In the spring of 1947, Mr and Mrs Anglemyer travelled from LA to Pittsburgh to attend an uncle’s funeral, leaving their 17-year-old son home alone for 72 hours. The young man put the time to good use: he turned the family home into a movie studio and shot a 14-minute B&W film on his parents’ 16mm Kodak camera. The result was Fireworks, a landmark in experimental and gay cinema. And the budding filmmaker was Kenneth Anger, one of American cinema’s most influential artists.
At the 1949 Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz, France, Jean Cocteau described Fireworks as ‘coming from that beautiful night from which emerge all true works’. And promptly awarded it the Festival’s Poetic Film prize. At its LA premiere, Tennessee Williams believed it to be ‘the most exciting use of cinema I’ve seen’. And Dr Alfred C Kinsey snapped up a print for his Institute For Sexual Research. Not bad for three days’ work.
The fresh-faced director plays the protagonist, The Dreamer. He awakes naked in bed with what appears to be a mighty erection: it is revealed to be an African talisman under the bed sheet. The Dreamer walks through a door labelled ‘GENTS’, he asks an acrobatic sailor for a light, and is savagely beaten by a group of chain-wielding sailors in a back alley. Blood spurts from The Dreamer’s smashed nose, milk runs down his chin and neck, and his chest is ripped open to reveal a ticking electric meter. Multiple photographs of The Dreamer in a sailor’s arms deteriorate in flames. In the final scenes a sailor ignites a Roman candle attached to his crotch, ejaculating a burst of sparks. The Dreamer is transformed into a levitating tinsel-covered Christmas tree. He is back in bed but this time with a naked lover, whose face is obscured by a bright halo.
Anger describes the film as ‘a dream of a dream’; the imagery of Fireworks came to him in his sleep. Its trance-like depiction of visceral brutality and sexual fantasy evokes a subconscious state in which external influences come into play. The Dreamer’s narcissistic mirror gazing is a nod to Cocteau’s 1930 surreal masterpiece Le Sang d’un poíÂ¨te, in which the sleepwalking protagonist dives into his reflection. And the film’s metaphorical search for light springs from Anger’s lifelong study of occult icon Aleister Crowley and Lucifer, the Bringer of Light; an obsession made explicit in later works such as Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) and Lucifer Rising (1970-81).
Gangs of US sailors went on the rampage in 1944, attacking the snappily dressed Mexicans; these violent clashes became known as The Zoot Suit Riots. The strapping All-American boys in crisp white naval uniforms had a powerful effect on Anger. His striking fetishising of the sailor has since gone on to become an established queer aesthetic: from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Genet-adaptation Querelle (1982) through to Jean-Paul Gaultier’s ad campaigns. With 1963’s Scorpio Rising, Anger transferred his erotic stare to the leather-clad biker community, predating the dress code for gay S&M scenesters.
Fireworks is a deeply personal confession of liberated desire, orgasmic violence and salvation through love. But it is not just an on-screen ‘coming out’ party for Kenneth Anger the man. It is also a creative bursting forth of Anger the cine-magician.
Fireworks is screening on 21 October as part of the Barbican’s Sex and Censorship in Cinema, a season of films that were cut or banned by the British censors, which runs from Oct 18 to 25. We have 3 pairs of tickets to give away to any film of the Sex and Censorship season, subject to availability, courtesy of the Barbican. To enter, just spin our Film Roulette!