Dir: Kenneth Anger
Cert: 18 • US: 13.50 min • Independent • 1947
Walter Beck reviews
The earliest picture from avant-garde short-film master Kenneth Anger, Fireworks lays the groundwork for what would be become many of Anger’s signatures – extreme imagery, homoeroticism, an intense soundtrack, and a strong surrealistic setting.
Set aboard a naval ship, the films follows a young sailor (played by Anger) in the throes of an apparent nightmare as he wakes up with a phallic doll. Standing before an altar, he discards his homosexual material in a fireplace and hurriedly gets dressed. Walking into a door marked “GENTS”, he steps out into the night air and begins suffering incredible hallucinations, amongst them a giant, well-cut sailor seducing him at a bar, who then begins violently beating him. A group of sailors gang up on him, wielding chains. In glee, they strip him, brutalize him, and then begin ripping out his organs, finally dousing him with a white, milky substance.
The young sailor then approaches a nude shipmate as he lights a firecracker out of his crotch. His potential lover takes on the jeweled appearance of a young Greek god as the camera zooms in to a close up of homoerotic photos burning in the fireplace. The film ends with the young sailor asleep; his head surrounded by sparks, symbolizing the organism of his dreams.
The film has no dialogue and is told through Anger’s intense, surrealistic camera work and the bombastic classical music used as the soundtrack.
Anger himself said of this film, “This flick is all I have to say about being seventeen, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July.”
Such a piece of blatant, grotesque homoeroticism was extremely controversial in America in the mid-20th century and Anger found himself in the middle of an intense legal battle to determine whether or not the film was obscene. The California Supreme Court ruled it to be art and not obscene.
But how does a work sixty-six years old still hold up today? Not surprisingly, it still holds up very well and I’m sure it would still turn a few heads (as well as a few stomachs). Anger’s adolescent vision still expresses many of the same fears, terrors, and ultimately pleasures that young gay Americans feel today.
And that is what holds it up today, the raw passion of it. There is no search or hope of really finding true love; it’s about purging oneself of emotions, of engaging in pure animal lust. It would be decades before Hollywood even touch gay themes. Kenneth Anger did it first and he did it in such a way that I’m sure the Big Studios would be afraid to touch even today.
Anger has gone on to have quite a career and is still producing avant-garde works today at the ripe age of 86. He has inspired and influenced a wide array of directors throughout his career (including the queer master of sleaze, John Waters), but it was this, his first work, that broke him into the American cinema underground.
If you’re interested in the history of queer cinema or have a taste for the strange and surreal, Fireworks is nothing short of essential viewing.