Kenneth Anger

Kenneth Anger (1927-2023)
Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles 2019. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1967 I saw Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. I have to admit, I’ve forgotten most films I’ve seen over the last 60 years but distinctly remember Anger’s 1963 cutting-edge masterpiece, from the pairing of action and pop music (among many, “Hit the Road, Jack,” “Blue Velvet,” “He’s a Rebel”) to the preening young men in leather motorcycle gear to the gleaming bikes themselves. It was a subculture I knew nothing about (and still don’t) but Anger’s masterful imagery through which the music pulsated, is totally unforgettable, riveting, resonant.

Long before MTV (let alone Instagram and Tik-Tok), Anger was already shooting music videos. Or as Martin Scorsese told Peter Decherney for his book Hollywood’s Copyright Laws, “Now here was Kenneth Anger’s film in and out of the courts on obscenity charges, but no one seemed to be complaining that he’d used all those incredible tracks of Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson and the Rebels. That gave me the idea to use whatever music I really needed.”

Anger made over 40 films, all of them 30-minutes or shorter. But each film packed a wallop, and from nearly the beginning of his career he became a cult figure. His blend of images designed to startle, his camera cuts, his use of stills within a “moving picture,” set him apart from other filmmakers early on. Among the first “out” filmmakers, whose subject matter was often that of homo-eroticism, he quickly was taken up by the gay community. Indeed, his first publicly released film Fireworks (1947), was about a dreaming sailor attacked by a group of other sailors. 

In tandem, and often overlapping with his dedication to exploring homo-eroticism, was his interest and portrayal of the occult, derived in large part from his ongoing reading of Aleister Crowley.  Throughout his career he made free use of concepts and images derived from Satanism. He grouped nine of the films he made under the sign of Crowley under the heading of “The Magick Lantern Cycle.” Among the best is the 30-minute Lucifer Rising (1981).

Anger explained in a 2014 magazine interview with AnOther: Lucifer Rising was a celebration of the beginning of the Pagan age and the end of Christianity, where Lucifer was elevated from his place in Christian belief as a fallen angel to his pantheistic role as bringer of light … I like to express my beliefs through cinema. After all, movies can be the equivalent of mantras. They cause you to lose track of time and to become disoriented because magical things can happen. Movies can also be evil – although, of course, my definition of evil is not everybody else’s. Evil is being involved in the glamour and charm of material existence, glamour in its old Gaelic sense meaning enchantment with the look of things, rather than the soul of things.”

Before Lucifer Rising was actually released, much of the footage created for it was recycled in the less successful but engaging Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), which starred, among others, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Anger. Jagger composed the music. Occult imagery abounds, interspersed with Vietnam War footage and clips of the Stones in concert.

Among Anger’s other great accomplishments areThe Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) inspired by Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” but with an erotic and disturbing twist; and Eaux d’Artifice (1953), a quieter one-scene film focusing on a woman dressed in 18th Century dress wandering among the many fountains in the magnificent garden of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli.  Again, music is essential to the story. In Eaux d’Artifice Anger used Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as the “soundtrack.” When the music slowed, so did the film; when Vivaldi speeded up, so did the character and camera movements.

In 1995 I met Anger very briefly when he came to the Harvard Film Archive to introduce his Magick Lantern Cycle. At a small gathering at a local bar in Harvard Square, I remember asking him how he first started making films. He told me he had begun “fooling around with a camera” when he was eight or nine, using 16 mm film left over from his father shooting home movies, “and never stopped.” He also mentioned the profound effect of seeing Eisentein’s Thunder Over Mexico (footage from his never-completed ¡Qué viva México!) when he was just a child. “It impressed me with the power of how filmmaking could be done. I grew up in Hollywood. We had films everywhere, but Eisentein opened my eyes.”

“Ah,” I said, “Hollywood Babylon (his 1965 book of gossip about movie stars in the ‘30s and ‘40s).

“Ah yes. I collected these stories and kept stories and photographs in big scrapbooks when I was a youngster. It was my hobby, keeping those scrapbooks.”

At one of talks at Harvard, Anger noted that he basically made films for himself.  He said something to the effect of this: “If I find an audience I can share them with, that’s great. It’s the equivalent of poetry. I’m not trying to reach a mass audience; if I were, I would have gone into Hollywood.”Anger found a good many audiences with whom he shared his groundbreaking films. World cinema would not be the same without him. His audacity and innovative cinematic techniques won the accolades early on of Jean Cocteau, who invited him to Paris in the early 50s, and his influence stretches from Maya Deren and Martin Scorsese to David Lynch and John Waters. He was an American original: irreplaceable and absolutely authentic.

—Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno

* * *