We’ll be playing a selection of Kenneth Anger films as part of our Discover Tuesdays strand on Tuesday 18 April. Deborah Allison, Programming Development Manager at Picturehouse Cinemas discusses some of the themes in his work, as well as his influences and influencees.
Kenneth Anger (born 1927, California) is best known as an American avant-garde filmmaker and, through his two Hollywood Babylon books, as salacious chronicler of tinsel-town scandal – often imitated but never rivalled. As such, he has been a central countercultural figure for more than sixty years. His most acclaimed film works are nine short pieces, collectively titled The Magick Lantern Cycle (1947-80), of which Fireworks (1947) and Scorpio Rising (1963) have left the deepest cultural footprint. Between the 1940s and 1970s, Anger variously completed and began around a dozen other shorts, which are now lost. After a lengthy career hiatus, he resumed filmmaking in the 1990s and has since completed around a dozen more.
Anger’s influence on later cinema, both within and without the avant-garde, has been huge. The homosexuality that helps shape the form and meaning of many of his films from the 1940s onwards has cemented his reputation as one of the founding fathers of queer cinema. Throughout his career, he has pushed the boundaries of contemporary social acceptability in many ways and, in the 1960s, brief flashes of nudity in Scorpio Rising led to his arrest. The subsequent ruling of the Supreme Court as to the film’s ‘redeeming social merit’ proved a landmark case influencing later censorship decisions. His stylistic innovations have arguably had even greater reach. None of his films contain dialogue (he has compared them to visions in a crystal ball), and his synergy of image and music – particularly in Scorpio Rising, where thirteen pop songs offer ironic commentary on the image track – has had enormous impact on the later phenomenon of pop videos and on mainstream feature soundtracks alike.
Anger has, in turn, been influenced by a wide range of individuals and cultural phenomena, from experimental artists, filmmakers and intellectuals to classical Hollywood movies. One of the most deeply entrenched influences is that of English occultist Aleister Crowley, founder of the Thelema religion that would become fundamental to Anger’s own philosophy and artistic expression. In his programme notes for a 1966 presentation of The Magick Lantern Cycle, Anger described Thelema as his religion and Magick as his lifework. Adopting a Crowlean notion of ‘magick’, he characterised himself as a magician casting a spell on his audience, and his camera as the ‘magickal weapon’ with which he composed his filmic ‘incantations’. These incantations, which both depict and enact rituals of invocation and transformation, draw from a broad mythological span. Welding ancient and modern world religions with the cult of Hollywood cinephilia and other totems of contemporary popular culture, Anger serves up a heady brew of religious and secular ceremonies, often spiced with an appealingly dry humour.
The consummate artisan, Anger prefers to work alone on his ‘film poems’ as far as possible, yet his list of collaborators reads like a directory of the artificers of twentieth-century culture. His films and research have taken him to many countries, where he has mingled and shared inspiration with a dazzling array of celebrated figures whose films, music, poetry, visual art and scholarly studies have broadened our social, spiritual and aesthetic landscape in countless ways. Among the notable countercultural icons contributing to his films are Bobby Beausoleil, Michael Cooper, Donald Cammell, Samson de Brier, Marianne Faithful, Curtis Harrington, Mick Jagger, Alfred C. Kinsey, Anton LaVey, Anais Nin, and Jimmy Page.
Although cited as an influence by filmmakers ranging from Martin Scorsese (just think about the soundtrack to Mean Streets while watching Scorpio Rising) to David Lynch, John Waters, Derek Jarman and Nicolas Winding Refn, Anger’s films remain brilliant and unique, and their power to stimulate and astonish is as fresh as ever.
On 18th April, Picturehouse Cinemas will be screening a selection of five titles from The Magick Lantern Cycle.
Fireworks (US, 1947, 15 minutes, black-and-white)
Anger’s first extant film pays homage to key works of the European and American cinematic avant-gardes, in whose culture he was already steeped. Structured as a dream, this modest psychodrama depicts the dreamer (played by Anger) venturing out in search of a light and being drawn into a homoerotic reverie that culminates in the ritualistic restitution of an initial psychological lack. Replete with symbolism, its focus on the potency of light heralds what would become the dominant metaphor of The Magick Lantern Cycle – the affiliation between the mechanics of cinema and the principal figure of Anger’s personal pantheon, the rebel angel Lucifer.
Eaux d’Artifice (Italy, 1952, 13 minutes, tinted black-and-white)
Filmed in the stunning sixteenth-century water gardens of the Villa d’Este in Italy (I recommend an excursion if you’re holidaying in Rome), Eaux d’Artifce tracks the progress of a period-costumed lady as she hustles her way through a midnight wonderland, attempting to draw out the spirits of this glistening nocturnal dreamscape. The canny casting of a dwarf (generally believed to be male) gives an exaggerated sense of the setting’s magnitude. Though conceived as a segment of a far more ambitious project (one of many Anger would never complete), he describes Eaux d’Artifce as ‘a perfect film’, not least for its exquisite fusion of image and music (the Winter Concerto of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons).
Scorpio Rising (US, 1963, 29 minutes, colour)
Anger’s best-known film centres on motorcycle fetishism and the eroticism of the death wish. It shows a group of American bikers preening themselves and their lustrous chariots in preparation for a Walpurgisnacht party, which culminates in a fatal race. Employing a colour palette symbolically dominated by the blacks and reds of Mars, Anger also steps up his use of montage to imply connections between a dizzying array of textual elements. The influence of the silent-era Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein is unmistakable, while incorporation of found footage partakes of a trend emerging within the 1960s American avant-garde.
Kustom Kar Kommandos (US, 1965, 3 minutes, colour)
Conceived as a companion piece to Scorpio Rising and representing a segment of yet another uncompleted project, KKK (as Anger would controversially dub the film) features a young man fetishistically polishing his gleaming customised car to the accompaniment of The Paris Sisters’ song Dream Lover. Although arguably the least complex and ambitious film of The Magick Lantern Cycle, its high production values (which ape the Hollywood mainstream) typify the technical refinement that sets Anger’s work aside from that of his peers.
Lucifer Rising (UK/Germany/Egypt, 1970-80, 30 minutes, colour)
Inspired by Crowley’s Hymn To Lucifer, this was the result of more than ten years’ labour, and Anger viewed it as a summation of everything he had hitherto worked toward. Filmed in England, Germany and Egypt, it enacts rituals founded in intersecting ancient and modern theologies and features a cast of prominent countercultural figures. Far more sedate than its immediate predecessor, Invocation Of My Demon Brother (1969), it embodies reconciliation between opposing ideologies, expressing new hope as the old age makes way for the new. The version we’re screening features a soundtrack by Bobby Beausoleil – although another rarer cut exists with a soundtrack by Jimmy Page, who you might just spot in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ cameo.