May 5, 2014

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome

In many ways, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) is the most arcane, thematically and aesthetically intricate, and innately impenetrable work that American cine-magician Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising, Lucifer Rising) has ever directed. Not surprisingly, it also happens to be longest film Anger ever made (unless, of course, you count Don't Smoke That Cigarette! (2000), which would be a mistake since there was not much actual directing involved with that 'recycled' film). Loaded with Thelemite, Crowleyite, and kabalistic themes/symbols/iconography and starring real-life occultists and witches, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is also the pathologically private auteur filmmaker’s most spiritual cinematic experiment, yet it is also a piece of pure cinema that pays seamless tribute to everything from Italian silent epics to German expressionism to classic Hollywood musicals, with Anger’s biographer Bill Landis even describing the work as the director’s, “version of a glittering MGM musical.” A proto-psychedelic work (it has been described as a one of the first ‘head movies’ and reached the height of its popularity a decade later in the 1960s) that has been released in a number of different cuts (including a 1966 version entitled the ‘Sacred Mushroom Edition’ featuring a complete performance of Glagolitic Mass by Czech composer Leoš Janáček, as well as a third version made in the late-1970s featuring most of the 1974 Electric Light Orchestra album Eldorado), Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is a keenly kaleidoscopic celluloid ritual of the decidedly decadent and fetishistically transcendental bacchanalian sort that reminds one why Anger once stated, “I've always considered movies evil; the day that cinema was invented was a black day for mankind.” Based on a masquerade party-like group ritual created by Anger’s unholy hero Aleister Crowley’s where members of a cult take on the identity of a god or goddess for All Sabbath’s Eve, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome stars a number of real-life virtual artistic gods and icons, including Anger himself, erotic novelist Anaïs Nin, avant-garde/cult auteur Curtis Harrington (Night Tide, The Killing Kind), artist/occultist Marjorie Cameron (the crazed widow of the equally crazed rocket scientist/Thelemite Jack Parson, who blew himself up), and reclusive Hollywood actor Samson de Brier (real name Arthur Jasmine), who, among other things, starred in Alla Nazimova’s Beardsley-esque Wilde adapation Salomé (1923) and whose house the film is set in. Equipped with aesthetic nods to the Yellow Nineties and Hieronymus Bosch and featuring Nin wearing a birdcage over her little round head (apparently, it was not the first time, as the film was largely inspired by a "Come as your Madness" Halloween party that both she and Anger attended), a very young Harrington portraying somnambulist Cesare from Robert Wiene’s German expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) with a certain foreboding Teutonic swag, and Scarlet Woman Cameron smoking ganja in tribute to The Great Beast 666, Anger’s phantasmagorical celluloid ritual is nothing short of an immaculate piece of exceedingly elegant high-camp evil of the cinematically aristocratic sort that proves the director was able to synthesize the best elements of European master cine-magicians like F.W. Murnau and Jean Cocteau. 

 Opening with Aubrey Beardsley style inter-titles (painted by handsome blonde beast Paul Mathison, who also played Pan), Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome then cuts to exceedingly effete master magician/Master of Ceremonies (Samson De Brier)—a man who will take on the persona of Lord Shiva, Hindu deity and the Supreme God within the Hindu sect Shaivism, among countless other identities—playing with jewelry, putting on a series of fancy rings, swallowing some jewels, slowly arising from his bed, picking up a pair of scissors, and heading to a bright red room where he stares at a dual mirror (with one of the mirrors featuring the reflection of a pentacle) intently, and paints his face like a decadent dandy with a tinge of pancake makeup. Meanwhile, the redhaired Scarlet Woman (Marjorie Cameron), Whore of Heaven, offers a small figurine of a horned devil to a creepily colorful character named the Great Beast (also De Brier), who uses his tentacle-like fingernails to communicate, but the small statue instantly bursts into flame as soon as the ominous entity touches it. Immediately after, the Scarlet Woman lifts up a fat joint and the kaleidoscopic devil lights it, with a blue image of Aleister Crowley smoking a pipe in Arab garb being juxtaposed in the background. In the next scene, a rather beateous Lilith (played by Renate Druks, who would later direct the obscure short film Space Boy (1973) starring Florence Marly)—the kabalistic goddess of destruction—arrives from an endless void of nothingness and attempts to offer Emperor Nero (also De Brier) a golden apple, but he seems rather disinterested in the gift. From there, a fag hag-like Isis (Katy Kadell), who looks more like Cleopatra on crack, attempts to catch the interest of her corpse/reptile-like brother-husband Osiris (once again, De Brier), but he is disinterested, though he is flattered by the Great Beast’s attention. While Nero was less than intrigued by Lilith’s offering, Count Alessandro Cagliostro (De Brier again)—the great hypnotist and enemy of the Catholic Church who Crowley celebrated in a Gnostic Mass—gladly accepts and swallows the ruby jewel she has to offer him, which she takes out of a pretty pentagram-shaped box. Meanwhile, De Brier as Lord Shiva is offered grapes by an almost albino-like Pan (Paul Mathison). As Pan begins to walk slowly in a pair of blood red leather boots, Isis dances for the entertainment of Osiris, Lord Shiva and Lilith toast each other, and Cagliostro is presented with a large pendant, the ritual begins to get underway. 

