In Memoriam: Kenneth Anger’s cinematic incantations

‘Making a movie is casting a spell,’ said Kenneth Anger about his lifelong profession, his unique and spectacular talent, his very own dark magic. That certainly describes how I was lured into his realm. There was a time in my life where I would watch Anger’s seven-minute film Rabbit’s Moon basically on repeat, infatuated by its blue-tinted images of a sprightly harlequin dancing around a clearing and calling silently to the moon. It was poetry.

This was the version re-released in 1979, after the original 1950 recording was abandoned and another version, with 1950s pop songs, completed in 1971. The soundtrack was new, with the projection speed increased and the soundtrack replaced with ‘It Came in the Night’ by A Raincoat. Reportedly remade as a birthday present for Rarc Brakhage—the young son of Anger’s experimental colleague Stan Brakhage—this does have a playfulness that might fit such an occasion. Yet in its depiction of the unattainable moon as an eternally tempting deviant and the soundtrack which hints at a nightmare, not to mention the extratextual background about creative extradition and financial poverty, this is surely one of Anger’s darker projects.

I was an eager undergrad student at the University of Melbourne when I discovered Kenneth Anger. In class, his work was framed to us through the lens of camp, and I read Susan Sontag while finding new possibilities within the realm of cinema and art. It wasn’t until later that I properly understood the importance and significance of his place in history.

Born Kenneth Anglemyer in 1927 in Los Angeles, just as Hollywood was struggling through a technology- and industry-changing transition to sound pictures, the very young Kenneth may have absorbed something of this grand cosmic shift into his psyche. He grew up always interested in and even obsessed by Hollywood and the transcendental possibilities of the screen.

After experimenting with filmmaking as a child and teen, Anger established the Creative Film Associates with fellow experimental filmmaker and lover of indulgence, Curtis Harrington. He thus became essential to the postwar revival of the experimental film movement in the US, as a maker and a distributor, at least on the West Coast, with Jonas Mekas and the Anthology Film Archives on the East Coast. Other artists included Maya Deren, perhaps now the most-screened experimental filmmaker, who believed in the transcendental power of cinema, John and James Whitney, and surrealists like Man Ray, whose earlier films, once almost lost, were included in preservation efforts by the CFA.

His first film released by this company—one with the attention-grabbing vivacity that he welcomed with his new name, the title card boldly announcing ‘A Film By Anger’—was Fireworks, in 1947. This became the start of what Anger would dub his Magick Lantern Cycle, incorporating nine of his most famous (or infamous) short films, and it would bring a brush with obscenity charges. Ultimately the film was declared art, not pornography, a notion that thankfully freed the creativity behind it.

An early moment in Fireworks shows a man (Anger himself) lying in bed covered by a white sheet raised to suggest a large erect penis. Removing the sheet, Anger reveals instead a totemic sculpture. In this image lies the duality of Anger’s key preoccupations—homoeroticism and the occult, sex and spirituality, often crude, but beautiful and refined, and always with meaning. The film was inspired in part by the work of Jean Cocteau, and visually reflective of that artist’s preoccupation with cinema as an expression of visual poetry and homosexual desire. Cocteau saw the film in Paris and was in turn inspired to send a fan letter. Anger moved to Europe for the better part of the next decade and absorbed more filmic influences into his creative outputs—including sets from a Jean-Pierre Melville film, either borrowed or stolen to make Rabbit’s Moon.

In the 1950s, Anger changed his tack, at least in terms of medium. His dreamlike imaginings, along with his explorations of the beautiful and sadistic pleasures of Hollywood, found another light through text. In Hollywood Babylon, published first in Europe and later in the US, Anger wrote supposed recollections of his time in the industry, of tales allegedly relayed to him by his grandmother Bertha who worked for a studio. Perhaps the book is pure gossip or incendiary fabrications, but the essence of the text seems like an honest reflection of Anger’s outlook. The Hollywood machine, the glitter of images made into movies, the perfectly curated and concocted glamour of stars, all seem too perfect to be true—producing in turn an endless fascination with subjecting them to such exposure.

Anger was certainly no stranger to this machine. He lived it. In 1967, he took out a full-page ad in The Village Voice declaring himself (or more accurately his career) to be dead. In memoriam, he wrote, the same year that the Los Angeles Times declared him the best-known underground filmmaker next to Andy Warhol.

Surely Anger was being cheeky, or even a little insolent—he wasn’t a fan of Warhol, and his own work demonstrated much more stylistic and surrealist flair. Indeed, by the 1960s and 70s Anger’s work is all rock star and psychedelia, and they were decades as wildly mind-altering as any you would expect of someone living alongside the occult and the counter-culture during the period. By 1969, he released Invocation of my Demon Brother in 16mm starring prog-rock musician (and later convicted Manson Family murderer) Bobby BeauSoleil, with a Moog synthesiser score composed by Mick Jagger. The following decade, he emblazoned his chest with the now-iconic ‘Lucifer’ tattoo, which he still proudly bared in photographs taken this century.

Anger did not worship Satan. Rather, Lucifer was a figure of love, his pathway to light and hope.  It took him almost ten years to finish Lucifer Rising, the final film in his Magick Lantern Cycle.

In a DVD booklet published by Fantoma in 2007, Martin Scorsese wrote that Anger’s films ‘are like incantations, religious rituals, made in magical sync with wild, anarchic energies.’ I’m sure Anger would have coveted such astute praise.

While some of his longer or more scandalous films seem to define him, it is his shorter films that will always have my heart. Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), an ode to an era of car culture filled with teens and young men lusting after the steel sheen of their hot rods which itself lusts for the bodies of its male lead. This film, so iconic in its short form, was supposed to be a longer project but had to be reshaped when its star was killed in a drag race—a victim of the obsession the film was reflecting. Anger’s film indulges in the eroticisation of the automobile, which could really stand in for any cultural or cultish artefact that becomes lauded and fetishised.

And Puce Moment (1949), my favourite, centres around a woman’s daily fashion ritual, driven by affection for glamour performance. Puce Moment is a vibrant kaleidoscope of colours, textures, and in love with the face of its star, Yvonne Marquis. She dresses, applies makeup, dons jewellery—only to reveal in a punchline that she is taking her bloodhounds for a walk in the Hollywood hills. Style, Anger seems to say, is never over the top.

‘The shadow of Babylon had fallen over Hollywood,’ Anger writes in his first essay of Hollywood Babylon, ‘scandal was waiting.’ He rejected the myth of Hollywood, not one without its own power of self-critique evidenced even in the early 1920s. Indeed, the CFA was involved in the preservation of one of these critiques—Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey’s 1928 short The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra. But Anger created his own mythology, grounded in mystique, and is a landmark figure in the history of queer, underground, avant-garde film. He was, and remains, cinema’s greatest fabulist.

Eloise Ross

Eloise Ross writes and teaches in Melbourne, and holds a PhD in cinema studies. She is a co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque.

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