Before Harvey Milk There Was Anger

     

    The first was a compulsion to make films — dense and mystical films. Films that arranged satanic and sacred symbology within Hollywood melodrama and that reimagined a silent-era America in which occultist Aleister Crowley’s psychedelic Egyptian spiritualism permeated the collective consciousness. Films the likes of which had never been made. He began making them when he was 10 years old.

    The second obstacle was his being a gay man years before the legislation of homosexuality in the United States.

    It was the latter which got him thrown in prison on “obscenity” charges following a public film screening in 1947. It was the former which brought the first American film with pervasive and self-implicating homosexual themes — Anger’s masterpiece, “Fireworks” — to the Supreme Court, where it was famously deemed art rather than pornography. Anger was released from prison, and so were his inner demons — now fueled by a radical spirit and an ever-deepening obsession with Hollywood’s B-list tabloid fantasies and Crowley’s black magic rhetoric.

    It’s almost a shame that “Fireworks” is rarely mentioned historically without the words “homoerotic” or “court case” appearing within the first sentence of its description. This is only to say that Anger’s cinematic voice wholly transcends any obligatory ties to its sociopolitical groundbreaking. “Fireworks” is a stunning fever dream that navigates documentary (the contemporary rawness of the bedroom scenes) and hyper-staged Hollywood conventions (the sets, the dramatic studio lighting and the attention to the artificial ephemera of Hollywood worlds: the costumes, the makeup, the fake blood, et cetera). And while it surely includes imagery that, at the time, would’ve been deemed homoerotic, “Fireworks” is, at its core, an absolutely heartbreaking and deeply personal love story.

    “This flick is all I have to say about being 17, the United States Navy, American Christmas and the Fourth of July,” Anger often said of the film.

    Much in the way that David Lynch would (four decades later) abstract Hollywood conventions to develop his distinct brand of American surrealism, Anger dissected these tropes with the tenacity of a madman, creating familiar and haunting dream spaces that his closeted thoughts could inhabit.

    In more ways than one, Kenneth Anger was advanced. The fact that he was making films this experimental and sublime in the ’40s and ’50s is astonishing. He tirelessly made art in a punk frame of mind years before the Velvet Underground or the Stooges were even foggy blips on the horizon. Lynch, as well as John Waters and Martin Scorsese, often cite Anger as a major influence. And, of course, Anger was undeniably a crucial gay rights activist, if only because he was determined to make his art, no matter what the public called “lewd” or “obscene.” For the first time in American cinema, Anger made gay culture visible to the public simply by embedding it in some of the most potent and timeless cinematic work ever made.

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