The Life and Work of Kenneth Anger
Angels exist. Nature provides an inexhaustible flood of beauties. It is up to the poet, with his personal vision, to ‘capture’ them.1
Those words, written by a twenty-one year old avant-garde filmmaker, close his essay Modestie et Art du Film, published in the fifth issue of Cahiers du Cinema, September, 1951. Perhaps no other artist in the experimental/avant-garde film genre has contributed as much as Kenneth Anger. His name is synonymous with controversy, poetic films, magic, ritual, sex, violence, and the examination of America’s cultural system. An extremely prolific filmmaker, Kenneth Anger has created a standard that aspiring, young avant-garde artists can only hope to reach. Through an erratic, eclectic career of poetry, sorcery, authorship and aborted film projects, Anger remains a “classic” avant-garde filmmaker, maintaining his eminent personal vision in all his efforts. In this paper I will develop a biographical history of Kenneth Anger, addressing the relationship between his life and the thematic trajectory of his work.
Born in Santa Monica, California in 1930, Anger later moved to Los Angeles with his family. Growing up in Hollywood, he found himself both attracted to and repulsed by the glamour and decadence of the movie system – a theme later to become prominent in his films. Kenneth Anger’s grandmother was a wardrobe mistress for silent films, and it was she who, when working for Max Reinhardt, got the five-year old Kenneth into a 1935 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Playing the role of the child prince in Reinhardt’s film whetted the appetite of a star-struck boy. Anger, as a young child, was preoccupied by media and film stars; even then he wanted to make home movies of the stars and their homes.
Young Kenneth was sent to the Maurice Kosslof Dancing School by his parents, where he found a dancing partner in the name of Shirley Temple. Rejecting dance for his first love, film, he started to make his own movies at the age of nine. As Anger progressed through adolescence he produced films abundantly, their content becoming extremely personal, approaching the form of near-confessionals (a style inherent in more mature works). Renouncing his real name and adopting the pseudonym “Kenneth Anger”, he subsequently embarked upon the filmic career that was to consume the remainder of his life.
During his teen years, Anger made six short but progressive films: Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941); Tinsel Tree (1941-42); Prisoner of Mars (1942); The Nest (1943); Escape Episode (1944); and finally, Drastic Dreams (1945). These early films are crucial to Anger’s career because they demonstrate his struggles to gain notoriety in the film industry, while tracing the development of this influential filmmaker. With the production of each early film Anger released a synopsis, giving the viewer a deeper understanding of his visions and intentions in each case. In the seven minute, black-and-white Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941), the plot reveals a “montage of American children at play, drifting and dreaming, in the last summer before Pearl Harbor. Flash cuts of newsreel holocaust dart across their reverie. Fog invades the playground; the children dropping in mock death to make a misty landscape of dreamers”.2
In Tinsel Tree (1941-42), three minutes, black-and-white, the action centres around “the ritual dressing and destruction of the Christmas Tree. Close-ups as the branches are laden with baubles, draped with garlands, tossed with tinsel. Cut to the stripped discarded tree as it bursts into brief furious flame (hand-tinted gold-scarlet) to leave a charred skeleton”.3
1942’s Prisoner of Mars (eleven minutes, black-and-white), is a “science-fiction rendering of the Minotaur myth. A `chosen’ adolescent of the future is rocketed to Mars where he awakens in a labyrinth littered with the bones of his predecessors. Formal use of `serial chapter’ aesthetic: begins and ends in a predicament”.4 The Nest (1943), a twenty minute, black-and-white film about incest, is described as a brother and sister “relating to mirrors and each other until a third party breaks the balance; seducing both into violence. Ablutions and the acts of dressing and making-up observed as magic rite. The binding spell of the sister-sorceress is banished by the brother who walks out”.5
Escape Episode (1944), serves as a demarcation in Anger’s early work; it was his first film to be publicly exhibited. The thirty-five minute, black-and-white film was re-edited with sound in 1946, and depicts the “free rendering of the Andromeda myth. A crumbling, stucco-gothic seaside monstrosity, serving as a Spiritualist Church. Imprisoned within, a girl at the mercy of a religious fanatic `dragon’ awaits her deliverance by a beach-boy Perseus. Ultimately it is her own defiance which snaps the chain”.6 Drastic Demise (1945), five minutes, black-and-white, completed Anger’s cycle of early teen films. In this film we see a “free-wheeling hand-held camera plunge into the hallucinatory reality of a hysterical Hollywood Boulevard crowd celebrating War’s End. A mushrooming cloud makes a final commentary”.7
These six precursors to Anger’s later work emphasize the theme of dressing up and the ritual it involves (most notably in Tinsel Tree and The Nest). A sense of ceremony and magic is present in these very early films, and they observe the classical unities of time and space, having a clearly defined beginning, middle and end.
