Deborah Stratman’s experimental film considers the wide scope of the American experience through a narrow prism of eleven chapters from Illinois history.
The production considers the eerie near-erasure of the land’s ancient inhabitants – the Cahokia Mounds are shown with scant explanation of their relevance, while Native American culture is viewed in the tacky stagnation of a museum diorama and the expulsion of the Cherokees is encapsulated in a street sign called “Trail of Tears Road.” The rise and fall of outsider communities is also considered in the relatively brief period of the Icarian utopian commune of French immigrants and the rise of Joseph Smith’s nascent Mormon movement (as well as Smith’s death and the burning of the Mormon temple in Nauvoo). Stratman brings in archival footage of the devastating 1925 Tri-State Tornado and stages a re-enactment of the televised re-enactment of the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by law enforcement.
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.