The canon of queer cinema, pt. 1 - "Fireworks" by Kenneth Anger

Ok, I'm finally doing it, and not in the way anticipated. To begin this series of posts (with hopefully a good helping of commentary) we will be viewing the work of Kenneth Anger. Manhattan Offender posted this link to Kenneth Anger's Fireworks which opened the door of YouTube to me and gave me the idea that we could all start on the same (virtual) page.
So before we go any further, please take the time to watch these two short films. The first is Fireworks (1947).

The second is Scorpio Rising (1963).

So I guess the discussion I want is--
Do you find these films relatable?
Do you find them significant?
What images stick out in your mind?
What do you feel the relationship between fetishism and ritualism is?
How does that relationship fit into queer theory (as defined here)?

Ok, I'll go first. I think that both of these films are very relatable. Even today with an over-saturation of images, I still find Anger's work erotic. I enjoy the playfulness--like an erection turning out to be a statue. In Fireworks, I love the references to Cocteau. Blood of a Poet is my favorite film, and Anger alludes to it time and again (the hand statue, the hanging statue, compositions). I think the image of having a cigarette lit by a huge mass of flaming sticks and the image of fireworks in pants are unforgettable. In Scorpio Rising, I love the all of the pop-culture awareness--comic books, James Dean, and Marlon Brando--and, even more so, the choice of music. Obviously, filmmakers like David Lynch have taken much from Anger.
I find it pretty amazing that these films are around 60 and 40 years old, respectively, and they address fetishes that are still prevalent today. I mean, they're like Tom of Finland drawings come to life. Dictionary.com defines fetishism as
1. Worship of or belief in magical fetishes.
2. Excessive attachment or regard.
3. The displacement of sexual arousal or gratification to a fetish.
After reading a bit about Anger and his pre-disposition toward the occult, it is quite obvious that he views ritualism and fetishism as nearly the same entity--they both have the power to call forth a "god-like lover"(Meir) .
Now I haven't done all of my homework here, so I don't really know how this film was "distributed" or shown or any of that stuff, but ther is no denying his influence over future filmmakers--van Sant, Haynes, Araki, et. al.

So that's what I've got--how about you?

Actually, I lied. Anger's films are sometimes referred to as the "Magick Lantern" cycle. A major motif in Anger's film is light. So I'd like to point you to this short film from Sundance this year. It seems pretty easy to draw a line from Anger to Bugcrush.

Scorpio Rising


GayProf said...

Thanks for posting this and for looking to start discussion. In terms of your questions, I think a wider gay audience would still find these classic Anger films relatable. Anger traded in modern gay icons (sailors, cruising grounds, etc.) and I don’t think most gay men would find it difficult to clue into his films’ language.

For me (as a historian), I think they suggest elements of their time periods. As you know, vice squads often seized Fireworks as an illicit film. It suggests both an emerging boldness in the post-war era, but also the darker elements that informed queer sensibilities at the time. On one level, the film celebrates men’s bodies and invites (the presumed male) viewer to gaze without embarrassment. On another level, though, the intimacy between men in this film revolves around brutality. The sailors connote a hostility to same-sex desires in the external spaces of society. Moreover, the film posits a fairly common notion that the “modern” world dehumanized individuals through industrialization.

Recovery from the beating/gang rape occurs through the flow of a milk substance across the body. One could read this as the potential for same-sex-sex as redemption (milk and semen being interchanged here). Much of this imagery, though, is undermined by the assumption that the film’s events occur only within the dreams of the central figure. Thus, even in a path-breaking film like this one, same-sex-sex was relegated to the imaginary.

Two decades later, Anger delivered Scorpio Rising. Like your first selection, Scorpio Rising suggests alienation from mainstream society. Still, it also draws in pop-culture icons and makes them distinctly queer. Anger subtly claims figures like James Dean, Marlon Brando, the hyper-masculine Biker, and even Jesus by making them critical to the queer spaces of this film.

To me, though, this film seems to lack the possibilities of redemption offered in Fireworks. It suggests a much darker vision of the world than the first.

Those are my first thoughts – I hope they make sense and they were what you were looking to have posted.

You might also be interested in reading Juan Suarez’ Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars: Avant-Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the 1960s Underground Cinema.

jeremy said...

Awesome! Thanks for the input, prof! So, you said, "Moreover, the film posits a fairly common notion that the “modern” world dehumanized individuals through industrialization." I don't really get that from Fireworks. Anger was really into Alistair Crowley(sp?) and the occult, and it seems to me that all of the fetishizing and ritualizing are the ways in which humanity is stripped from the sailors (and Anger himself).
Also, you claimed that there was a redemptive quality in the seminal (milk) fluid. Clearly, the fact that the liquid is white and that it washes over him would lead one to believe that there is some sort of purification/redemtion going on. Years and years of cinema have trained us that when it rains on down, someone's gettin' a cleansin'. But the redemption offered is only shooting his load, burning images, and waking up alone. If that is redemption, then its something I don't want.
Anyway, that's alls I gots right now. Anyone else? . . . Anyone? Bueller?

GayProf said...

"Moreover, the film posits a fairly common notion that the “modern” world dehumanized individuals through industrialization."

I am basing this on two elements. First, more abstractly, the divide between the public and private spaces of the film. The central figure ventures out of the protective space of his home, where he is surrounded by mostly natural materials, into the cold, mechanical world of cars and sailors. Second, during the gang beating/rape, his chest is slit and reveals a pressure gauge instead of a heart. This seems to draw from a long standing vision of human bodies being consumed by technology (Dorothy, the Tin-WoodsMan is on line one).

But the redemption offered is only shooting his load, burning images, and waking up alone.

I see your point when it is put within the larger context of the film. For me, I responded to the particulars of the scene. So, after the revealing of the pressure gauge and his dissection, it is the seminal fluid that brought him back to life.

jeremy said...

So redemptive in the sense that he is whole again. I can buy that.
I'm still having a tough time with the modernism stuff. To me, the "outside world" in this film is still very interior feeling. The headlights from cars seem more about composition and light than about industrialization. I definitely buy into that reading more w/ the gas gauge for the heart, but for me it still reads fetishistic. Which, I guess if you compare your industrialization leading to dehumanization theory and my ritualization and fetishism leading to dehumanization thoery is pretty much the same thing. We just believe the filmmaker has a different reason for creating the image. Any which way you slice it, this film is pretty effing bomb, yo.

GayProf said...

Any which way you slice it, this film is pretty effing bomb, yo.

Word to your mother, Geeee.