Monday, October 15, 2007

10/15: Kenneth Anger shorts; September

Kenneth Anger's revolutionary half-hour film Scorpio Rising is the primary document on which his reputation rests; if he made nothing else, it's safe to say that he would still be remembered today, at least among cineastes, for this alone. Now that I've finally seen it, thanks to Fantoma's fantastic second DVD set of his work, I can easily see why it's so acclaimed. This is a wild, hallucinatory catalogue of American pop culture fetishes: leather, motorcycles, sex, death, Dick Tracy, James Dean, cops, and fascists. All this is overlaid with a selection of fresh-faced pop tunes, which both comment wryly on the on-screen imagery and to some extent define the pace of the editing rhythms, sometimes quickening to a jagged fast tempo, sometimes slowing down into stately, sweeping camera movements for a ballad.

The film begins with a fetishized, in-detail look at the mechanics of a motorcycle, all gleaming chrome and grease, reflecting light in hazy, washed-out bursts. Next up is a fetishized, in-detail look at the mechanics of the male body, hyper-sexualized in a series of scenes of bikers getting ready to go out, wrapping themselves in leather and chains and sunglasses. Anger is gathering the elements here, setting the stage for a tour de force of free-associative montage in which motorcycles and male bodies become the raw materials. Within this rapid-fire stream of associations, ideas, and startling images, there's more than enough to require many, many more viewings, and I have a feeling I'll be going back to this soon, as I did with my favorite few films from the first Fantoma set. But Scorpio Rising seems even more fraught with implications and ideas than even the best earlier films; this is the apotheosis of Anger's filmmaking to that point, the perfect expression of his aesthetics. James Dean looms large here, because he was, in his life and death, himself an expression of so much of what Anger wants to get across here. Dean, to many, was an epitome of American masculinity, an icon, though of course the fact that he was gay would've stunned 50s America. His appearance here, amidst 50s pop tunes and the ephemera of bike culture, is surely meant to raise these conflicting identities, the public/cultural and the private. Anger also raises a filmic eyebrow at comic books, selectively showing individual panels from several newspaper strips with a clear homoerotic subtext.

Anger takes the elemental components of American pop culture — the cult of movie stars, comics and their exaggerated cartoon characters, (heterosexual) love songs — and blends them together into a primal and warped expression of his own perspective on the culture around him. This culminates in an apocalypse of Nazi imagery, a leather-clad cop who transforms into a masked dictator, and an orgiastic gay Halloween party complete with death masks and 'cycles. The film's flow of imagery is at time dizzying, creating fleeting impressions and momentary connections that then drift away as the wild rush pours onward. It's fun, delirious, and absolutely demands more viewings, so I'll hold back any further comment until I revisit the film.

I also watched Anger's Kustom Kar Kommandos, which feels like a definite companion piece to Scorpio. A 3-minute fragment of what would've been a sequel of sorts to the previous film, what survives is a light-hearted and gorgeously photographed vignette. Much like Anger's earlier Puce Moment, which was also an unfinished fragment, this is primarily a study in color. A series of loving close-up shots trace a fluffy white brush as it buffs the gleaming surface of an improbable souped-up car. If this is any indication, Kustom would have done for American drag racing culture what Scorpio did for motorcycles. As it is, it's a study in luminous pinks, pale blues, and the bloody red of the car's utterly ridiculous vaginal seat cushions, all set to the Paris Sisters' "Dream Lover" — which is as perfect an ode to the love of a car as you could possibly imagine.

It's been a little while, but I'm now back on track with my Woody Allen chronology, and tonight I watched September, which seems to be one of his most thoroughly forgotten (and/or reviled) films prior to the 90s. I can't say I get the widespread hatred, though. The film refers back in some ways to his first real dramatic work, 1978's Interiors, though this is a much more satisfying film. In fact, I would venture to say that September is the film that Woody intended Interiors to be, succeeding where the earlier film sometimes stumbled, exploring very dark subject matter without descending too far into ponderousness, and most importantly treating the characters with much more warmth and sympathy. Whereas Interiors kept its characters at a deliberate distance, favoring objectivity but winding up with coldness — alleviated only by the wonderful scenes with Maureen Stapleton — September is much closer to its characters and infused with the autumnal warmth implied by its title.

