Fireworks: On Kenneth Anger and The Legend of Zelda


The Review’s Review

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.

One of the most provocative sequences of Kenneth Anger’s career appears in an early short film (and my favorite), Fireworks (1947): a sailor opens his fly to reveal a Roman candle spitting sparks at the camera until it explodes, drenching the frame with spurts of white light. This image would later establish Anger as a seminal figure in the history of queer film, but it also resulted in an obscenity trial—gay sexuality was criminalized, and the Hays Code had a vice grip on Hollywood. A countercultural icon and lifelong Angeleno, Anger died in May at age ninety-six. The body of work he left behind stands beside that of American avant-garde filmmakers like Maya Deren, Sara Kathryn Arledge, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas: experimental shorts, made predominantly between the forties and seventies, that combine surrealism and scenes of stylized violence with a heavy dose of occult symbolism.

Fireworks, which Anger made at twenty in his parents’ Beverly Hills house while they were out of town, is a gorgeous fourteen-minute film with no dialogue, set to orchestral music. The nameless protagonist, played by Anger himself, leaves his bed, wanders through a homoerotic dreamworld in search of a light, and meets a group of beautiful sailors. They flex their cartoonishly massive biceps for him and light his cigarette with a flaming palm frond but then turn hostile, chasing the dreamer down to deliver a beating. There’s a flurry of white-clothed limbs as they tear his clothes off, whip him with chains, pour milk over his lips and eyes, and gouge open his chest with a shattered beer bottle to expose the face of a compass buried among his internal organs. The dreamer’s expression passes from ecstasy to agony and back again. A few hallucinatory moments later, the fireworks go off.

At the heart of Anger’s work is a question about the erotics of masculinity. The biker film Scorpio Rising (1963), for example, is an ambiguous exploration of fascist aesthetics: high-gloss rider jackets, Nazi iconography, an obsession with the perfected physical form—and the attendant unspoken racial implications. Like the sadomasochistic brutalization of the dreamer in Fireworks, the scenes in which the biker gang lovingly assemble their looks for the night—peaked caps, imperial eagle insignia, and leather—are suffused with desire. It’s one of the hardest watches of his oeuvre for me, but is emblematic of Anger’s work: shorts that span a vast imaginative territory, a sort of psychosexual underworld, where repressed fantasies of the American unconscious can take shape and move around unfettered. He takes dreams seriously as a subject worthy of art and utilizes them to develop scenes that operate on multiple registers. Though it might have been part of a strategy to avoid censorship, the Roman candle in Fireworks reads to me like an homage to the props enjoyed by a certain kind of transmasculinity. Like a strap-on or a souped-up packer, the prosthetic phallus allows the wearer to bathe in the pageantry of a particular type of queer masculinity, whose aggressive quality in this scene is undercut by a sense of comedy, magic, and mischief. Here, and elsewhere, Anger is able to observe the inner workings of desire—its pursuit, suspension, satisfaction, and fluctuation.

—Jay Graham, reader

I’ve often been asked whether or not video games can be considered art. One stock reply I have is that the immersive experience of the video game can allow one to encounter simulacra of more conventional aesthetic experiences or practices. The behemoth new Nintendo offering The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a playground for such encounters. The player is encouraged to use a near-infinite number of means (building vehicles, “shield-surfing,” being catapulted by a slab of marble) to achieve a near-infinite number of random ends (flying over enemies, sledding down a snowy mountain, or using the aforementioned slab catapult to shoot a ball into a hole on the face of a spherical sky-island one hundred yards away), not because they are required to beat the game, but simply because you can and you find yourself wanting to. The game requires a kind of virtual athleticism: my favorite action involves soaring through the skies on a Zonai Wing, a flying device shaped like a bird that disappears after you’ve used it for a minute. When that happens, if you time it right, you can spawn another one, fall onto it, and keep on flying.

Tears of the Kingdom’s art direction elegantly sidesteps the “real-life graphics” arms race that most major releases engage in and opts for a decidedly impressionistic aesthetic. The game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, the director of 2012’s Skyward Sword, whose art style was refined in Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, has cited Paul Cézanne as a major influence, describing the graphics in his work as “moving paintings.” 

Within this aesthetic frame, however, the action is less modernist impressionism and more a postmodern Fluxus, where actions are equally deconstructive and constructive, and activities that have conventional artistic correlates are designed to be toyed with, experimented on, and used for brazen (or impish) ends. The player can practice sculpture and engineering (building machines with “Zonai devices”), photography (an optional part of the game involves taking pictures of every item and creature with a smartphone-like device), and dance (combat mechanics that pay homage to the “bullet-time” sequences of The Matrix). There’s even virtual land art: one strip of terrain at the border of the map is literally Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, and scattered across the map are thirteen “geoglyphs” that can be fully appreciated only when skydiving. The plot is a bricolage of key stories and myths from at least five different religions; the music is minimalist in the Sakamoto mold. Tears of the Kingdom isn’t an escape from reality but an advertisement for reality—including the aesthetic practices that already make our own. 

—William Lennon