02 August 2006

Dream double bill #16 ‘Kustom Kar Kommandos’ and ‘Mean Streets’


Personal reflections on ‘Kustom Kar Kommandos’, digging into Bill Landis’s book on Kenneth Anger and how the use of music in Anger’s films inspired Martin Scorsese.

My first exposure to an avant garde film or film maker was a season of Kenneth Anger films augmented with the work of other film makers including as I recall Jean Genet’s ‘Un Chant d’Amour’. The season was shown over three evenings that travelled the UK’s regional film theatre network in either the late 1980’s or early 1990’s.

The programme notes acknowledged that amongst the so called avant garde film makers Anger’s style of film making was the one that had been most easily adopted and assimilated into mainstream cinema and promotional music videos. Martin Scorsese said “…Vernon Zimmerman, who later made ‘Unholy Rollers and ‘Fade to Black’, had a loft in the Village where he showed ‘Scorpio Rising’. It had been banned, but the shocking thing about it wasn’t the Hell’s Angels stuff, it was the use of music. This was music I knew, and had always been told by our professors at NYU that we couldn’t use in student films because of copyright. Now here was Anger’s film in and out of the courts on obscenity charges, but no one seem to be complaining that he’d used all those incredible tracks by Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. That gave me the idea to use whatever music I really needed.” (From Scorsese on Scorsese, quoted in Bill Landis’ ‘Anger – The Unauthorised Biography of Kenneth Anger’ (published by Harper Perennial, 1995).
For the purpose of this avant garde blog-a-thon I would like to create a dream double bill using the Anger short ‘Kustom Kar Kommandos’ and Scorcese’s ‘Mean Streets’ as it would demonstrate how the avant garde influenced the mainstream.

“The material I’m filming is teenagers in relationship to machines. And so my film is ostensibly about teenagers and drag racing and kustom cars.” - Kenneth Anger, interview with ‘Spider’ Magazine, 1965 quoted in ‘Anger’ by Bill Landis.
I’d originally seen ‘Kustom Kar Kommandos’ before I’d read or heard about either of the Hollywood Babylon books. I didn’t really know anything about Anger the film maker or Anger the person. Anger had submitted a proposal for a film to be called ‘Kustom Kar Kommandos’ to the Ford Foundation (as in the Ford Motor Company). According to Landis’s book; ‘Anger instead used the $10,000 grant as living expenses and to re-edit his earlier films.
Commenting on the three minute version of the film we know today Landis further asserts that that Anger even admitted to a journalist that “I don’t think the Ford people are going to be very pleased with what I did with their money” and that this version of the film was essentially a teaser with more to come and unsuccessfully attempt to further raise funds to develop the film. Anger claimed ‘Kustom Kar Kommandos’ was an expensive film to make and that Anger, ever the self publicist would present to a journalist a blood splattered T-shirt from a fatal custom car crash.

It almost goes without saying that Anger was not at all happy with the prospect of Landis’s book, in the introduction Landis tells us that Anger “…issued a proclamation on his special “magical” Puck Promotions stationary stating that I was “an avowed enemy...”...”. From what I’ve read of Landis’ book (I confess only to dipping into parts of it) he paints a picture of hustles, legal battles, shock tactics, obsessions and I am sure much more if a reader was to dig deeper. One thread that also comes out in the book, which I would recommend to anyone even with only a passing interest in the subject matter is the rift between the avant garde film makers, Jonas Mekas, founder of Film Culture Magazine is alleged to have said that there was a “conspiracy of homosexuality” and that Anger was the ringleader. Another area the book touches on is the relationship with Alfred Kinsey who in the process of his research had acquired a copy of Anger’s ‘Fireworks’ and it seems essentially acted as a father figure to Anger. The book is highly readable and in just researching the parts about ‘Kustom Kar Kommandos’ I learnt a lot more about Anger than I had known, I haven’t even read around a longer film or his relationship with other film makers such as Stan Brakhage or people like Crowley, Beausoleil, Jagger and many other references who literally litter the pages of Landis’s book.

