Moonbeam Levels: Rabbit's Moon by Kenneth Anger
"I have always considered movies evil"1
"[Rabbit's Moon] is what I call a nocturne, a dream about me"2
Kenneth Anger's Rabbit's Moon (1972/1979) is a depiction of desire, nefarious delusion and a fascination with pellucid light. The opening shot establishes the essential premise: the sad clown Pierrot reclines in a stylised nighttime forest glade having seemingly just awakened from sleep, whereupon he experiences a peculiar lunar bedazzlement. Pierrot is surrounded by spindly, wintry trees with a deep black nothingness lying beyond and on the ground is a light covering of fallen leaves. Everything in this wide frame glimmers with a reflected blue-white light, the vividness of which suggests a bright supermoon. It is easy to see that this outdoor scene was created in a studio.
In the shorter and more unearthly 1979 seven-minute version of the film,3 an obscure English pop song, "It Came in the Night" by A Raincoat, coincides with our view of Pierrot's adventures. First we hear a series of stock spooky sounds that suggest a cartoon: the toll of a bell, an evil laugh and then a fun-house synthesiser riff around which the song then forms. The lyrics explicate Pierrot's immediate plight:
It came in the night,
It came in the night,
It came in the ni-night.
It gave me a fright,
It gave me a fright,
It gave me a fri-fright.
Pierrot is raised up on an elbow as he withdraws his other arm to meet his forehead, his face displaying an entrancement with something he sees in the sky. Pierrot then drops his head to break his gaze from an all-consuming reverie. He seems perturbed, alarmed but fascinated. The object of his attraction is the moon's reflected light.
For the remainder of this 29-second shot, Pierrot's vulnerable mood vacillates between fear of and devotion to the moon. His enraptured gaze follows a moving object out of frame as it moves close to the ground to his left and disappears behind him.4 Pierrot then rises to his feet, checks his surroundings and tiptoes towards the light with exaggerated, jerky movements that seem not quite human.5 After three steps he catches sight of the moon again and hurries away in fear to collect himself. Finally, Pierrot's earthly misgivings are overcome and he returns to the moon, arms outstretched towards it in total desire. The shot opens up Rabbit's Moon's theme, alluding to Kenneth Anger's own quixotic attractions.
Rabbit's Moon was shot on a Paris soundstage over a midsummer weekend in 1950, two or three decades before it was assembled into the 1972 and 1979 versions of the film that we know today. At that time Anger, a follower of the occult religion Thelema who grew up in Hollywood, was living in the city under the patronage of the Cinémathèque Française and in a deep depression, turning inward to address his obsessions. The heightened luminescence of Rabbit's Moon was achieved in stages of unifying art direction shooting and post-production. Anger had sole responsibility for production design and created his forest glade to resemble that of A Midsummer Night's Dream (Max Reinhardt, 1935), a talismanic film that had fascinated Anger since childhood.6 He painted the bare trees part silver, part black, created each fallen and still-hanging leaf from reflective crystal paper, and attended to all his actor's costumes and make-up including Pierrot's porcelain-white face. Rabbit's Moon was shot on uniquely lustrous nitrate 35mm stock, a format which records particularly resonant contrasts of brilliantly sparkling light and inky deep blacks.7 Following the shoot, which was itself curtailed when the studio was suddenly in demand from another production, Anger's footage was misplaced by the notoriously disorganised Cinémathèque archives. It was to gather dust in complete darkness for over 20 years. Finally, in 1972, Anger processed his newly re-found film using a blue filter to further boost the captured light's lunar quality.
Pervaded by this particularly intense handcrafted ‘in-camera' binary of light and dark, Rabbit's Moon tells of an impossible romantic attachment to apparitions. After jumping in vain to reach the moon, "It Came in the Night" begins again. The action re-starts by returning to an inert Pierrot. Here, the film duplicates the first half's astral yearning with an earth-bound, explicitly filmic desire. The cocksure character Harlequin appears before Pierrot and easily gets the better of him by teasing him with a series of pratfalls. Next, Harlequin reveals a magic lantern, a pre-cinematic device which projects a convincing illusion of the beautiful woman Columbine. Pierrot is once again entranced, this time not with the physically remote moon but with Columbine's reflected artifice. She appears as a silent movie star who is unobtainable for mortals and also unobtainable because she is Harlequin's mistress.8 Pierrot offers Columbine moonbeams, which she promptly rejects while Harlequin looks on, amused at Pierrot's hopeless desires. Finally, Harlequin points upward to indicate an imminent total lunar eclipse, which throws the earth into total shadow. The bright moonlight is snuffed out and Pierrot collapses in exhaustion or death.
Many of Anger's films are direct attempts to summon natural Magick,9 yet Rabbit's Moon instead depicts such a summoning; the sad-sack Pierrot standing in for Anger. Harlequin, the bringer of the magic lantern is Lucifer, whose name in classical mythology literally "bringer of light." For all its deliberately uncanny artifice and use of tragicomic stock characters, Rabbit's Moon seems a highly confessional film, a working-through of Anger's enrapturement with a particular kind of illumination: romantic, sensory, imagistic and ungraspable. For a filmmaker who spent their entire career devoted to the meticulous assemble of symbols, this is one film in which the symbols show something of the self.
Pierrot's intoxication with natural and artificial light, his wavering between fearfulness and devoted submission, and his inability to reconcile spectral and earthly pleasures are an exorcism of Anger's own attempted invocations of hedonism and Magick via cinema. The most beholden of all Kenneth Anger's films to light, both in its production and text, this "dream about Kenneth Anger" is indeed a vivid nighttime glow.