Kenneth Anger Never Cooled Off

But the filmmaker’s renegade aesthetic is all over the mainstream, from Martin Scorsese to David Lynch.

Kenneth Anger.
Kenneth Anger. Photo: Linda Nylind/eyevine/Redux
Kenneth Anger.
Kenneth Anger. Photo: Linda Nylind/eyevine/Redux

“It says ‘Anger’ on my passport. That’s all you need to know.” That’s what the brilliant and mercurial filmmaker, author and raconteur Kenneth Anger told an interviewer in 2012, when asked why he’d changed his birth name from Anglemeyer. “I would stay away from that subject if I were you.”

But you couldn’t, and he didn’t actually want you to. “A Film by Anger” is what his possessory credits declared. Sometimes he’d tweak them to read “An Anger Film” or “Film D’Anger” (he was fascinated with—and championed by—French critics, directors and artists before even the hippest Americans knew his name). That last version turned “anger” into “danger,” another motivation of his. From his 1947 breakthrough Fireworks, a homoerotic fantasia of Navy sailors in a bar that’s saturated in milk and blood, though his biker-Nazi-Jesus-occult nightmare-satire Scorpio Rising and his shamanistic birth-of-Satan chronicle Lucifer Rising through late works like Don’t Smoke That Cigarette, The Man We Want to Hang, and Mouse Heaven, both anger and danger were always palpable, even when they were layered with humor, symbolism, analogy, social critique, and beauty for beauty’s sake.

In interviews and public appearances, Anger could be confrontational, sarcastic, curt, even abusive. A 2004 Guardian profile begins with his bellowing at a patron in a restaurant who had roared with laughter as he told his interviewer a story about an “A-list actor who began his career as a rent boy” and contracted gonorrhea. This was one of many such anecdotes gathered in Anger’s best-selling Hollywood Babylon, the only work of his that most people have heard of—a book repeating salacious Old Hollywood tales, many of them apocryphal, such as the story of Jayne Manfield being decapitated in a car wreck (she wasn’t) and of Clara Bow having sex with the entire USC football team (she didn’t); Anger claimed he’d researched it “mainly through telepathy.” Anger: The Unauthorized Biography of Kenneth Anger recounts how he arrived at a 1984 taping of Coca Crystal’s counterculture talk show in New York, blew up when he found out that the studio wasn’t paying for his cab ride, attacked the talent coordinator and tried to drag her into the taxi, and then fled after throwing $100 at the cabdriver and yelling, “Get me out of here!”

To fans and foes alike, his name conjured unpredictability, mystery, fury. His films were compared to spellcraft, and their maker to a sorcerer. None of this was metaphorical. Anger rejected the Christianity of his Presbyterian parents in childhood, and later joined Aleister Crowley’s occult society Thelema; became friends with Anton LaVey; had LUCIFER tattooed across his chest; and claimed to have placed curses on people who had crossed him or his friends. When Roger Ebert panned Vincent Gallo’s film The Brown Bunny, Gallo claimed Anger had put a hex on the critic’s colon, at Gallo’s request. We’ll never know whether Anger actually did, because both men were, to put it mildly, unreliable storytellers.

For the most part, though—whether Anger was staging an ecstatic beatdown in Fireworks; merging the occult, the New Testament and Chariots of the Gods sci-fi imagery in Lucifer Rising, or holding college students spellbound with tales of culture icons he’d known, worked, or feuded with—his tone was more contemplative and cheeky than dour. Like so many artists, he was happiest making art, and second-happiest when talking about it with people who appreciated it. His film work was playful, knowingly outrageous, and constantly surprising—and, as I discovered when I met Anger 28 years ago in Los Colinas, Texas, after writing about his work for Dallas Observer, so was he. He was a public intellectual with the demeanor of an artsy SoCal uncle, discussing his esoteric approach to cinema and his impact on culture in a laid-back tone that would have played brilliantly on one of those old talk shows where everyone smoked.

For the most part, he wasn’t welcome on mainstream programs, because even at the height of his fame (or notoriety) he was too, well, dangerous. The work was too iconoclastic and withholding and unclassifiable for mainstream consumption, always demanding that the audience meet him on his terms, never theirs. He compared his movies to poetry because the term more accurately described how the fragmented, associative, music-driven editing worked on viewers’ brains. One of Anger’s earliest champions was the French filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who himself made a movie called Blood of a Poet and gave Fireworks a “Best Poetic Film” prize at his Festival du Film Maudit—“festival of cursed film”—in Biarritz in 1949, when its director was just 20. Cocteau clicked with Anger. So did Jean-Luc Godard, an early booster whose work became more free-associative and less linear the older he got, and 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. Martin Scorsese has repeatedly cited Anger as a source of a lot of his own style, and a comparison of any two Anger and Scorsese movies will make the affinity plain.

