Remembering Kenneth Anger, the Greatest Underground Filmmaker Who Ever Lived

Most artists, if they’re lucky, invent one thing. But Kenneth Anger, who was a filmmaker, an author, a debauched aristocratic scenester and, to the day of his death at 96 (he reportedly died May 11, though it wasn’t made public until May 24), a figure of puckish mystery, invented several things, each one of them epic.

In “Fireworks,” his transcendent 14-minute avant-garde film of 1947, Anger invented the very consciousness and imagery of gay liberation — not the desire to be liberated (which was buried in the hearts of gay people everywhere), but the rapturous visual reverie of what that liberation might look like, what it would feel like, why it seemed so forbidden, and why it needed to be. In “Scorpio Rising,” his homoerotic demon-biker/Top-40-orgy blast from the underground, Anger invented MTV, invented what Martin Scorsese did in “Mean Streets” and David Lynch did in “Blue Velvet,” invented a way to express how music and reality talk to each other.

In “Hollywood Babylon,” his legendary 1959 book full of sordid tales of Tinseltown scandal from the ’20s through the ’50s, Anger invented how the dark side of celebrity, which was already coruscating through the Hollywood tabloids, would become an addictive and omnivorous culture of gossip, one that we would view through a scrim of derision even as we drank it all in. In the book, Anger stared with the eyes of a voyeur even as he was giggling past the graveyard. And that’s why it almost didn’t matter that a number of the stories in the book weren’t true. (A number of them were.) Anger was inventing the fairy-tale mythology of gossip, how the squalid underbelly of the dream factory was all part of the dream.     

A DNA of imagistic obsession and desire flowed through Kenneth Anger. He was one of the secret legislators of the 20th century. He took what was in his head and poured it into an underground cinema as potent as drugs. He turned dangerous and salacious experience into a soundtrack (and vice versa). He envisioned movie stars as libertine gods whom he then knocked off their pedestals (which only made them greater gods). Through it all, his gift was so singular that the films he created had a bewitching, talismanic quality. You didn’t just watch them, you believed in them.

Whenever I’ve been asked to compile a list of the 10 greatest movies ever made, my list always consists of the following: nine narrative features (“Citizen Kane,” “Nashville,” “The Rules of the Game” and so on) and one 28-minute-long underground/experimental movie made in 1963. That would be “Scorpio Rising,” Anger’s hypnotic masterpiece. Why would I put that movie on the list? The obvious answer is: Because I think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. Period.

But why do I believe that? The sheer influence of “Scorpio Rising” — on movies, on popular culture, on the way that we see things — is almost too staggering to measure. 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 28 hypnotic minutes, Anger baptized his imagery in pop music. And when he did that, a new form — a new world — was born.

Anger, lifting songs of the moment right off the charts, created an explosive counterpoint. As we’re led into the night world of Scorpio, a biker built like a Tom of Finland pin-up, we see men getting dressed in their tough-stud regalia…set to Bobby Vinton singing “She wore blue velvet…” (yes, that’s where Lynch copped the idea of using that song). We see a skull mounted on the back of a chopper set against the opening beat of “My Boyfriend’s Back,” so that for a moment that death’s head becomes “my boyfriend” (which is funny and a little scary). The imagery starts slowly and gathers force, kicking up during “Heat Wave,” when Scorpio snorts white powder to a blast of imagery so rapid-fire it feels like a lightning charge is going off in your head.

And then we arrive at the cracked majesty of “He’s a Rebel.” Anger lays the Phil Spector/Crystals track over images of an old black-and-white movie depicting the story of Christ, so that Jesus, leading his followers and making a blind man see, is now the “rebel” of the song — but since the song is about a girl’s adoration of the leader of the pack, this mock rebel Christ links back to Scorpio, which links back to “my boyfriend,” which is intercut with images of bootstrap fascism, and the fact that he is somehow all these things at once is a joke, as ironic as a Warhol silkscreen, and something out of a hallucination, because the film is saying: This is how our culture of images lives inside us. By the time the film gets to “I Will Follow Him,” him has become Jesus, the leader of the pack, my boyfriend, my destiny…and Hitler. Worship and subversion and God and desire and danger and salvation and death, all dressed in animal-skin coolness. What Anger channeled in “Scorpio Rising” was nothing less than the exhilarating layer cake of 20th-century consciousness. He made his demons dance. He made his demons ours.

Throughout his life, Anger flaunted an association with the demonic. He was an avowed satanist and a follower of Aleister Crowley, the prophet of occult “magick.” And he cultivated a number of dark associations, like his relationship with Bobby Beausoleil, the Manson acolyte who played Lucifer in Anger’s “Invocation of My Demon Brother,” a 1969 poem of bad vibes that features a super-abrasive electronic soundtrack by Mick Jagger (Anger, by then, was surrounding himself with those who had sympathy for the devil).

