Thursday, December 20, 2007

Kenneth Anger: Not Gay, But On Fire Like A Phallic Sparkler In A World Full Of Damp Squibs, Baby


Kenneth Anger’s films may have drawn the template for male eroticism, but he is careful with his words. He doesn’t like the term “gay”.
“It’s a distortion of language. I discussed the term with Christopher Isherwood and he said he hated it. He didn’t like ‘gay’, because it removes a perfectly wonderful descriptive word and distorts it into something else. Nietzsche wrote a book called The Gay Science that has nothing to do with ‘gay’ in a sexual sense. And there’s a wonderful book written by Otis Skinner, when I was growing up, called Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and that’s the proper meaning of the word gay. Now you can’t even mention the word gay without people doing a double-take. So I don’t use it, I don’t like it applied to myself, even though I certainly like men.”
Anger has earned the right to be curmudgeonly, even if his influence on the culture isn’t always acknowledged. If he is known at all, it’s as the author of two volumes of Hollywood Babylon, which took scurrilous pleasure in debunking the myths of tinseltown. (A third volume is written, but awaits a publisher who is unafraid of the church of Scientology).
Such ignorance is unfair; Anger’s hallucinatory imagery, full of artful juxtaposition and loaded symbolism, invented MTV decades before the advent of pop promos. He was using pop music ironically while David Lynch was still sucking popsicles.
Anger’s obscurity is partly explained by his habit of working outside the system. He has finished fewer films than he started, and the completed ones have not always been easy to find. Now, with his early work restored and collected on a Fantoma DVD (The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol 1), his status as a pioneering artist is made more obvious. The DVD includes Fireworks (1947), a dreamy film he made at the age of 17. The sexual imagery – a sailor with a phallic sparkler – was so powerful that Dr Alfred Kinsey bought a print, and Anger continues to make reports on sexual behaviour to the Kinsey Instutute. A recent trip to London included a visit to a gay porn cinema, which Anger found depressing. “It was just the usual overly-handsome blokes doing obvious things like sticking their fingers in holes.”
Anger prefers suggestion. His biker film Scorpio Rising (1964) became a test-case for cinematic censorship when it was found to have “redeeming social merit” by a California court, and there is no mistaking the eroticism in Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), which applies a fetishistic polish to the behaviour of a group of auto enthusiasts. “They had this way of dressing. It’s not a striptease, it’s the opposite. They’d put on the rings and the leather jacket, a special belt and a chain, in a tribal way, until they felt they were sufficiently geared-up, and then they would go out. It was all very natural. Of course, that was back in the 60s. Now all this fashion – leather and all that - have been opted by fashion, just like tattoos have. You have girls with roses on their butts, and tattoos used to be just bikers and criminals.”
Today, these films would seem obviously camp, but Anger’s subjects had no awareness of the kind of fantasy they were being invited to inhabit.
“They’re not gay. I mean, I never tried to seduce them. I just choose men I find beautiful. So did Rodin. It doesn’t mean I’m trying to yank their clothes off.”
Though his films have always been fiercely independent, Anger has been immersed in Hollywood lore since childhood. He appeared in the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and was instantly seduced by the ability of the movies to create fantasy. His films embrace this as keenly as his books debunk the myths of Hollywood’s golden age.
“Between divorces Randolph Scott and Cary Grant were living together, and there were these photographs of them at home which are so campy. You know: with the apron on, making breakfast. Now you’d say: ‘What were they thinking?’ But there have always been stars who had to have an arranged marriage or whatever. [Name removed for legal reasons] used to cruise round in his turquoise blue Cadillac convertible, picking up high school boys – 15, 16 years old. That’s not exactly the thing to do if you’re a Hollywood star. But it never hurt his career.”
Anger’s career as a “film poet” (a usage borrowed from Cocteau) continues at its own erratic pace. He is currently finishing a film on the singer Elliot Smith, and using festival appearances to hawk his DVD. Even so, he seems determined to not to abandon his hard-won obscurity. “I have a phobia about electronics,” he declares. “People can write me a regular letter, but I have no email or website. I don’t want all that.”