There’s no reason to expect a man who chooses to go by the name of Anger to be an easy customer, especially when he has a reputation to match. And it’s not just that Kenneth Anger doesn’t suffer fools gladly; as a longtime follower of Aleister Crowley’s teachings, he’s been known to lay curses on those who cross him. Even as his critical standing as one of post-war America’s most daring, imaginative and influential film artists goes from strength to strength, Anger remains a chronically underfunded outsider. His sensuous, poetic, ironic work paved the way for the camp/queer gaze, the pop video and celebrity culture as we know it, yet TO was told he only does paid interviews because he needs the money. (We offered about what a freelance writer would get for an article of this length.) Nor is he easy to get hold of: we eventually spoke on a collect call he made from the reception of the Gershwin hotel in Los Angeles; after quarter of an hour he was booted off the line, but managed to place another call from the lobby pay phone, which was brusquely terminated in turn. For all that, Anger is a delight to talk to: witty, charming, polite. It proves hard to get a word in, but then the line was bad from his end. And the litany of famous friends to whom he continually refers might seem like name-dropping, if not self-mythologising… But what names!
We talk first about the presentation at the London Film Festival this weekend of four of his films, totalling around an hour, recently transferred to 35mm by the UCLA Film Archive. Anger is plainly chuffed at the opportunities this package affords for travel and recognition on the festival circuit, something he’s rarely able to fund himself. ‘The royalities I get are limited, particularly as they’re being vampirised – please use that as a quote of mine – they’re being vampirised by film pirates all over the world.’ It is, he says, ‘a fiendish kind of battle, a demonic battle, but I don’t let it get to my soul, you know what I mean? It’s all on the surface. It’s like being attacked by fleas.’ Is there any compensation in the fact that his work is in demand? ‘Well, no. I know my films are good. I know they’re historically important. I have no false modesty about the few films I’ve been able to afford to make.’
Anger is therefore delighted by the sheer aesthetics of seeing his shorts – three of which were shot on 16mm – in the larger format. ‘They look beautiful in 35mm because 35mm has the power of that light source behind it to bring out the colour and the detail of the images,’ he rhapsodises. ‘The old projectors back in the ’30s, when you used inflammable nitrate film, used to be living arc lights with a sizzling flame… It was like an artefact that had to be watched over.’
The worshipful, nostalgic tone is in keeping with Anger’s ambiguous relationship with Hollywood. As a practitioner, he has never been within sniffing distance of what he once called ‘the complex farce of the commercial cinema’, but his sensibility was unmistakably fertilised in its heady mulch. Born in Los Angeles, his grandmother worked in a studio wardrobe department – a legacy embraced in the ravishing tacticility of 1949’s ‘Puce Moment’ – and eight-year-old Kenneth appeared as the changeling in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The sense of awesome, immersive spectacle achieved in such studio fantasias – Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’ was another favourite – would resurface in a very different key in the occult splendours of Anger’s own ‘Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome’ (1954), ‘Invocation of My Demon Brother’ (1969) and ‘Lucifer Rising’ (1980).
The films on show at the LFF are less overtly magickal, but still constitute mesmeric incantations, rituals in which a protagonist calls forth powers that beguile then threaten to destroy him. Composed with a poet’s eye, they are deliciously scored but have no dialogue; flagrantly heightened yet drawing on familiar reference points, they cast a powerful kind of spell over the audience.
Although Anger began experimenting with films as a boy, his earliest substantial work was ‘Fireworks’ (1947), an intoxicating dream quest in which the adolescent lead (Anger) finds himself – and a bunch of butch sailors – in the Gents of his dreams. Rapturous adoration turns to nightmare ordeal before an ecstatic death-orgasm climax literally breaches the fabric of the film. Half a century on, it’s jarringly potent stuff by any standards – and all the more astonishing given that it was made by a teenager over the course of a weekend while his parents were out of town.
