In post-World War II America, homosexuality was being addressed with various degrees of maturity and artistry in literature and theater – but not in cinema, thanks to the restrictive Production Code censorship that governed Hollywood. Far removed from the movie industry, 17-year-old Kenneth Anger used cinema to consider homoeroticism with the 14-minute “Fireworks,” which was certainly the most daring film of 1947 – and is still among the most astonishing productions ever made.
For this experimental work, Anger cast himself as a young man whose sex-fueled fantasies become a violent reality. From its opening, Anger immediately breaks taboos by suggesting the dream of the youth being held in the arms of a hunky sailor. The youth awakes and it appears that he has an erection – but the pulling back of the blanket reveals he was holding a statuette to simulate his phallic tower. Slipping through a door marked “Gents,” he winds up in a bar where a bodybuilder sailor shows off his muscles – but when the youth offers the sailor a cigarette, the sailor slaps him in the face and twists his arm behind his back. The sailor later lights the youth’s cigarette with a flame burning at the end of a bundle of sticks – or, to be crude, using a faggot to light up a faggot.
Then, more sailors show up, with their leader holding a large chain. They surround the youth, who sinks to the ground. The youth is framed in tight close-up, screaming with blood being splattered across his face, as sailors beat him with chains and cut open his chest to find a gas gauge in his heart. This assault is followed by white liquid being poured on the youth’s face and body. One of the sailors is seen with a lit Roman candle dangling from his fly. But it turns out to have just been a sadomasochistic dream as the youth shares his bed with another man (although this partner’s face is scratched out of the print in a manner that gives his head a cartoonish sunshine glow).
Not unlike many experimental films, there is a degree of artistic wobbling going on – a Christmas tree is trotted out for no clear reason and a few shots are not in focus. But the sheer audacity of the film’s most visceral images and its unapologetic consideration that the orgy of sexual violence was little more than a dream – that ultimate storytelling cliché, played for a big gay laugh here – were far ahead of its time. And, maybe, with its willingness to jettison aesthetic safety for sheer carnal outrageousness, “Fireworks” is also ahead of our time.