24 Frames: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (Kenneth Anger, 1954)
Kenneth Anger’s early psychedelic film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (first version 1954) is overtly ‘about’ delirium. Intoxicant multiplicity is deliberately used to engineer psychic receptivity. The entire film is one densely layered hallucination.I focus on a climactic sequence near the end, ‘Lord Shiva’s Dream’, when overloaded superimpositions tax cognitive grasp and descriptive language.
The source of Deleuze and Guattari’s use of ‘multiplicity’ is German mathematician Bernhard Riemann, who ‘uprooted the multiple from its predicate state and made it a noun’. Multiplicities, metric in nature, can also be non-metrically ‘anexact yet rigorous’. Unlike magnitudes, multiplicities
cannot divide without changing in nature each time. An intensity, for example, is not composed of addable and displaceable magnitudes: a temperature is not the sum of two smaller temperatures. A speed is not the sum of two smaller speeds.
Bergson uses multiplicity to conceptualise duration. As well as registering sensations bodily, we are conscious of their affects within our ‘personality’ either by reflex movements or a sense of spatial motion being suspended. He locates our perception of intensity at the junction between ‘the idea of extensive magnitude from without’ and ‘the image of an inner multiplicity’ arising from the depths of consciousness. Multiplicity exists in interwoven layers. Intensive states of feeling are fleeting and difficult to pin down, as their becoming is the fluidity of life itself.
Deleuze opposes the stasis of being with the openness of becoming. Multiplicity is ‘different in nature from elementary components and collections of them’. It corresponds to the conjunction ‘and’ which (as in Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema) ‘upsets being’ by bringing in all relations, ‘And’s line of flight may be hardly perceptible, but along it, ‘things come to pass, becomings evolve, revolutions take shape’.
Here, the film’s conjunctions are catalysed by a white potion, imbibed by party guests dressed as gods at an occult gathering. Anger, himself an early experimenter with mescal and LSD, calls his cocktail a ‘sacred mushroom, yage, wormwood brew’ provided by the witch goddess Hecate (himself). Citing the long history of film narcotics, the cupbearer is Cesare, the black-clad, drugged somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1926). Cesare pours the potion into goblets like wide-open flower chalices,while Lord Shiva (Samson de Brier) slips a supplementary drug into Pan’s glass.
Total intoxication is instant and a visual orgy ensues with the rapid surge of superimposed deities and richly saturated colours. Astarte (Anaïs Nin) swings a shimmering net across the screen to capture the actants in a mesh of shifting light. The loud, hollow drum-beats of Leos Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass aurally impound delirium.
The shots are composed, or rather, decomposed, by multi-layering. Masks are serially removed to reveal others and faces are overlaid by super-imposition. Conventional subjectivity is absent from this disordered pantheon of multiple personae. Even drinking goblets float freely in space, animated by the drug’s magical force. The absence of subject/object distinctions opens the spectator more directly to psychic manipulation.
Images are not just overlaid temporally by earlier shots, but occult symbols are also superimposed. A red and purple eye in a triangle overlays a long-shot of intoxicated gods, fixing them in the filmmaker’s magickal framework. There are no edges or boundaries to shots edited together in multiplicity rather than linear sequence. The climax of the film was designed for projection on a triple screen that emerged like a pair of wings that ‘took off’ to transcendence. Without such triptych screening conditions, the superimpositions induce even more overload.
Time is caught in a ritornello as actants repeat earlier movements. Shiva’s circular gestures, Astarte’s swaying net and Kali (Marjorie Cameron)’s lotus pose appear at different stages in the same frame as well as interlinked frames. Further simultaneity is produced by the concealment of split-screen by ambient darkness that throws figures into relief and moves them out of synch.Sensory bombardment further complicates temporality as intercutting and music speed up.The gods move so rapidly that their images blur in smoke. Linear clock time is suspended in the layering of Anger’s occult duration, where the conventional laws of space and time are unhinged.
Shiva’s visions climax in a rapid-fire array of intercutting and flash-frame sigils. A many petalled lotus and other psychically charged symbols flash on screen to bypass the cerebral cortex. Frantic drumming crescendos and Janacek’s Mass climaxes simultaneously with a full-blown orchestral intrada before Shiva’s image reduces to a single layer, as though the whole film were his sole hallucination.
In Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, ‘images become too full and sounds too strident’. The intoxicating overlay offers a pre-subjective state. Yet the film does not offer us the open-ended possibilities of DeleuzeGuattarian multiplicity. There are two kinds of multiplicitous desire: one is unified in a structure of containment, and the other fundamentally lacks unity. Unity only develops for Deleuze and Guattari when there is a ‘power takeover in the multiplicity’. Anger’s intoxicating cinematic world is not free of ideological structures or psychic strictures but, rather, ‘sells’ us an alternative set:a counter-cultural occult system. This underlying power takeover might gravitate against the film’s radical aesthetic force.
Rather than encouraging free molecular becoming, Anger’s ultimate intent is a molar indoctrination. Ideally, he wanted to dispense with technology and ‘project images directly into people’s heads’. The film’s decadent chaos points the way to a highly structured and disciplined, albeit alternative, system. Thus mapped out by the dictates of the filmmaker’s beliefs, it is overtly and covertly manipulative. Although the film depicts the ‘wine and strange drugs’ of Aleister Crowley’s dictum, intoxicants are not ends in themselves but a method of inducing altered states for magickal purposes. If the force of delirium is thus limited, the crack is prevented from spreading freely across the surface. It is, rather, directed by the magickian’s controlling agenda.
Nevertheless, the film’s encounter need not be bound by Anger’s occult paradigm. Even here, he claims not to damage the body in its depths but to raise delirious flesh to metaphysical heights. However manipulative the film’s intentions might be, its complexly affective style nevertheless induces a qualitative crack of the surface. Spectators unaware or sceptical of Anger’s beliefs might still, of course, experience the film ‘straight’. A viewing without prejudice offers a free-floating surface of ecstatic affects and percepts. The pyrotechnics compel the eyes to shift rapidly around the frame, refusing attempts to focus attention and fix meaning.
Anger intoxicates by light. The Scarlet Woman (Marjorie Cameron)’s chalk-white face gives off light as well as reflecting it. Her close-up face spreads to fill the frame with autonomous force as its turquoise and gold tones bleach out. As well as Leary’s ‘white light’, Anger’s psychedelic peer, Aldous Huxley, describes the ‘mind’s antipodes’ as ‘brilliantly lit, and seems to shine from within’.
Deleuze, Altered States and Film (Anna Powell)
- The Modern Epic: Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle (carefuleugene.blogspot.com)