age 18, began a career that spanned the 50s and 60s. This career stopped dramatically in 1967 with the theft of footage from a work in progress (Lucifer Rising) and the burning of his pre-1947 films. Anger began making films again in the 70s, continuing until the release of the final version of Lucifer Rising in 1980 and the publication of the first volume of Hollywood Babylon. Throughout his career, he worked under the influence of famed occultist Aleister Crowley.

Currently, Anger is exhibiting a suite of cibachrome frame enlargements along with a portion of his Hollywood memorabilia collection in the small basement gallery of Anthology Film Archives, one of the last major hang-outs for experimental filmmakers. The stills and memorabilia are arranged in a face-off on opposite walls, like a home theatre lobby display or a pastiche of MoMA's basement. The photographs, or Icons, as Anger has called them, are all from the Magic Lantern Cycle: his best known work, which includes Invocation of my Demon Brother (1969), Scorpio Rising (1963) and Lucifer Rising (1966-80). His films established him as a central force within American avant-garde Cinema, even if much of the acknowledgement side-stepped or condemned the films' explicit homoeroticism. His pop music scores combined with biker boys and vintage wardrobes successfully seduced audiences with proto-music-video sexiness. For Anger, they were much more: testimonies to his deities Pan and Puck, his films were rooted in the dystopian Southern California after Raymond Chandler and before the early 70s counter culture. Anger's reworking in the 70s of Inaugration of the Pleasure Dome, Rabbits Moon and Lucifer Rising, hovered between the cabalistic mysteries of the occult and a trenchant view of tinsel town's repressed. One needs only look at the terror struck among the stars by a revelation of homosexuality, via Rock Hudson's Home Movies, to find a sense of cinema's secrets unveiled in Anger's films. Hollywood Babylon makes clear that Anger is closer to Nathanael West and Raymond Carver than he is to Maya Deren or Rudy Burkhardt.

The Icons are Anger memorabilia ­ they have the same power of nostalgia as a poster of Anna Karenina or a Garbo glossy. This is less true of the frames from dissolves between one image and the next: symbols, in Anger's own words, of 'the impossible, time arrested'. Across from these 24th-of-a-second moments of transition are Anger's prizes, a small portion of his renowned collection, including a set of interiors of his home, in which he sits like a wax museum figure. Judging by these few images, the arrangement in Anger's California house of such items as the forensic photos of Sharon Tate (included), Valentino's marble dildo (not included), or, in what is oddly the centre of the Anthology show, an eclectic display of Michael Curtiz-related artefacts, is much more impressive than what curator Jonas Mekas has been able to offer in New York. The show feels like a tomb where we can mourn beauty. At the beginning is a poster for Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) ­ in which Anger debuted as a child actor ­ and glossies of Anger in his prime. From these, it seems that no beauty is to be mourned more than Anger's own.

Jason Simon is an artist and Professor at The College of Staten Island, City University of New York, USA.