Mid-week Anger: Introduction and Fireworks (1947) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
11Nov/150

Mid-week Anger: Introduction and Fireworks (1947)

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The Kenneth Anger films discussed as part of this project are available for purchase in a collection from Fantoma.

The man in the fleshFirst, a note of appreciation for Matt Zoller Seitz, who suggested I take a look at the films of Kenneth Anger when I was in the middle of my Maya Deren project.  His Twitter and other online writing is a must-follow for anyone interested in television and film criticism, is the writer of two books on Wes Anderson and a forthcoming compendium of his Mad Men reviews, and has the gentlest eyes in the business.

Second, I feel surprisingly overwhelmed taking even a high-level look at Anger's career, let alone going through his films one at a time.  My previous experimental filmmaker projects with Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage felt self-contained in comparison because their careers and lives have come to peaceful ends.  Anger, at 88 years of age, commands an impressive body of work outside cinema as a writer of books like Hollywood Babylon and is still producing new material.

Now that I've taken in Fireworks, one of his earliest surviving films, I understand more why I feel so daunted.  There's a vitality in his body that defies his age and if his films continue to challenge me in the same way Fireworks did then I may be in for an exhausting few months.

On to the project.BurnIf you had me watch Fireworks a few years ago I might have smugly dismissed it.  There's no mistaking the way Anger employs images and editing to suggest a homoerotic state of deep yearning and painful bliss.  It's as "heart on sleeve" as you can get when it comes to portraying the desire of young Anger, who was only 20 when Fireworks was released.  Heck, I might have even chuckled at the sight of the Christmas tree which enters the nameless dreamer's home (also played by Anger) as it starts a fire which consumes photos of young men embracing.

My nerves are more raw than they've ever been, and it's not so easy for me to dismiss Anger's naked lust throughout Fireworks.  It's unsettling not just because of the depth of feeling of the breadth of the dreamer's wishes.  The lust on display in Fireworks goes far beyond sexual desire, though there is a component of that in many of the images, and into realms of self-torment and pain which seem just as soon poised to break the dreamer as they would pleasure him.  I'd go far as to say Fireworks is pure jouissance, splitting the dreamer into his waking and night-time selves, able to approach what he wants when the sun goes down but unable to see the face of his eventual lover by day.

It's impossible to avoid the basic sexual link in Fireworks and comes as little surprise Anger made the film as a way of expressing how he felt being a 17-year old homosexual in the Navy.  The images don't have patience for rhythm and care, like the steady build to an orgasm.  Instead Anger structures Fireworks like a series of mini-climaxes, much like the way a horny teenager might find a dirty magazine and spend the day and night bringing himself to orgasm repeatedly.  The strength of his lust is made clear when his hand rests close to his crotch only to cut to a shot of what appears to be a gigantic erection and instead is a wooden figurine of a man under the sheets.  What's curious about this shot is that Anger shows the dreamer's lust not truly resting within himself, but in the firm body of another.

What are you keeping insideThe lust of the dreamer frequently spills out in unexpected ways.  Above we see how Anger frames the dreamer as though his lust is escaping from his body like steam from a kettle or fire through an exhaust port.  When Fireworks was released in '47 this is the sort of image we might expect to see from a Merrie Melodies or Looney Tunes animation.  But Anger, staring directly into the camera, denies us the opportunity to take an escape path that this may be taken as a joke.

Further attempts at escape into the darkness or into a bar show how the dreamer's lust spills out onto others.  Anger presents this quite literally as the fire spreads to a Christmas tree, and I realized this is just about perfect.  Christmas is a perfect time for the gaudy and decadent as we decorate the stiff pine with glitter and shiny orbs.  Part of the reason "flamboyant homosexual" is even a term in our language is because homosexuals lived in fear of their lives (sadly, this is still the case) and when able to be themselves they push their emotions into confident displays of self-affirmation.  The dreamer's desire to let loose burns the perfect expression of that repression in the form of a holiday icon associated as much with family and tradition as it is decadence and exhibitionism - another messy identity split.

My partners and loversThe metaphorical destructive potential of the dreamer's lust becomes frighteningly real in the startling central sequence of Fireworks.  The dreamer finds a sailor who, at first, seems somewhat willing to be the object of the dreamer's gaze.  He playfully pushes the dreamer away as the dreamer lights a cigarette on the end of a long blazing stick (another image not hard to decipher but potent all the same with Anger's infatuated expression).  But when the dreamer leaves this safe space he's confronted by a group of armed boys and things get violent.

Anger crafts this section in a manner separate to the rest of Fireworks.  Instead of the enclosed space of the dreamer's home or the bar where the dreamer met his semi-willing partner the Navy boys appear from a dark void.  There's no safe space to crawl to, just the reality of their existence and their intent toward the dreamer, and since we're denied the more abstract images of the burning tree or sculpture we're forced to confront this reality along with the dreamer.  The lighting grows noticeably harsh as they descend on the dreamer.

This is the climax I was not prepared for, and the only time we see fluid escape from Anger's body.  We barely see the flesh of the dreamer meet the weapons of the Navy boys and instead lingers on two important images.  The first is of the dreamer's face, contorted first in pain but then as the blood gushes from his nose he seems torn between despair and delight.  The second is of a Navy boy the dreamer is grasping at, grinning like a demon, with the dreamer's hand twisted into a claw close to the grinning boy's crotch.  It's a pure exchange of pain and surprised pleasure, both for the dreamer and Navy boy alike, and the exchange stops only when the Navy boy is dragged away.  It's the suggestion of violence and pleasure colliding, since we don't see the wound directly inflicted save for the moment the dreamer's nose is penetrated, which made this so unsettling.

But it also felt uncomfortably familiar.  I've pushed my body beyond the breaking point in the search for some kind of pleasure which rested not in myself but in the admiration or desire of others.  Trying to communicate just why I wanted to, or what I could hope to gain from such an arrangement, seems pointless compared to the blissful release of its completion.  I recognized myself in the gaps of Fireworks as I inserted my own experiences between the suggested blows, making the scene personal in a way I didn't anticipate.

Vertical pleasureWhich brings me to another uncomfortable point I've thought a lot about since completing Fireworks.  I rarely watch movies I plan on writing about with their commentary on to create as pure an expression of my reception as possible.  But with Fireworks I was so unsettled by the experience I had to watch it again with Anger's commentary intact.

The boy who the dreamer meets and lusts after?  The one whose back Anger lights to accentuate the shadow of the muscles around the curve of his spine?  The one who presents himself to the dreamer in a handstand before framed as though they are about to go down on one another?  That boy was 16 years old.

I felt a quick flush of shame as surprising as it was strong.  Before this fact I admired the boy's physique, not in the same way as the dreamer seemed to, but as a near-perfectly sculpted creation.  I also didn't refer to him as a boy in my notes, calling him a man and noting his strong features performing in the well-lit room.  He was as a stark comparison to the less muscular boys who emerged from the darkness to confront the dreamer.  But this fact turned my admiration to shame and I wondered if I drank of the dreamer's lust too deeply to see any kind of sign of the muscular boy's age.

The more I thought I realized there was little for me to feel shame over.  Anger made this film barely out of his teens as an expression of his experience as a homosexual man in the Navy when he was 17.  The residual shock came more from how much I recognized myself in the sadomasochism and less the shared admiration of the boy's remarkable (in Anger's words) physique.

So I end my first experience with Kenneth Anger in the wake of shock, admiration, brief moments of self-reflection through odd shame, and respect.  I look forward to examining other parts of myself in the coming weeks through Anger's films and hope the results continue to surprise.

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Posted by Andrew

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