 Undoubtedly, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome begins to pick up speed when Astarte (Anaïs Nin)—the goddess of the moon—appears with a bluish moon-shaped object superimposed over her head (which is covered with a birdcage) like a halo and Pan seems to be becoming rather sexually aroused by her angelic pulchritude. After Astarte disrobes (Nin is virtually naked), she catches a silver sphere from the sky and hands it to all-powerful pothead god Shiva. In Shiva’s hands, the sphere shrinks and when it finally gets small enough, he eats it, thus causing him to grow fairy-like wings and become a very happy boy. After the Scarlet Woman gestures to the Great Beast for another light for her magic joint, Germanic somnambulist Cesare (Curtis Harrington) magically appears. The Somnambulist is under the sinister command of the Great Beast, who forces the sleepwalker to enter a labyrinth with a image of a witch with a pentagram on her forehead and a classic Baphomet pentagram. Ultimately, the Somnambulist enters a white room where he is handed an urn containing the hallucinogenic wormwood brew 'yage' by Hecate (Kenneth Anger), who looks like an Arab drag queen headed to a gothic funeral. A silent servant of the Great Beast, the Somnambulist serves the yage to all the gods and goddesses. The exotic elixir causes Shiva's s face to turn green and he begins to suffer paranoia, among other things. Everyone else seems more or less happy and ecstatic, with Pan even accidentally spilling the bittersweet brew on himself in a playful manner. While Pan is admiring Lilith’s stunning beauty, scheming trickster Lord Shiva drops a dubious substance in blond beast's drink, thus causing him to suffer a series of nightmarish hallucinations, including confusing visions of a number of the party members taking off various masks (i.e. Lilith takes off two identical masks before revealing a skull-like face with a huge mouth inspired by Crowley’s sketch “High Priestess of Voodoo”). Pan’s hellish hallucination is a triple-layered superimposition where Anger incorporated scenes from his 6-minute short Puce Moment (1949), which was shot by Curtis Harrington. From there, an all-out orgy ensues, with Pan—the only masculine man at the entire masquerade—acting as the ‘prize,’ especially for the lecherous goddesses, who claw him like rabid pussycats.  Indeed, the gals strip, scratch, and torment Pan while supreme queen Hecate gets off to the entire scenario by performing what seems like a spastic belly dance. Eventually, the Goddess Kali (Marjorie Cameron) appears as blood-red-tinted-scenes from Giuseppe de Liguoro silent masterpiece L'Inferno (1911) are superimposed in the background. Kali manages to strike fear into the Great Beast, but the pernicious party keeps going, with the Somnambulist even sneaking in a smile. As Anger stated at the end of an audio commentary for Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, “So the ultimate feeling is one of spirituality.” 

 In describing the ‘pleasure dome’ of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome in an audio commentary for the film, Anger stated as follows, “The pleasure dome that is being inaugurated is actually a prison…it’s something you can’t escape from once you’re in it, and I wanted to create that feeling of claustrophobia, like you can’t escape these people or this place.” Indeed, Anger’s film is certainly one where the viewer is trapped in an almost demonic dance of metaphysical decadence, thus making it the next best thing to going to some sort of real-life Crowley Mass (which would probably make for a less pleasurable experience, not to mention the fact that it would probably be comprised of far less attractive people). I have to admit my interest in Crowley/Thelema is about next to nil, yet Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome makes such spiritual degeneracy seem nothing short of ethereal and delightfully divine. For Curtis Harrington, starring in the film was apparently nothing short of an (un)holy experience, or as he wrote in his autobiography Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business (2013): “For me, it was a dream come true to play Cesare the somnambulist from THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. Cameron, a painter and occultist, played the sorceress and was extraordinary in a mantilla and Spanish shawl. Anaïs was her counterpoint in a blue cocoon and golden mesh. Samson, who played the host to these personages, appeared in many guises, all of them magical. It was a vibrant gallery of portraits, each transformed by the film itself.” America’s once-foremost cineaste Amos Vogel was so impressed with the “wicked film” that he paid a great compliment to Anger, describing the auteur as, “one of the true subversive iconoclasts of the cinema.” Indeed, while I hesitate to describe Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome as my favorite Anger film, it is most certainly the filmmaker’s most accomplished work as both a filmmaker and as an occultist, as an innately penetrating piece that celebrates the evil essence of cinema as an artistic medium of ritual and manipulation. With that being said, it almost seems unimaginable that Anger never really faced a strong backlash from religious types, especially when one considers when the film was made. A devout tribute to the so-called “wickedest man in the world,” Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome ultimately reminds undying agnostics like myself that magic takes its most potent and influential form in celluloid. 

-Ty E


jervaise brooke hamster said...

1st paragraph, 20th and 21st lines, a loathsome faggot speaks the truth ! ! !.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I couldn`t believe it when you said you were an agnostic Ty E, how someone as hateful and spiteful and callous and cynical as yourself could give ANY credence to the idea of God is ludicrous to me. By the way, i`m a pious atheist.

Jennifer Croissant said...

True, except the magic in celluloid is at its most potent and influential when its in the hands of ILM, not in the obscure and ancient films of a ludicrous and pretentious 87 year-old faggot.