The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 1
THE MOVIES Finally. For American movie junkies of a certain age--as in, not old enough to grow up when independent/underground cinemas still programmed weirdness for its own sake--the mercurial, often magical shorts of Kenneth Anger have only been experienced as shitty transfers to VHS or really shitty copies of copies on VHS. Fantoma makes a huge stride in correcting that injustice with this (hopefully but the) first installment of collecting Anger's output on DVD. The lifelong insider Hollywood outsider remains one of underground American cinema's earlier indelible auteurs, and Vol. 1 gathers five shorts from 1947-'54. Included are a trio of cinematic tone poems--1949's pretty "Puce Moment," 1950's DIY commedia dell'arte "Rabbit's Moon," and 1953's absolutely otherworldly "Eaux d'Artifice"--that are even rarer to find than Anger's proverbial hits (see: "Scorpio Rising"). They're also a divine peek into a restless, imaginative movie mind trying out his low-tech effects just to see what happens.
Some of those tricks get applied to what we think about when we think about Anger in 1954's "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome," the filmmaker's decadent orgy of colors, dramatic camera work and in-camera effects, and costumes and makeup style. It's a tad tedious despite its absolutely awesome title and little-known cool of its surrounding story--e.g., it's dedicated to Aleister Crowley, you might be able to make out Ana´s Nin (she's the one with the birdcage on her head) and Curtis Harrington among its cast, it's the one people like to label "paganistic" and/or "satanic"--but it's really just the movie that showed filmmakers how to be low-budget trippy once the rest of the country caught up with Anger's psychedelic vision in the '60s.
"Fireworks" is the real aesthetic depth charge here. This 15-minute fever dream from 1947 is the blatant fantasy of a teenaged boy ganged up on by sailors, but it is also a positively transfixing piece of poetic editing, features ingenious uses of pop music, and is a glorious meditation on holidays such as Christmas and the Fourth of July. It's a short that effusively locates dark, alluring, sinister feelings in sweet intentions and the innocuous, and it retains its seductive, disarming power more than half a century later.
THE DISC First off, the greatest gift here is the exquisite transfer. Recently restored by UCLA's Film Archive, chances are even if you've seen prints of Anger's shorts that they never looked quite this sumptuous--and if all you've ever seen is VHS copies, they never got his reds, yellows, and blues quite right. The box includes a booklet with an introduction from Martin Scorsese, and the DVD itself contains technical breakdowns of the restoration process and, the second-best gift, priceless commentaries from Anger himself, who unpacks his movies with the carefree honesty of a man remembering an old lover.