New York Kenneth Anger has long been celebrated as an important avant-garde filmmaker and a seminal influence on everyone and everything from Martin Scorsese to MTV. But as is the case with so many groundbreaking artists, Anger’s work seems to be more discussed and cited than seen and heard. With the advent of YouTube, a new generation has access to many of Anger’s films—albeit in a rather miniature and truncated format. Determined to rectify the predicament, Susanne Pfeffer has organized an extensive survey of many of Anger’s key films at P.S.1, the first major retrospective in an American museum in over a decade. Concentrating mostly on early shorts and longer cult classics, the exhibition is staged as a de-facto installation, complete with ceiling-to-floor red vinyl, hanging screens, flickering TV sets, colored lightbulbs and fringe-partitioned backrooms—all of which contribute to an atmosphere that evokes a seamy sex club.
Wandering from film to film, the viewer grasps the evolution of Anger’s cinematic process—from editing and pacing to his radical approach to the soundtrack. Likewise, the films offer subtle commentaries on one another, as recurring themes—from homoeroticism to the occult to a form of ritualistic Hollywood kitsch—are explored and expanded. The earliest film presented is Fireworks, a black-and-white lyrical short from 1947. Initially inspired by a dream that reminded Anger of the infamous Zoot Suit Riots (which erupted in Los Angeles at the end of World War II between white sailors and local Latinos), the film’s staging of a homoerotic mock gang rape by uniformed U.S. Navy brutes is counterbalanced by surreal evocations of Christmas and the Fourth of July. Firecracker crotch shots and a flaming Christmas tree presage the black humor in much of Anger’s subsequent work.
Perhaps Anger’s most notorious film, Scorpio Rising celebrates the latent homoeroticism of a group of New York motorcycle riders. The 1964 cult masterpiece is essentially a series of montages scored by a jukebox-worth of classic ’50s and ’60s pop songs. The camera pans along a customized bike or across the muscled bodies of leather-clad young men to perfectly sequenced tunes such as “Blue Velvet” and “He’s A Rebel.” Such moments are so commonplace today in movies and music videos that it’s difficult to fully appreciate how outrageous they were at the time. Referencing iconic images of Hollywood rebellion in the haunting faces of James Dean and Marlon Brando, Anger also splices in “samples” from a Lutheran Sunday School film called The Last Journey to Jerusalem, creating a highly charged, almost subconscious dialogue between Jesus and the leather-clad disciples.
In later works like Lucifer Rising (begun in 1970 but not completed until 1981), Anger’s inherent campiness often undercuts his hardcore occult intentions. A strung-out Marianne Faithfull stumbling around the pyramids at Giza seems less the archetype of a rock goddess and more the schlocky vixen of so many bad Hollywood B-movies. But the lushness of color and the grand soundtrack experimentation (such as Mick Jagger’s electronic distortions in 1969’s Invocation of My Demon Brother) can more than compensate for the awkward kitsch of these psychedelic films. P.S.1’s bold survey presents the sheer scope of Anger’s baroque ambitions and provides a much-needed examination of his vast influence on both avant-garde and popular culture.
Photo above: Left to right, Scorpio Rising, 1964, Invocation of My Demon Brother, 1969, and Lucifer Rising, 1981, all 16mm film; at P.S.1.