Kenneth Anger exhibit reviewed by NYT

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P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center
22-25 Jackson Avenue, at 46th Avenue
Long Island City, Queens
Through Sept. 14

If you’ve never seen the scandalous 1963 film “Scorpio Rising,” you probably should, and you can in the Kenneth Anger retrospective at P.S. 1. About a half-hour long, it’s a landmark in American film history, pop culture and queer culture, and in some ways it’s more unnerving now than when it was made.
Back then the homoerotic content was the big, shocking news. All that seems like nothing now, but other things stand out: the Nazi imagery, the intercut life-of-Jesus film, the humor — with its astutely chosen rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, “Scorpio Rising” is peppered with visual jokes — and the faux-romantic death-wish plot, which has assumed a different weight after AIDS. All of this, including the choice of music, presents challenges — I can’t imagine relaxing with an Anger film. And while “Scorpio Rising” is pointedly gay, it doesn’t feel gay-approving.

But then, it’s hard to say what the saturnine Mr. Anger, now in his 80s, approves of. This has been true since his first distributed film, “Fireworks,” made in 1947. He takes the main role in this 15-minute dream-play about a young man’s fantasy of being seduced by a group of sailors. It all seems larky and campy enough until the seduction turns into rape, and the rape is horrific.

One of Mr. Anger’s longtime positive passions has been for the writings of the British occultist and hashishist Aleister Crowley, whose guiding spirit may account for the peculiarly trippy nature of other films, notably “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” (1954-56), which is in every way — joint-smoking deities, sacred-mushroom talk, an appearance by Anaïs Nin — the 1960s before the 1960s. And then there’s the ’60s after the ’60s in “Lucifer Rising,” which in its final 1980 form features pyramids, crystals and Marianne Faithfull, along with a score by Bobby Beausoleil, an Anger collaborator better known for his associations with the Manson family.

Mr. Anger has said that he believes film, as a medium, to be a great source of evil in the world. I don’t know about that, but I do know his relatively small body of work is serious, challenging, dystopian stuff. From the very start he has been an abnormality pioneer, a purveyor of perversity. Everything he touched — Hollywood, politics, spirituality, sexuality, pop culture — has been strafed by his critical, needling sensibility. He’s complicated and not likeable, and that can be good for art.

The exhibition, organized by Susanne Pfeffer, a curator at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, shows several films continuously and simultaneously, either as projections or on video monitors. And P.S. 1 has provided a suitably outré setting, a cavernous, tentlike environment of draped and stretched pink vinyl that looks and feels like a raw, enveloping skin. HOLLAND COTTER


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