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 discussed and cited much more than actually seen and heard. With the advent of YouTube, a whole new generation has access to many of Anger’s films—albeit in a rather miniature and truncated format. This type of viewing, however, does not allow for the work to really be experienced in a proper space and context. Determined to rectify this predicament, Susanne Pfeffer organized an appropriately grandiose survey of many of Anger’s key films at P.S. 1, the first major retrospective for the artist in an American museum in over a decade. Concentrating mostly on early shorts and longer cult classics like Scorpio Rising and Invocation of My Demon Brother, the exhibition is staged as a de-facto installation, complete with ceiling-to-floor red vinyl, floating screens, flickering T.V. sets, dangling colored light bulbs and fringe partitioned backrooms—all of which contribute to an atmosphere that evokes the residue of a seamy sex club.
Wandering from film to film, the viewer is able to grasp the gradual evolution of Anger’s cinematic process—from the editing and pacing to the radical approach to soundtrack. Likewise, each film presents a subtle commentary on the other, as recurring themes—from homoeroticism and the occult to a form of ritualistic Hollywood kitsch—are further 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 tail end of World War II between white sailors and local Latinos), the film’s lyrical staging of a homoerotic mock gang rape by uniformed U.S. Naval brutes is counter-balanced by surreal evocations of Christmas and the Fourth of July. The firecracker crotch shots and flaming Christmas tree also hint at the black humor which lurks beneath much of Anger’s subsequent work.
The latent homoeroticism of the gang atmosphere is gloriously revealed in Scorpio Rising, perhaps Anger’s most notorious film. Focusing on a group 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. As the camera pans along a hand-customized bike or across the muscled bodies of leather-clad young men, perfectly sequenced tunes such as “Blue Velvet” and “He’s A Rebel” provide an exquisite soundtrack. These types of moments are so commonplace today in movies and music videos that it’s difficult to fully comprehend just how radical an approach to filmmaking they were at the time. Scorsese has recounted his astonishment on first seeing Scorpio Rising, writing in recent DVD re-issue booklet how every shot seemed “pre-existing but dormant, and brought back to life through some kind of evocation.” As iconic images of Hollywood rebellion are referenced 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 his 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 quintessential archetype of a goddess and more the schlocky vixen of so many bad Hollywood B-movies. Although the lushness of color choices and the grand experimentation of soundtracks (as in Mick Jagger’s electronic distortions which score 1969’s Invocation of My Demon Brother) often more than compensates for the awkward kitsch of these psychedelic films. Ultimately, P.S. 1’s bold survey presents the sheer scope of Kenneth Anger’s baroque ambitions and provides a much-needed examination of his vast influence on both the avant-garde and popular culture.