The phenomenal success of the now-classic Fireworks was the film that firmly established Kenneth Anger as a formidable avant-garde artist. Shot in 1947 when Anger was only seventeen years old and still in high school, Fireworks was made for a mere fifty dollars. Its main theme is that of attraction to homosexual sadomasochism; here the influence of Anger’s personal visions and interests are thematically projected into his art. The film stars the artist himself as an adolescent dreamer who envisions being beaten up and eviscerated by a group of sailors. Symbolically, the title of the film is derived from the climactic scene where a sailor’s penis becomes a shooting Roman candle; the “light” is a triple symbol representing the dreamer’s sexual initiation, the now outmoded pick-up phrase, and the match that sets light to the phallic Roman candle of the title. Controversial for its time, Fireworks remains today as one of the most powerful films made by Kenneth Anger.
Anger’s critical and somewhat commercial achievement with Fireworks gave him the impetus to venture new projects. He attempted five new films which all, unfortunately, ended in disaster. The first of these was Puce Woman (1948), which was originally planned as a feature on Hollywood of the 1920’s. Due to film loss, the only part that survives is the fragment that is now Puce Moment. In this short clip, a would-be star chooses a gown and goes out adorned by jewels, make-up, and wolfhounds – a thematic trajectory of Anger’s life, the ritual of assuming an identity.
The Love That Whirls (1949), was sabotaged by Kodak Laboratories when delivered for processing; the film lab confiscated the colour footage because it showed a nude Aztec human sacrifice (which had been faked for the film). Anger’s third aborted project was La Lune des Lapins (1950), which he started after moving to Paris. Anger called this film “a lunar dream utilizing the classic pantomime figure of Pierrot in an encounter with a prankish, enchanted Magic Lantern”.8 Before completion, however, he ran out of money and lost the use of his sound stage, complete with an ornate set of a tinsled forest. La Lune des Lapins had been stored in the Cinematheque Francaise since production had ceased, but in 1968 Anger recovered it and, from its rushes, edited what is now Rabbit’s Moon.
Maldoror (1951-52), based on Lautreamont’s poem of demon-maddened adolescence, began production but also remains unfinished. Anger’s fifth catastrophe of this set of films was La Jeune Homme et la Mort (1953). He conceived it as a 16mm colour film of Cocteau’s ballet, but it only partially exists in a black-and-white version, unshowable due to copyright restrictions. Despite these setbacks Anger went on to make more films which, this time, proved highly successful. Eaux d’Artiface (1953), Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Scorpio Rising (1962-64), Kustom Kar Kommandos (1964), Lucifer Rising (1966-80), and Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), all thematically project elements of Kenneth Anger’s life and myths.
Cinema is a magic tool for Anger, one for capturing souls. This is but one of the mythological beliefs inherent in the overall thematic approach to his films. The genesis for Anger’s myth and work is his faith in Lucifer, the Light God of demonology, rather than the devil associated with Christianity. Since both logically and historically Lucifer exists as contrary – his message is that “the Key of Joy is Disobedience” – he is completely ambivalent. “Lucifer’s intrinsic polyvalence is constructed as multiple and oppositional by virtue of its subversion of Christianity’s obsessive one-dimensional distinctions between good and evil. As in the tradition of Romantic Satanism, Lucifer’s manifestation in a repressive society demands his continual self-destruction. Since he must resist being ossified into a new pantheon, he oscillates between himself and his opposite, and he does so in a filmic form that constantly eradicates its own alternative formulations”.9
Lucifer is therefore present in all of Anger’s later films as a figure of mythology, and as a basis for a ritual or formal practice. Kenneth Anger believes he is a disciple of Lucifer, and thus documents magic in his films – filmmaking, Anger believes, is the practice of magic.
More than any other filmmaker in the avant-garde tradition, Kenneth Anger clearly depicts, in his films, the love-hate relationship he harbours for Hollywood. He incorporates the complexities of tragedy in a simple Hollywood narrative while infusing his own mythological beliefs. These two elements when combined, are transformed onscreen to show a philosophical possibility: the similar processes of life and death of the body (Anger), and the life and death of ideas (Hollywood).
Anger has two additional themes that manifest in his work: perpetual death and transubstantiation. “Frequently this [transubstantiation] takes the form of a reverse Eucharist where essence is converted into substance, and this process can be discovered in Fireworks, Puce Moment, Rabbit’s Moon, Scorpio Rising, and Lucifer Rising. These films summon personifications of forces and spirits whose dynamic powers appear to `break through’ and turn against the characters and/or structure”.10 This concept is readily apparent in Scorpio Rising; Scorpio’s death is the triumph of Satan over Christ, Machine over Man, and Death over Life. In Puce Moment, the starlet is suddenly surrounded by material goods that previously she could not attain; the structure of the film transforms her essence (Soul) into physical beauty and material possessions (the jewels, dresses, make-up, hounds).