Anger resented the widespread perception that cinema was just The Movies, a thing that ran about two hours and had a plot and dialogue, a three-act structure, and (usually) a happy ending. Just as important, and related: Anger was openly gay at a time when few people were. It’s no wonder that he would be vocally antagonistic towards a culture that marginalized and sometimes legally persecuted people like him. Fireworks was the subject of a series of obscenity trials that went all the way to the California Supreme Court, which decided in Anger’s favor. (It also brought his name to the attention of people who were more in sync with his worldview, including sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who loved Fireworks so much that he bought a print, and Tennessee Williams, who called it “the most exciting use of cinema that I have ever seen.”)

Anger’s work was innately disturbing and disruptive by design, not merely in its generous quotients of sexuality, violence, queerness, and occult and political symbology but in its refusal to adhere to any sort of formula, much less tell viewers what it all meant. He focused entirely on personal expression, approaching his many masterpieces—including Eaux d’Artifice (the only film of his that he considered perfect), Rabbit’s Moon, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, and Kustom Kar Kommandos—as bespoke art projects, existing as much the worlds of painting, dance, music, and theater as cinema.

He lit and shot and cut images so that no matter how beautiful each was on its own, you had to ingest the totality like a potion and let it do its work if you wanted to get anything out of it. Most viewers weren’t interested in his kind of visual poetry, recognizing him mainly as a raconteur. (That same Guardian piece stated that Anger was mainly known as “an ill-tempered peddler of Hollywood gossip.”) Yet he kept going, making 39 films over a 73-year span. When you look through his filmography chronologically, you see how deftly he balanced shifting with the times (later in his career, Anger worked in video, and put electronic music on his soundtracks rather than exclusively strip-mining the classical cues and 1950s and ’60s pop that defined his earlier work) with maintaining his unique aesthetic.

Fireworks, shot when he was a USC student more than 75 years ago,, continues to resonate because even though the medium and the culture have changed immeasurably, the filmmaking is immaculate (especially when Anger is hacking his gallery-ready images into assaultive flash-cuts, each rupture as carefully considered as any elegant pan or dissolve). And it adheres so tightly to its own internal logic that it moots the question of whether older art “holds up” through modern eyes. With its painterly frames, expressionistic lighting, exuberant theatricality, Eisensteinean Morse-code cutting, and conflation of physical violation with ecstatic liberation (the young hero is beaten and raped by beautiful young sailors in white, who then open up his stomach, revealing a compass, then drench him in milk) Fireworks seems not so much be made as summoned. If you’ve seen Fight Club but not Fireworks, watching the latter will make you realize: Aha—so this is where that came from, not just because both works are partly about channeling existential anxiety and repressed homoeroticism into violence lit and posed like a fashion spread, but because of their signature art-house blends of momentousness and cheek. It’s not camp, but it’s camp-adjacent. The viewer wonders, Is this kidding or serious? It’s both, it’s neither, and it’s something else.

His landmark works Scorpio Rising and Lucifer Rising find Anger operating at the peak of his creative power and cultural influence. He’d been vetted by the French, and now he was being embraced by artists in English-speaking countries. His iconoclastic presentation and the outlaw status conferred by his public-facing sexuality and classic queer-themed films dovetailed with similar developments in rock ‘n’ roll and commercial cinema (including obscure-downbeat European art cinema and increasingly audacious porno flicks, both of which were starting to play in regular cinemas and advertise in newspapers).

Scorpio Rising was a provocation on the order of Fireworks, mixing footage of Coney Island bikers suiting up, working on their motorcycles, pissing in a helmet while surrounded by Nazi paraphernalia (including swastikas and a portrait of Adolf Hitler), mooning each other and miming sodomy, and eventually taking part in a real-life race that ended with a gang member wrecking his bike and actually dying of a broken neck. These were saucily intercut with occult signifiers of supernatural gestation and birth, plus footage of a Jesus movie meant for viewing a nearby Lutheran church that was mistakenly delivered to Anger’s house. The film’s obsessive yet strangely poker-faced tone made it hard to tell if Anger was conflating Nazism, bike gangs, Christianity, and occultists; celebrating or condemning the behavior he’d depicted (the final shot is a closeup of a dead biker’s arm tattooed with the words “BLESSED BLESSED OBLIVION”), or just piecing together provocative images of things that seemed like forbidden fruit to most audiences. Members of the American Nazi Party called the cops to shut down a Los Angeles screening; the theater owner was charged with obscenity because of a scene where the club strips one of its members naked and slathers his genitals in mustard, and fought it all the way to the California Supreme Court and won. The Lutheran Church sued over the stolen Jesus footage.

