Fireworks is a short avant garde film by legendary cinematic auteur cum black magician Kenneth Anger, whose notoriety was secured by the two-volume history of Tinseltown sleaze and tragedy he published in the mid-Seventies, the classic volumes Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon 2.
Whatever the factual truth behind the claims made in those respective volumes, it cannot be denied that their author has touched the coattails of infamy more than once in his long, extraordinary life. (Touched may not be the right word. though; perhaps grabbed with both hands and shook like the Devil himself would be a better analogy.)
You don't get to be chummy with Mick Jagger, Dennis Hopper, Bobby Beausoleil, and the Black Pope himself without exuding the whiff of sulphur, perhaps; at any rate, his life (he is an amazing ninety-three) can best be summed up in his astounding cinematic ouevure; experimental classics that combine aspects of surrealism, satanism, occult imagery, psychedelia, and homoerotic love in a manner that must have been shocking to audiences who were still laboring under the conventional psychic morality fostered by the staid, conservative Post-War, Baby-Boom era.
Although Anger began in Hollywood as a child actor (or, he at least has claimed to have played the part of a "changeling-prince" in 1935's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a claim that has since been disputed, apparently), it was not until 1947 that Anger began his long, bizarre celluloid journey. The resultant early film, Fireworks, is appraised below.
The film begins with an inscrutable image that seems to be a toy of some kind floating on fire. At least, that is all this author can make of the appearance of the thing. Next, we have a sailor carrying the body of a limp, presumably dead young man. This is a dream, and the dreamer awakes. We see, beneath the covers, that he has an erection. However, this is a visual pun, as, bizarrely, the young man (Anger himself), is holding the reproduction of a statue or an idol. He places this on the nightstand next to the bed.
He goes through a door labeled "Gents." To one side, he seems to see the cityscape of cars going by on the freeway; lonely, desolate, modern American night, the headlights might as well be electric spherical ghosts going by in the black.
He meets a heavily muscular man who poses for him. The man lights his cigarette from a bundle of burning sticks (a visual play on the well-known perjorative for homosexual--this slur, itself, comes from the Biblical analogy of Jehova God's destruction of Sodom, which was left burning), and then attacks the Dreamer inexplicably, erupting into rage.
The Dreamer is then chased down by a group of sailors in pristine white uniforms. They beat him savagely, at one point even brandishing what look to be chains or flails. They reach into his chest cavity, discovering a compass (his "ticker"? Then why not a clock?) in a somewhat bloody display. They, lastly, reach into his nose with two fingers, and he discharges some watery blood.
A milky substance begins to pour all over him (semen?), and we next see a sailor with a Roman Candle stuck in the crotch of his pants. As curiously absurd and humorous this dream-like image is, it is made more interesting when the man (seen only from the chest down) actually lights it.
The dreamer is seen carrying what looks to be a Christmas tree on his head. He throws this into the fireplace. At last, he sees a number of photos of the first scene burning. He awakes lying next to a man with a halo of light emanating from his head.
Shot on a shoestring over a weekend--at Anger's parents' house, it is claimed--Fireworks nonetheless has survived to have a rather interesting history over the years. Anger himself is quoted as saying:
"This flick is all I have to say about being seventeen, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July."
The film can be seen as a story of death, birth and resurrection--the initial image is Christ-like, echoing the Pieta, if blasphemously, as the body held here is not a crucified redeemer but a homosexual, a man condemned by religious piety; an outcast from the conservative, rigid, heteronormative culture responsible for birthing such fine, desirable specimens of manhood as the sailor carrying him.
Informed by the philosophy of Aleister Crowley, the film might be an invocation of the True Will of the Dreamer (Anger's cinematic alter), who, shaken by his forbidden lust for the sailors, is beat to death by them, only to arise from this terrifying shamanistic journey into death, ready to burn the symbol of his oppression (i.e. the bourgeois trope of a Christmas tree, symbolizing the American WASP values that decried his gay orientation and lifestyle), and cast it into the fire. His lonely image at the beggining of the film, his death-like slumber, is shown in the photos--which are also burned. Lastly, he awakes in bed, next to a man whose head is "glowing." (Note: Anger himself has claimed that this scene, and one other, portraying him at a urinal, were purposely "blurred" out of fears of obscenity charges; which, in point of fact, later proved to be prescient.)
The collision between lust and fear is the undercurrent of the film--naked male aggression, homoerotic desire mingling with the violence and force that is unrefined maleness. Anger has said his inspiration was seeing a gang of sailors chase and beat-down Mexican pachucos during LA's infamous "Zoot Suit Riots" of the early Forties. It was this combination of terror, disgust and erotic titillation at the sight of presumably clean, manly and unrelenting American male violence that prompted the odd little psycho-symbolic exploration that is Fireworks.
For all of its slim fourteen minutes, Fireworks flashes by like a dream from a visiting ghost--one of a past we can now only barely remember or reconstruct. The milky white substance and blood (the shedding of these bodily fluids representing sacrifice and redemption; also the fertilizing agency of a new birth), are the "milk of human kindness" perhaps; and the Roman Candle* in the crotch is simply a visual pun lampooning the religious and patriotic mores of American society at the time; suggesting that the whoops and hollars of American maleness may mask some infernal, dominating and altogether sadistic, submerged desire. A desire that was, in that era, brutally supressed; a desire for men to love other men.
Rohauer Obscenity Trial
According to that unimpeachable source, Wikipedia, Fireworks landed one Raymond Rohauer, owner of an establishment called The Coronet Theater, (whose patronage was largely gay), in hot water, eventually earning him a conviction for screening "obscenity" by a jury of his peers.
Civil rights attorney Stanley Fleishman took the case all the way to the California Supreme Court, which overturned Rohauer's conviction (his sentence was a fine and three years probation); noting that: "homosexuality is a legitimate topic of artistic expression." Of course there is NOTHING in Fireworks that would remotely shock today's jaded, desensitized viewers. It would, most likely, earn a puzzled yawn.
Anger edited, adapted and played with the film until it was finally released on videocassette in the middle-Eighties. It is considered "Ground Zero" in the history of Queer Cinema: the first narrative gay film ever made.
To view it is to see the development of what would become one of the most distinct, stylistic visionaries in the history of filmaking, years before his talent, truly, began to flame.
Fireworks (1947) Directed by Kenneth Anger
*Rome being a society recorded as having declined and fallen, partly due to pederastic excess.