Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome’s Surreal Ritual

Above is Kenneth Anger‘s 1954 film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome in its entirety. A film critic friend pointed me to it, with the simple statement “it’s weird, you’ll like it.” This came up along with news that Anger, 81, is terminally ill.

In some ways this seems a film out of time. It presages ’60s psychedelica (and would be re-released in a “sacred mushroom” version in 1966), yet the style is enmeshed in the occult revival of the fin de siècle. Watching it the first time, I couldn’t but see it as a glimpse into an alternate universe where the silent film era never ended and Aleister Crowley took the world by storm instead of dying in a flophouse.

With its lush array of images and allusions, Pleasure Dome is made to be unraveled – and indeed, there’s plenty of theories about it out there. Filmmaker Maximilian Le Cain sees communion, and writes “the movement of the film is essentially the passing of the gifts from one guest to another as they advance into a state of transpersonal ecstasy.” But film critic Doug Pratt perceives a hollow heart in the same revels: “an appropriately decorated Hindu-like myth re-enactment, with its spiritual core utterly rotted away; a disturbed revelry of desperate souls clinging to the outdated fashions and orgiastic memories of their lost time.”

Which is it? The absurdity’s there. Yes, that’s Anais Nin with a birdcage on her head. Yes, the Scarlet Woman gets her cigarette lit in the middle of the damn thing. Yes, jewelry gets guzzled in copious amounts.

But like any good ritual experience, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Turn the lights off, watch deeply, let the images pile up and hear Janá?ek’s Glagolitic Mass swell in the background: the whole scene takes on a strange, unexpected power.

The works of Kenneth Anger on Amazon

8 Responses to “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome’s Surreal Ritual”

  1. Alfonso El Sabio Says:

    I find your statement “In some ways this seems a film out of time. It presages ’60s psychedelica …” sadly amusing. The six years between the release of the film in 1954 and 1960 are, in fact, the long pregnancy that led to the birth of “the 60’s”. The film was quite strange in the 50’s … it was the 60’s that made it seem less so. The tensions of the 50’s were just waiting for the floodgates to open.

    It is truly rare to find events/objects/whatever coming into existence in a vacuum.

    You should not be afraid to find the roots of the present in your past … had you made a statement such as above of “Un Chien Andalou” then, yes, prescient and out-of-its-time would CERTAINLY be applicable.

  2. six06 Says:

    interesting film. both a visual and auricular treat. both critic’s statements are taken into consideration when i watched the film, but since perception is the product of personal experience, i find my background views this is a bit of cautionary tale against excess. so many symbols for me to read from. the descent into the bowels of hell, the outbreak of jocularity followed by chaos and destruction. at one point, it seemed there was “no point”, and i considered that he could have just been using the musical score to paint a picture, without much of a story. i would like to know exactly what anger had intended. very interesting.

  3. hecubot Says:

    The Scarlet Woman is Marjorie Cameron, an artist in Wallace Berman’s circle and she was also Jack Parsons wife. (Parsons being the rocket scientist / occultist who was the subject of the Feral House book Sex and Rockets.)

    She also has a brief appearance in Curtis Harrington’s NIght Tide, with Dennis Hopper. She’s one of the key linking figures between Hollywood’s occult underground and the film world. David Lynch was heavily influenced by Anger, and drew heavily from the Wallace Berman circle (Hopper, Russ Tamblyn).

  4. Skerror Says:

    This film’s a visceral feast! It seduces its way into your brain and scrubs any traces of hedonism out…well, ultimately it does.

  5. Tequila Says:

    The recent DVD releases are true gems. Not only are most lovingly restored but the colors and black & white are dead on. Be it on a TV or projected on a screen the impact is so good you’re drunk for days on the imagery.

    “The film was quite strange in the 50’s … it was the 60’s that made it seem less so.”

    I dunno if it was really all that strange in the 50’s. You already had the undercurrent of those who would influence the 60’s as we know them doing their thing as it were. Plus Anger’s films while heavily experimental and unique did have roots in the avant garde cinema of the 20’s and 30’s. The audience was there…maybe not in the numbers the 60’s would allow (or now for that matter) but I don’t think they would have been seen as totally out of place.

    Friends of mine ended up seeing Kingdom of Heaven with Anger during it’s theatrical run. It was an interesting story and I still wonder what he thought of it. That particular film brought back the golden age of the biblical and religious epics that dominated Hollywood in the 50’s and 60’s. One has to wonder how much of a role that genre played in the kind of films he did…cause even today the structure, mood, and at times surreal nature of them haunt the screen.

  6. cappy Says:

    Jack Parson’s wife… dear god, I know I had seen that before. That’s creepy.

  7. Mer Says:

    Cappy, have you read Sex and Rockets? SOOOOooooo juicy.

  8. mirame Says:

    Lo has bordado…