Much of this is a matter of color, light, and movement, as embodied in the two films' aesthetics and cinematography. Both films are chamber dramas, set mostly in the restrictive space of a single house (in the case of September, the camera never leaves the house at all). And both films begin similarly, with shots of the empty house. But even from the very beginning, September exudes a very different aura. Where Interiors began with a static shot, with a cold gray palette that rarely changed throughout the film, in this film the camera is gliding along from the very start, and the house is open, cheery, filled with a golden autumn light streaming in the windows. And if the house in Interiors was truly silent and dead at the beginning of that film, this house is filled right from the start with voices wafting through it, and the camera glides around corners until it finds the source. None of these distinctions, though, are meant to imply that September is a particularly happy movie, in spite of the welcoming warmth of its opening; it's one of the most gut-wrenching dramas imaginable, every bit as despairing in its way as Interiors before it.

While Interiors is about stasis and glaciation, September is about, at least, the hope for change. As a result, all the characters are constantly moving here, and the camera with them, framing them together, then documenting their separation and isolation. Even in the first scene this happens, as the camera tracks around to find Stephanie (Dianne Wiest) and Howard (Denholm Elliott) sitting together on the couch. The camera frames them together for a few moments, until she gets up and walks away, leaving him alone. The camera then tracks in for a close-up on Elliott, emphasizing his loneliness and isolation, tightening the frame so that where once there were two, there's now one. Right away, Allen is hinting at themes of loneliness, disconnection, and longing for love, and this use of the camera frame to form and then dissolve couples is a key undercurrent in the film. All of the characters staying at this country house are grouped around Lane (Mia Farrow), who's convalescing after a suicide attempt. She's trying to recover some shreds of her life, after a failed relationship pushed her over the edge. But her current infatuation with her tenant Peter (Sam Waterston), is doomed since he loves her married friend Stephanie, while Howard actually loves Lane but realizes that she doesn't return the feelings. Further complicating matters is the presence of Lane's vibrant but totally selfish mother (Elaine Stritch) and her new husband.

The film initially looks at this complicated network of relationships with the same hint of distance that was present throughout Interiors, and I was at first as put off by it as I was in the earlier film. But pretty soon things change during the lengthy blackout scene that forms the film's core. During a heavy rainstorm one night, the electricity goes out and the characters are trapped inside in a candlelit gloom. It's one of the most beautifully understated and rich sequences in Allen's filmography, with a melancholic aura hanging over every interaction. At this point, the film settles into a comfortable intimacy with its characters, the camera gliding around them familiarly, probing delicately at their psychological nuances and emotions. This is especially true of the incredible scenes between Wiest and Waterston, as their mutual flirtation blooms into lust and affection. These are two great actors, especially Wiest, who is never less than dazzling in any role, and their conversation crackles with depth and intelligence, putting as much force into what's unsaid, or what's said only through glances and smiles, as what they actually say aloud. This is Allen at the peak of his writing prowess, and gifted with two actors who can do real justice to the material. Elaine Stritch also gets some wonderful dialogue, particularly a lengthy monologue on aging and regrets which she delivers sorrowfully, half to her mirror and half to her daughter. Not all of the writing is quite as high quality, and the script occasionally lapses into cliché or melodrama, but on the whole this is a fine film, elevated by its masterful performances and the fluid, suggestive camerawork.

1 comment:

DavidEhrenstein said...

From the moment it premiered Scorpio Rising was a crowd-pleaser. While all manner of other avant-garde films often had trouble fiding an audience whenever Anger's film was booked turn-away crowds were assured. Bruce Byron, the dude who appears in your picture, would frequently show up at screenings. When the film became a hit he wanted to bask in the relected glow of its success. Then he became confused by it. He'd never thought about the movies but Anger had made him a sort-of-star. What could he do? He certainly wasn't an actor.
Well, seeing that he was a drunk -- he drank. And after a few years he vanished into the obscurity from whence he came.