The most important figure in Kenneth Anger’s life and work is the British necromancer Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Anger bases his work mostly on Crowley’s mythologies, paying homage to him regularly by dedicating most films and writings to this self-styled guru. Crowley performed “Magick” – ceremonial magic which involves intensely structured rituals and personal transformations. Crowley’s definition of Magick, as stated in his book Magick: In Theory and Practice, is “the Science and the Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”.11 Through performance of ritual, Crowley believed Magick could invoke the Holy Guardian Angel (which is the aspirant’s higher self). Upon invocation, the Angel allows the individual to attain or achieve any wishes he may have; the Spirit infuses a total and complete sense of power into the Magickal practitioner.
Dubbed by newspapers as the “wickedest man in the world” and “The Great Beast”, Crowley first joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, the most influential of modern occult societies. He left the Order after violent disputes and scandalous scenes, conducting a black magical battle against its leader. He then founded his own religion of Crowleyanity to replace the Christianity for which he felt a contemptuous hatred. Crowley subsequently appointed himself a Magus in a ritual, baptizing a toad as Jesus Christ then crucifying it.
Among the many theorems conceived by Crowley and religiously followed by Kenneth Anger, was the creed of “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”. Crowley also maintained that “Every intentional act is a Magickal Act”; “Every man and woman is a star”; “A man who is doing his True Will has the inertia of the Universe to assist him”; and “Man may attract to himself any force of the Universe by making himself a fit receptacle for it, establishing a connection with it, and arranging conditions so that its nature compels it to flow toward him”.12
With Crowley’s neo-pagan religion firmly entrenched in his life, Kenneth Anger thematically trajected Magick into his work (most predominantly in the later films). Crowley’s influence in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is pivotal to the plot and structure of the film. Anger himself has remarked that his concept for Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome was “derived from one of Crowley’s dramatic rituals where people in the cult assume the identity of a god or goddess. In other words, it’s the equivalent of a masquerade party – they plan this for a whole year and on All Sabbath’s Eve they come as the gods and goddesses that they have identified with and the whole thing is like an improvised happening. This is the actual thing the film is based on”.13
In making Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Anger believed that a Eucharist of some sort should be consumed daily by every magician, and that he should regard it as the main sustenance of his magical life. Anger stresses its importance because the Eucharist embodies a complete circle, thus making it more important than any other magical ceremony or ritual. Crowley’s concept states that the whole of the force expended is completely re-absorbed, yet the virtue is the vast gain represented by the abyss between man and God.
Anger incorporates Crowley’s image directly into his films whenever possible. In one of the four versions produced of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Crowley appears throughout the film via still photos, accompanied by a collection of his occult symbols and talismans. In the first part of the film, Anger superimposed yet more photographs of Crowley in conjunction with the moon – a significant emblem of the occult.
Although Scorpio Rising is a somewhat diverse film when opposed to Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Crowley’s influence is present here as well. Death and resurrection are implied from beginning to end in the film; Anger describes the soundtrack as a “desire to escape into the romanticism of the death wish”. In Anger’s personal notes to Scorpio Rising, he equates the structural weaving of motorcycles and pop songs to Crowley’s mysticism: “It may be conceded in any case that the long strings of formidable words which roar and moan through so many conjurations have a real effect in exalting the consciousness of the magician to the proper pitch – that they should do so is no more extraordinary than music of any kind should do so”.14
Kenneth Anger’s devotion to Magick coupled with his credence in astrology provided the impetus for the production of Scorpio Rising. According to astrologists, 1962 (the year Scorpio Rising was produced) was the end of the two-thousand-year long Piscean Age and the beginning of the Aquarian Age. Occultists interpret this occurrence as the end of a period of Christian domination, and the beginning of a period of Pagan domination. Thus, Scorpio Rising can be paralleled to this astrological demarcation; it evokes the purging of an old age, sickened by violence, destruction and death, and leads a resurrection into a new age, offering hope and fulfillment. Hence, pop songs, drug use, motorcycle gangs and neo-Nazism, are so prominent in Scorpio Rising because Anger saw them as “strong manifestations of threatening demonic forces”.15
The much delayed and troubled project that became Lucifer Rising was inspired by Aleister Crowley’s poem Hymn to Lucifer; in part it reads: “His body a blood-ruby radiant with noble passion, sun-souled Lucifer swept through the dawn colossal”.16 Starring Marianne Faithful and Donald Cammell, Anger calls this effort his “birthday party for the Aquarian Age”.