The film was an art-house hit, playing for months in New York and sparking a boho craze for biker clothes. The attention paid to Scorpio Rising and subsequent Anger shorts brought him into the orbits of a younger, hipper crowd of bad boys and girls, including the Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, and their hangers-on. The cross-pollination created signature works of the counterculture era. Anger gave Mick Jagger’s girlfriend and collaborator Faithfull a copy of Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, which compared a persecuted Soviet artist with Jesus and was built around the notions that appearance and reality were often confused: every cop was a criminal, sinners were saints, and Lucifer was a man of taste. Faithfull handed the book off to Jagger, inspiring him to write “Sympathy for the Devil.” Anger convinced Jagger to score Lucifer Rising, his epic about Lucifer’s birth, and even tried to get Jagger to play Lucifer; when Jagger declined, he cast the musician and Manson cult member Bobby Beausoleil.

The film’s production took four years, and its story is just a parade of conflicts. Anger (after a falling-out) fired Beausoleil and recast the role with Mick’s brother Chris Jagger, then fired him and re-recast it with another actor named Leslie Huggins, then fired him and finished the film. It was his largest production, with scenes filmed in England, Germany, and Egypt. He had to lie his way into Egypt.  “I said I was doing a documentary on ancient Egyptian beliefs and needed to film in the actual settings: in front of the Sphinx, at Karnak, along the Nile where you see beautiful ruined temples,” Anger told The Guardian. “The authorities fell for it.” At one point during all of this, Anger took out an ad in the Village Voice proclaiming his own death, as a publicity stunt. He chucked out Jagger’s score, too, and commissioned a new one from Jimmy Page, then canceled that as well. Beausoleil eventually wrote the final score, while serving a prison sentence for stabbing a man to death at Manson’s orders.

In a life like Anger’s, none of this was unusual. And yet, much like Apocalypse Now six years later, the end product was dazzling enough to eclipse knowledge of the film’s shitshow production. From the hypnotic opening shots of magma spewing and a lizard hatching from an egg (an image directly quoted in Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return) through its climactic sequence of UFOs gliding over a sun worshippers’ shrine, Lucifer Rising is a hallucinatory spectacle par excellence, ideal for midnight screenings and nightclub walls.

“Some movies can be the equivalent of mantras,” Anger told Ebert in a 1978 interview. “They cause you to lose track of time. You become disoriented. Magical things can happen. Magic causes changes to occur in the universe. You can mix two elements together and get an unexpected result just beyond the edge of what you realize.”

Born in Santa Monica but raised in Los Angeles, Anger attended Beverly Hills High School next door to the 20th Century–Fox lot. Like the accounts of celebrity scandals in Hollywood Babylon, Anger’s remembrances of his childhood were intoxicating—practically a form of wish-fulfillment for film buffs, especially ones of a salacious mindset—even though they didn’t make sense. Anger claimed he used to look out the windows and watch movies being shot on the lot, which is impossible in every way. He even told the YouTube interview series Cinemagicians that he saw the grotto scene from the Jennifer Jones vehicle The Song of Bernadette being filmed below the window of his chemistry classroom. He claimed (perhaps spuriously) to have appeared in the 1935 film A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 4, and later said that “Seeing [the filming] made me want to make my own films–a totally different kind.”

His most mainstream success drew on those years spent around the edges of Hollywood. Anger wrote Hollywood Babylon with the encouragement of Godard and Truffaut, who saw it as a way for their comrade to make a lot of money fast. They were right, though the book took many years to reach official English-language publication, thanks to libel concerns and copyright problems with the photos, and it became the object of a lawsuit brought by Gloria Swanson, whom Anger quoted saying that her colleague Lana Turner was “not even an actress… she is only a trollop.” (In response to the suit, Anger sent Swanson voodoo dolls and a miniature wooden coffin filled with sugar with “Here Lies Gloria Swanson” emblazoned across the top; the coffin is preserved in Mylar alongside Swanson’s papers at the University of Texas.)

Babylon and its sequel Hollywood Babylon II fed Anger’s urge to undermine Puritanism and expressed his lifelong fascination with the legend-polishing of Hollywood. The books also probably satisfied him at the level of roundabout retribution. Hollywood welcomes everyone, no matter how disreputable, with but one exception: habitual defiants like Anger, who probably wouldn’t have lasted long even if he had managed to get through the door at a studio or network.  (The biggest payday of his life was likely a 2011 ad for Missoni, the strangest commercial ever made by someone not named David Lynch.)

The Babylon books did unfortunately overshadow his film work, even though they may have given him a bit of marketplace juice for a few years, owing to the fact that people are more likely to say yes to a person who is already perceived as a name brand. Anger’s death may refocus public attention, however briefly, on his first love, experimental moviemaking, and entice newcomers to sample the work and wrap their minds around what he was making cinema do. Especially in terms of film form, Anger is still ahead of his time, and may remain so indefinitely. “I love film,” he told Crash magazine, “even if it deludes me by promising immortality. And like lovers or people in general, many films end up in ashes or disappear without a trace.”

Kenneth Anger Never Cooled Off