OVER the last half-century, Kenneth Anger has emerged as one of the icons of American avant-garde cinema. Endlessly imaginative and original, Anger is also a pioneer in expressing and exploring homoeroticism on screen in ways that are daring and often outrageous but that also elicit an inescapable sense of recognition. Anger's work reveals his fascination with the occult, and he ranges easily from the ethereal to a jangly thicket of pop culture images. Although he can evoke memories of Jean Cocteau -- "Beauty and the Beast" on the one hand, "Orpheus" on the other -- Anger, in his unique way, is as American as apple pie.
The UCLA Film and Television Archive has restored four of Anger's short films, including the groundbreaking 15-minute "Fireworks" (1947) and the 29-minute "Scorpio Rising" (1963), one of Anger's best-known and most important works. They will be screened Saturday as part of the archive's 13th annual Festival of Preservation, with Anger in attendance.
Right at the start, with "Fireworks," Anger revealed a mastery of poetic surrealism that would characterize his entire \o7oeuvre\f7. It unfolds as in a dream experienced by a slim, dark-haired young man (Anger), drawn to a sailor, a bodybuilder who poses for the youth only to brutally reject his advances and round up about a dozen other sailors to attack the youth savagely. The young man's conflicting sexual desire and equally intense fear interact, building to an explosive finish. "Fireworks" retains its power, leaving one to ponder what a seismic effect it must have had on those who saw it when it was new. (Anger once remarked of "Fireworks": "This flick is all I have to say about being 17, the United States Navy, American Christmas and the Fourth of July.")
When "Scorpio Rising" opened as an added attraction to Adolfas Mekas' hilarious, high-spirited "Hallelujah the Hills" in March 1964 at the long-gone Cinema Theater in Los Angeles, it was seized by police as an obscene film. (It was successfully defended by the late Stanley Fleishman, the legendary civil rights attorney.) The film expands greatly on Anger's exploration in "Fireworks" of the connection between sex and violence with its potential for death. It opens with a sideburned youth working on his motorcycle, but when he finishes his tinkering and peers into a mirror, the classic figure of Death as a hooded skeleton peers back.
This image signals a shift in tone from the documentary to the mythic as Anger depicts bikers ritually dressing in leather jackets, chains and skull-and-crossbones rings. Anger thereafter rapidly intercuts glimpses of Marlon Brando in "The Wild One" playing on a TV set. The bikers could be revving up for a race, an orgy or a gay-bashing -- or all three. They have become gay leather icons, and Anger daringly intercuts their going forth into the night with clips from a Sunday school-type film showing Jesus leading his disciples. Anger's rush of images intermingles Christian symbols and Nazi swastikas, sex and violence. "Scorpio Rising" grows ever darker -- and ever more compelling. At the same time Anger makes use of a pop song soundtrack, a device soon to become a lasting cliche of mainstream movies, that is both amusing and exhilarating. The very titles of the key songs -- "Dream Lover," "Fools Rush In," "I've Fallen in Love With You," "Blue Velvet," "Hit the Road, Jack," "No Turnin' Back" and "I Will Follow Him" -- provide the film with a narrative. Anger never made a more dynamic or disturbing film.
Two more shorts round out the evening. "Kustom Kar Kommandos" (1965) is a three-minute vignette in which a sexy young man in tight T-shirt and jeans seductively polishes a heavily chromed customized car. This was to serve as a promo for a longer film on the aficionados of such cars that never got made. And "Rabbit's Moon" (shot in 1950, released in 1971) is a 16-minute commedia dell'arte-style vignette featuring Anger as Pierrot in a tribute to pioneer French filmmaker Georges Melies. It anticipates Anger's "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome" and other such fanciful works.
Kenneth Anger retrospective
Where: James Bridges Theater, Melnitz Hall, UCLA campus
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Price: $8 online; $7 at the door
Info: (310) 206-FILM, www.cinema.ucla.edu