Lucifer Rising is the most explicit homage to Aleister Crowley that Kenneth Anger has ever paid. In the first stages of the film’s pre-production, Anger toyed with the idea of making the film a biography of Crowley. Realizing this an impossibility, he settled for displaying Crowley’s portrait and infusing the film with the mystic’s predominantly sexual readings of mythology. Anger’s intention through the film is to invoke Lucifer, the bringer of light and scourger of innocence.
Considered Anger’s most metaphysical film, Invocation of My Demon Brother is another work that relies on personal concepts. “What makes this film more difficult than any previous Anger film is the filmmaker’s new use of his art as an instrument of discovery. The film is about the concentration of the imagination and indirectly about the power of art to achieve it. The montage compares the trance of music – the jazz band, Jagger and his audience at a rock show – and the trance of drugs – smoking hashish – with possession by war – the helicopter scenes – suicide – the Saturian torso – and with sexuality – the wrestling naked boys – as the dynamics of imaginary initiation”.17
In addition to Anger’s use of art as discovery in Invocation of My Demon Brother, he employs his Magickal concepts throughout. In the accelerated long shots of the film, Anger is seen as The Magus: twirling, spinning and casting all his energy into the void that surrounds him. Anger’s role as Magus was inspired by Aleister Crowley’s decree that “the true Magick of Horus requires the passionate union of opposites”. Thus, as Anger states in his notes to Invocation of My Demon Brother, the dance of The Magus “widdershins around the Swirling Spiral Force, the solar swastika, until the Bringer of Light – Lucifer – breaks through”.
Crowley’s influence is pervasive throughout Invocation of My Demon Brother. In the early stages of the ritual centre of the film, Anger interjects shots of himself reading Crowley’s novel of witchcraft Moonchild, with images of spider-like tattoos. Conceptually, Anger attempts to perform Magick directly through cinema, and this idea is exemplified by the message the charred dummy carries at the end of the film: “Zap, you’re pregnant. That’s witchcraft”.
Aside from the Magickal aspect inherent in that scene, the subtext implies a self-mockery of the artist. Anger is neither a Hollywood director or star (nor can ever be that child-star again); the turban that appears on the charred dummy is the same one he wore in Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Nights Dream in 1935.
Kenneth Anger remains outspoken regarding his use of magick in film, and of his attitude toward the medium in general. In a 1969 interview with Tony Ryans, Anger remarked that “I have always considered movies evil; the day cinema was invented was a black day for mankind. Photography is a blatant attempt to steal the soul. The astral body is just latent in a person, and certain cunning and gifted photographers can take an image of the astral body. The whole thing is having an image of someone to control them … My films are primarily concerned with sexuality and magic in people … so I consider myself as working Evil in an evil medium”.18
Critics complain that no other contemporary filmmaker has fuelled his own mythology as much as Kenneth Anger. He gives interviewers substantially different accounts of his life and work, vehemently protects his real name even from close associates, and continually re-edits his own films, changing their meaning in the process.
Despite criticism from his adversaries Anger remains productive: filming, editing, and revising his works, while pursuing authorial, poetic, and magical interests. Through his personal vision Anger has established himself as a controversial and influential filmmaker, setting filmic standards for future generations of avant-garde artists. “In American experimental-poetic films, Kenneth Anger serves as an example of the modern film poet who creates, not according to the technical rules of filmmaking, but rather according to rules of his own subconscious -that is where the real creation begins”.19
1 Ryans, Tony. “Lucifer Rising.” Monthly Film Bulletin. Vol. 49, No. 584, September 1982. p. 191.
2 Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. p.95.
3 ibid. p. 96.
8 Keller, Marjorie. “Rabbit’s Moon.” Film Culture. No. 67-68-69, 1979. p.201.
9 James, David E. Allegories of Cinema. Princeton: University Press, 1989. p. 149.
10 Rowe, Carl. “Illuminating Lucifer.” The Avant-Garde Film. Ed. P. Adams Sitney. New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1978. p. 116.
11 Crowley, Aleister. Magick: In Theory and Practice. New York: Dover Publications, 1976.
13 Martin, Bruce and Medjuck, Joe. “Kenneth Anger.” Take One. Vol. 1, No. 6, 1967. p.13.
14 Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film. p. 115.
15 Renan, Sheldon. An Introduction to the American Underground Film. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, Inc., 1967. p.109.
16 Hoberman, J. “Sympathy For The Devil.” The Village Voice. December 17-23, 1980. p.82.
17 Ryans, Tony. “Lucifer: A Kenneth Anger Compendium.” Cinema. No. 4, October, 1969.
19 Curtis, David. Experimental Cinema. New York: Universe Books, 1971. p.62.