So how would a double bill work? Well I have to admit it’s the first one I’ve thought of that is essentially a short coupled with a feature and if I’m honest you could show ‘Kustom Kar Kommandos’ alongside not only ‘Mean Streets’ but ‘Whose that Knocking at My Door’ (which I haven’t seen but understand Anger’s influential use of music can also been seen) but ‘American Graffiti’ alternatively ‘Scorpio Rising’ alongside either ‘Faster Pussycat Kill, Kill’ or ‘The Wild Angels’ or any number of late 60’s biker films. Anger certainly had a gift for understanding the power of cults and how to harness their attractive power both for his benefit and the draw they would have on audiences.
What I like about Scorsese’s opening sequence in ‘Mean Streets’ is the use of the Super 8 or handheld footage and uses this with ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes to introduce his main characters to us, as he himself said Anger paved the way for him and others to do this.

Watch Kenneth Anger's 'Kustom Kar Kommandos' supported by the Ford Foundation and seemingly featuring a customised Ford car on You Tube, link.
IMDB entry for 'Kustom Kar Kommandos', link.
IMDB entry for 'Mean Streets', link.
Bent Clouds review of 'Kustom Kar Kommandos', link.
Jonas Mekas interview with Brian Frye on Senses of Cinema, link.
Kenneth Anger article on Senses of Cinema by Maximilian Le Cain, link.
Top 20 best uses of pop music in a Martin Scorsese film by Phil Dellio, link.
Kenneth Anger reference on The Kinsey Institute website, link.

Links from today's blog-a-thon
Tom Sutpen's historical overview on If Charlie Parker was...link.
Girsh Shambu discusses Joseph Cornell, link.
Michael Guillen's The Evening Class interviews Dominic Angerame of Canyon Cinema, link.
That Little Round Headed Boy looks at Promotional Video’s and explores the relationship with the avant garde, link.
Tom Hall looks at Clare Danes 'L'Intrus' on The Back Row Manifesto, link.
Maurice Lemaitre's 'Ganeden' is explored at Strictly Film School, link.
Murbak Ali's Supposed Aura looks at Arthur Lipsett, link.
'Pink Elephants on Parade' at Brendan Bouza's Five Year Plan, link.
Zach Campbell's Elusive Lucidity on Christopher Maclaine, link.


Michael Guillen said...

It's truly amazing what an influence Kenneth Anger has had on our culture. I came at him first through the diaries of Anais Nin, when she was describing the shooting of "Inauguration of A Pleasure Dome" so I went to see that piece initially to catch a glimpse of Anais. Later, of course, I came to Anger on his own terms. The music was revelatory in all of its juxtapositional wizardry. What I especially recall is that scene of Jesus and the disciples walking by the Sea of Galilee with "He's A Rebel" resounding underneath: "See the way he walks down the street / see the way he shuffles his feet ..." I remember laughing with delight when I first saw that.

Thanks for your write-up and all your pointers.

Richard Gibson said...

Michael, I think that that's one thing that struck me about the Anger book, literally the amount of people that he came into contact with, each one of them with stories of their own about their encounters. I had no idea about Kinsey and must admit to not really having heard that much about him until the recent biopic.

Yes, the use of music in inspired. I am in awe of that, if you consider the songs used in 'Scorpio Rising' some of those were recent, they have all become 'classics' for want of a better word, he chose wisely is my point and the music and it's use doesn't date the films the way music used can.

andyhorbal said...

I had the pleasure of actually taking a class in college on avant-garde/experimental cinema (taught by one of my favorite professors, one Bill Judson). There was a session devoted to Anger, of course, but KKK wasn't shown.

Instead I saw it for the first time during the final exam, when it was shown as an unidentified film that we had not screened made by a director that we had. I was so taken with it that I completely forgot that I was taking a test and nearly failed to answer that question!

I've been thinking about short film/feature film pairings since I saw Maya Deren's The Very Eye of Night screened before Fast Times at Ridgemont High a few months ago. I think it can work in much the same way that wine/food pairings work: a short film with a dominant element that easily compares or contrasts with a certain aspect of the feature will serve to emphasize, to bring out that element in the full-length film.

Kustom Kar Kommandos and Mean Streets is a wonderful "film pairing," one that I would gladly see!