Kenneth Anger: “Magic Is What You Make It”

Kenneth Anger in 1955

In 2007, Fantoma Films released The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume One, a box set featuring restorations by the UCLA Film Archive, and Martin Scorsese wrote the introduction to the booklet that came with it. Scorsese recalled being “astonished” when he first saw Scorpio Rising (1963). “Every cut,” he wrote, “every camera movement, every color, and every texture seemed, somehow, inevitable, in the same way that images of the Virgin in Renaissance painting seem inevitable—in other words, preexisting but dormant, and brought back to life through some kind of evocation.” Kenneth Anger “is, without a doubt, one of our greatest artists.”

Anger, who passed away last month at the age of ninety-six, made a good number of short films in the twenty-first century, but his two-pronged impact on cinema and the culture at large was made with one scandalous book and about a dozen films produced between the late 1940s and somewhere around 1970. Let’s start with the book. Working with ghostwriter Elliott Stein and conducting his research “mainly through telepathy,” as he often enjoyed saying, Anger embellished on urban legends and created more than a few of his own in Hollywood Babylon, first published in France in 1959 before it appeared a few years later in the U.S., where it was immediately banned before reappearing in 1975. A sequel, Hollywood Babylon II, followed in 1984.

In 2019, Karina Longworth devoted an entire season of her acclaimed podcast, You Must Remember This, to separating fact from fiction in the tales Anger and Stein told about Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, and other Tinseltown legends. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw suggests that Hollywood Babylon should be read “as a brilliant satirical fiction, a séance of horror, communing with the spirits of unhappiness and excess floating unacknowledged around Los Angeles.”

Born Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer into a comfortably middle-class home in Santa Monica—his father was an electrical engineer at Douglas Aircraft—Anger first picked up the family’s 8 mm camera when he was around ten. At twenty, he was studying film at USC, and having upgraded to 16 mm, he shot Fireworks (1947), which Ari Osterweil, writing for Artforum in 2017, called the “inaugural film of postwar queer cinema and a watershed event in the history of the American avant-garde.” Anger appears as a beautiful innocent ravaged by sailers, one of whom unzips to whip out a spark-spewing roman candle. “Anger’s subversive eroticization of politics confronts the sadism of imperial power with the masochism of the queer subject,” wrote Osterweil. Fireworks is “arguably the most political wet dream ever filmed.”

Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who became a sort of father figure, bought a copy of Fireworks, and Jean Cocteau screened the film at the Festival du Film Maudit in 1949. Cocteau encouraged Anger, who had recently been acquitted of obscenity charges in California, to relocate to France. Anger took the plunge, landing odd jobs, working as an assistant to Henri Langlois at the Cinémathèque française, and shooting Rabbit’s Moon (1950), which Nathan Lee, writing for the Village Voice in 2007, called “a lunar pantomime rife with autobiographical implications.” On a trip to Italy, Anger shot Eaux d’artifice (1953) in the water gardens of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli. “Part trance film, part landscape study, part rapturous abstraction,” wrote Lee, Eaux d’artifice “floats along on sensuous dissolves and builds to one of the most visionary (and moist) climaxes in the Anger oeuvre . . . It is, somehow, his sexiest film.”

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), an early expression of Anger’s growing interest in Aleister Crowley, the occult, and pagan ritual, is, as Fernando F. Croce wrote for Slant in 2007, “a splendiferous Anger bash. Its rhapsodic psychedelia summons forth all sorts of gods and monsters (including kinky novelist Anaïs Nin and cult director Curtis Harrington) for a sustained moment of ecstasy that contains all of the following decade’s sense of orgiastic revolution, along with bits of Scorsese, Lynch, Ken Russell, Parajanov, and Guy Maddin.”

By the early 1960s, Anger was back in the U.S. for good. He spent around three months shooting Scorpio Rising in New York, and for Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, it’s “one of the greatest movies ever made.” Anger, “making his seismic pop-music fever dream on what felt like the cusp of the ’50s and ’60s, created a kaleidoscopic head trip of Coney Island bikers in studded black leather, the greased chrome machines they took apart and put back together like toys, plus cocaine and Jesus and Nazis, comic strips with hidden messages, Brando and Dean, orgiastic parties and black-mass rituals, torture and desire . . . and rock ‘n’ roll. For twenty-eight hypnotic minutes, Anger baptized his imagery in pop music. And when he did that, a new form—a new world—was born.”

The marriage of pop hits and vivid imagery had an obvious impact on Scorsese, and in his salute to Anger at Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz draws another line to David Lynch, “whose hallucinatory filmography features flash-cuts, graphic sex, science fiction and horror imagery, gruesome violence, humorous inserts, ‘innocent’ mid-century pop music, and images of retro-Eisenhower-era, leather-clad bikers who could have been lifted straight from Anger’s films.”

In the mid-1960s, Anger began working on Lucifer Rising, a project he spent a decade and a half trying to complete. In 1969, he used some of the footage he’d shot with Mick Jagger and future Manson family member Bobby Beausoleil to create Invocation of My Demon Brother, which, as Glenn Kenny points out at the Decider, features “fleeting glimpses of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, Anger himself conducting (in fast motion) a ritual which involves a Nazi flag, closeups of creepily tripping-balls beardos, and some footage of the Stones in concert. It’s a disturbing eleven minutes.”

But not as disturbing as one of Anger’s final films, Ich Will! (2008), which Kenny describes as “an entirely uncritical assemblage of found footage of Hitler youth rallies; the stuff that was the object of fast-paced fetishization in Scorpio Rising and Demon Brother is the full subject here, and it’s queasy viewing.” At Hyperallergic, Kyle Turner proposes that Anger “dared to point out that the roots of our favorite ways to pray in pop culture weren’t so far from the iconography of fascism itself.”

Novelist Jarett Kobek admires much of Anger’s work but freely admits that the man he got to know in the mid-2000s could be a handful. The first time Kobek drove to Los Angeles to meet the filmmaker, who was in his late seventies by that point, he arrived at a hotel to discover Anger was gone. He’d been arrested for attempting to strangle the burlesque artist working the hotel desk. “Accounts of Anger’s outbursts and ill-behavior are beyond measure,” writes Kobek for frieze. “Stories go back to the early 1960s—if not earlier. In the weeks that follow his death, we’ll hear more.”

Paul Gallagher, a producer and director of television documentaries in the late 1990s and early 2000s, wrote a piece for Flashbak in 2020 about shooting a profile of the director and writer. “I liked Anger,” he wrote. When the shoot wrapped, “I gave Anger a hug and a kiss and said goodbye. I watched him walk off across the graveyard. Then I pulled a cigarette from a packet and lit it up. Between the time of finding my lighter and lighting, and drawing in that beautiful breath of smoke, Anger had disappeared. I thought I was imagining things. I walked the route he had taken. Two hundred yards to the wall. No Anger. No nothing. He had disappeared without a trace. Magic is what you make it.”

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