Yet what I’ve always thought about Anger is that his satanism was not, at its core, an embrace of “evil.” It was, rather, a self-imposed metaphorical mirror of how society had chosen to view him as a gay man. Kenneth Anglemyer (he changed his name to Anger in his late teens) was born in Santa Monica in 1927, and in the world he grew up in homosexuality was stigmatized, demonized, criminalized. Anger, a revolutionary of queer consciousness, was saying: I refuse to be anything less than public about who I am — so if you view me and my sexuality as evil, I will get ahead of you by declaring myself a denizen of the underworld.

That’s part of the erotic black magic of “Fireworks.” The film was made when Anger was 20 (though he burnished his mythology with the lie that he’d made it when he was just 17, thus making himself seem even more of a wunderkind), and I would call it the second greatest underground film ever made. It is also, in its way, a music video (though it uses the swooning rapture of Respighi, since rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t been invented yet), and what it’s about is the unprecedented expression of gay desire.

It’s a psychodrama told in satiny black-and-white, starring Anger himself, a skinny handsome figure with ripe lips and pleading eyes, as a lonely young man whose only company is a set of pinup photographs. So he decides to go out and find some real action, and does. What follows is a sadomasochistic reverie, a transgressive shadow play of sailors and violence and blood and cream and torn innards that builds and builds until it explodes in delicate ecstasy. At the end, Anger is no longer alone; he has the companion he wants, the one he deserves — a faceless figure wearing a glistening nimbus.

“Fireworks,” shot at Anger’s parents’ Beverly Hills home over a weekend, is a film that has never lost its power to shock, to cast a spell, to take you to that subterranean place of desire that links all human beings. Watching it, you can hardly believe how ahead of its time it was. It got Anger arrested on obscenity charges, but he was launched. He’d been making films since he was 10 (and claims to have played the Changeling Prince in the 1935 Max Reinhardt version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” an assertion many debunk, though I think it’s him), and he would now go to Europe, land of the original bohemians, to keep making films that would imagine the future.

You can watch Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle, the collection of nine films that define him, in about two-and-a-half hours, and over the years I’ve gone back to these movies over and over and over again, watching them almost like album cuts, often late at night. “Kustom Kar Kommandos,” his three-minute film from 1965, is like a coda to “Scorpio Rising,” set to the Paris Sisters’ incandescent version of “Dream Lover,” and it’s a luscious trance-out in which a hot-rod hunk’s polishing of his shiny vintage car is so encoded with double entendres that it’s at once droll and hallucinatory. “Puce Moment,” from 1949, envisions a Hollywood star of the silent era and conjures a playful haunted sense of the past.

And then there’s “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome,” which is Anger’s version of an epic (it’s 38 minutes of dense imagery), made in 1954, in which he spins a web of royal jewels and pagan gods and people with very high hair, but what he’s really doing is foreseeing the psychedelic 1960s a decade ahead of time. I first saw this film in 1981, after Anger had given it a new soundtrack of the Electric Light Orchestra’s “El Dorado,” played in its entirety. He could never stop tinkering with his films, changing the music and fiddling with the editing. The ELO version of “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” has a demented splendor — it was my introduction to that album, and to this day I can’t listen to it without seeing Anger’s imagery. But he ultimately restored the original version, with its bursting music by Janáček, and it’s much better. It’s the kind of avant-garde movie that feeds your head even as it leaves you scratching it.

That’s also true of “Lucifer Rising,” his years-in-the-making ’70s movie that interlaces the Sphinx and flying saucers. But after making films for more than 20 years, always struggling to get them financed, Anger, in his mid-forties, was flaming out — of the culture, and of his creative muse. All the dimensions of the future he’d envisioned in his films were now coming to pass. And Anger, for the first time, was stuck in the past. He spent decades of struggle dining out on his legend. Because these are not the kinds of films you make a lot of money from. (That’s where “Hollywood Babylon II,” published in 1984, came in.)

I went to see Anger in public a couple of times, notably an evening about 15 years ago when he presented his work at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. While I was awed to be in his presence, my reaction to his introduction, in which he rambled on like an ancient Hollywood diva about things like Louella Parsons in diapers, is that I couldn’t fully connect the man with his films. He seemed flakier and more insouciant.

But those films, or at least the greatest of them, are timeless. And after a while he resumed making them, right into the 2000s. They were hit-or-miss now, without the rhapsodic pull of his defining work, but in 2005, at the Museum of Modern Art, I finally saw a new Anger film that synced up to the heartbeat of his old ones. It’s called “Mouse Heaven,” and it is, of all things, an homage to Mickey Mouse built around a friend of Anger’s outrageously vast collection of Mickey Mouse memorabilia. Mickey Mouse, of course, first appeared in a cartoon in 1928, so the subject took Anger back to the old Hollywood he still lived in. The film was about the enchantment of Mickey Mouse — and Anger’s editing once again cast a spell. It was enough to remind me that his films, in their intoxicating wink of rapture, always showed you the light in the darkness. And that’s why, however many devils he sowed, history will remember Kenneth Anger as an artist on the side of the angels, as well as the greatest underground filmmaker who ever lived.

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