Symphony for the devil
As an exhibition celebrates his Invocation of My Demon Brother, the film director Kenneth Anger talks to Morgan Falconer about Mick Jagger, all-meat diets and seeing the funny side of Satanism
13 September 2004
Kenneth Anger's synopsis of his 10-minute "attack on the sensorium", the 1969 movie Invocation of My Demon Brother, is probably the best way of describing the indescribable, odd though it is: "The shadowing forth of Our Lord, as the Powers of Darkness gather at a midnight Mass. The dance of the magus widdershins around the Swirling Spiral Force, the solar swastika, until the Bringer of Light - Lucifer - breaks through."
Simple, really. In essence, it is a homage to the occultist Aleister Crowley and illustrates - with fast-moving editing, droning soundtrack and saturated colour - a scene described with equal flamboyance in Milton's Paradise Lost. It wasn't something to break box office records, but then Anger has long been the face of Hollywood's underbelly. He is the creator the homoerotic short Fireworks (1947), which made him, at 17, the darling of European avant-gardists, Jean Cocteau, among them; of Scorpio Rising (1964), the film that led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling on permissible nudity; and the writer of the Hollywood Babylon books, which were among the first to document Hollywood's sleazier gossip.
Anger, now in his seventies, has undergone something of a renaissance in Hollywood, having picked up the career achievement prize two years ago at the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards. And he still has projects in hand, among them one looking at the suicide of the singer Elliot Smith. I meet up with him at the exhibition of a new edition of film stills from Invocation at the Modern Art gallery in east London, and he seems to have mellowed. Indeed, he is charmingly articulate and youthful-looking for his years. But talking about the stills was a reminder of the kind of characters Anger was prepared to mix with in his youth.
The film's cast was aptly lunatic. His Satanic Majesty was played by Anton LaVey, who went on to found the Church of Satan and who, Anger says, "used to sell lessons through the mail on how to become a witch" although he was never "too serious"; the soundtrack was provided by Mick Jagger (who also featured in the movie via shots of The Rolling Stones' Hyde Park concert in July 1969, two days after the death of guitarist Brian Jones); while Lucifer was played by the Bobby Beausoleil, who shortly afterwards got tangled up with the Manson family and was later jailed for life.
Beausoleil was a musician of skill when filming began; Anger was living with him in the old Russian Consulate in San Francisco. But by this stage Beausoleil was apparently on an all-meat diet and, taking method acting too far, honestly believed himself to be the devil. Anger explains. "For one reason or another we had a falling out and he ended up taking the wrong path. But Bobby only turned lethal two years after we parted company. He was 19 and charismatic when I knew him - he had a harem of girls who would follow him around. He was known in Haight-Ashbury as 'Cupid'. But since he's been in prison we've become friends again, we talk on the phone. Somehow it's easier to be friends at a distance."
Beausoleil had an unintentional role in crafting Invocation's structure when he stole Anger's van and made off with a lot of the footage. As a result, the film remains a fragment of what was to be a larger project, with another section forming the basis of Anger's later film Lucifer Rising.
"He just grabbed the reels that said 'Bobby' on the can," Anger says. "But he didn't take what I had hanging up in my cutting bin - those were the days of a very hands-on editing process, which I enjoyed. Anyway, I took those various scraps with me when I came to London and added new material from the Hyde Park concert, from Marianne Faithfull and all my new friends. I showed it to Mick Jagger and he added a soundtrack from a new Moog synthesiser he was experimenting with - he just gave it to me. I think that's rather unusual."
The film that remains seems more a tribute to Crowley than a documentary of the period's counter-culture. But, still describing himself as a "follower" of Crowley, Anger is entirely content with that. "The reason I like Crowley so much is because he had such a mordant sense of humour," he says. "He predicted the explosion of the Sixties, and the return to a sort of Paganism, a nature worship. In the film I'm invoking a kid of pantheistic freedom. Lucifer is not Satan - under my artistic licence the name actually means 'bringer of light'. I think he should climb back up and reclaim heaven - that's my conceit."
Symphony for the devil