Context is everything.
At first glance, avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger's shorts seem dated, obvious, even unintentionally comic. But the more you consider when he made them, the more you appreciate their significance.
In his surreal first film, "Fireworks," from 1947, a smoking, dewy-eyed gent (the 17-year-old director) wanders through a dreamy void and admires a Charles Atlas-style muscle man. The tone suggests a cross between a WWII-era gay stag film and an Eternity cologne commercial until a band of sailors attacks Anger's screen persona with grotesque savagery. Considering America's pro-military, deeply closeted impulses of the time, "Fireworks'" themes of homoeroticism and military violence exploded taboos with megaton force.
Anger's most famous short, 1964's "Scorpio Rising," offers a kind of 30-minute deconstruction of the biker mythos. Anger's camera lingers over strapping motorcyclists as they rebuild their choppers, primp and drag race, all accompanied by doo-wop-era pop songs. "Scorpio Rising" pioneered the ironic use of rock hits. Its effect is most amusing when bikers pull on their blue jeans, leather jackets and other "butch" accessories to the tune of "Blue Velvet." Pop-loving filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to David Lynch owe "Scorpio Rising" a debt, even though its fetishistic message becomes clear all too soon.
Eyedrum provides the rare opportunity to see these films, as well as Anger's latest, "Mouse Heaven," on Fri., Aug. 19.
For such a historic provocateur, Anger proves surprisingly nonjudgmental about Mickey Mouse and the Disney organization in "Mouse Heaven." He gives a vibrant sheen to a montage of classic Mickey Mouse collectibles, as though he's broken into somebody's eBay hoard. The spokes-rodent's inane grin becomes sinister after a while, and Anger repeats the image of a Mickey toy raising his fist in what looks increasingly like a wanking gesture.
Yet Anger appreciates the kitschy energy of the old-fashioned knickknacks, which seem rather benign compared to modern-day kid-oriented merchandise like Pokémon or the Bratz. Accompanied by the Proclaimers' pop anthem "The Joyful Kilmarnock Blues," "Mouse Heaven" ends on a note of nostalgic cheer. Perhaps Anger has mellowed with the years.
"Mouse Heaven" and other short films by Kenneth Anger screen Fri., Aug. 19, 8 p.m. $6. Eyedrum, 290 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. 404-522-0655. www.eyedrum.org.