‘Fireworks’ attracted the attention of cultural arbiters (Tennessee Williams called it ‘the most exciting use of cinema I’ve ever seen,’ Anger tells me. ‘That’s a quote of Tennessee Williams’) and the legal establishment (in a case that went to the Supreme Court of California, it established precedent for the artistic use of sexual or violent imagery), as well as that of Dr Alfred Kinsey, pioneering sex researcher at Indiana University. Kinsey became Anger’s first customer, buying a print of ‘Fireworks’ for $100 – ‘it seemed quite generous at the time for a 15-minute film, $100 going considerably farther in 1947 than it would today’ – and interviewed Anger for his research. ‘It was considered a matter of pride, honour, you know, to be interviewed by Dr Kinsey.’
He also asked Anger to be his West Coast clipping correspondent, keeping an eye out for media coverage of sexuality; he has been sending regular contributions to the Kinsey Institute ever since, from newspaper articles about Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ to cock-shaped salt-shakers. ‘As you know,’ Anger deadpans, ‘it is not rare to have things in the newspapers or magazines relating to sex, so it’s almost become a scissor obsession.’
Perhaps thanks to this longstanding interest, Anger isn’t too alarmed by mainstream America’s increasingly repressive attitude toward sex. ‘As Kinsey said, you’ve got to look at the long view. Over the centuries it’s like a pendulum – it swings one way into liberality then the pendulum swings the other way into conservatism and even hysteria… The fact that today in the world one culture feels perfectly comfortable in hiding the female body behind burqas, veils and so forth… These battles go on. It isn’t like humanity is enlightened in the 21st century, you know.’
Another admirer of ‘Fireworks’ was one of Anger’s major influences, Jean Cocteau. His support apparently prompted Anger to move to Paris, where he was based for 12 years under the patronage of Henri Langlois, co-founder of the Cinématheque Française – and ‘my adoptive father’, as Anger describes him in ‘Anger Me’, a documentary/monologue survey of his career also showing in the LFF. It was through Langlois that Anger got the stock for ‘Rabbit’s Moon’ (1950), his only film originally shot on 35mm. ‘He said, “You should do good on this – it’s the same emulsion that Cocteau used for ‘Orphée”.’ A luminous, stylised tableau with hints of Carné, ‘Rabbit’s Moon’ casts figures from the commedia dell’arte – Pierrot, Columbine and Harlequin – in a Japanese myth of romantic yearning played out in hyperexpressive kabuki style. For two decades much of the footage was mislaid in the Cinématheque archive, but in 1971 Anger restored it, adding a new soundtrack.
It was also while in Paris that Anger began work on ‘Hollywood Babylon’, the fabulously scabrous collection of X-rated movie-star gossip for which – ironically, given its origins as a quickie fundraiser – he is perhaps most widely known. Conversely, it’s worth remembering that the work seen by some as opening the floodgates for tawdry, lowest-common-demoninator tabloid culture was first printed in Cahiers du Cinéma. Published in its own right in 1958, legal difficulties delayed an English-language for 16 years; a second volume followed in 1984 while a third has been in legal limbo for over a decade. Lurid and depraved the subject matter might have been, but the books also showcase Anger’s superbly debauched picture archive and morbidly poetic turn of phrase. (He shows a similar flair for the grotesque in regular conversation, at one point telling me, for no particular reason, that the daughter of an acquaintance of his ‘became enormously fat and died of a heart attack at 20’.)
On his return to the US in the early ’60s, Anger was fascinated by the biker culture he found in Coney Island. Just as ‘Fireworks’ had tapped into and subverted the raw iconic power of US seamen, ‘Scorpio Rising’ (1963) drew out the fetishistic sex-death qualities of the motorcycle gang – ‘Thanatos in chrome and black leather and bursting jeans’, as Anger once put it. Shot in the company of a real gang Anger befriended, the film climaxes with a Nazi-tinged Hallowe’en bacchanal and the record of its lead’s actual death in a crash. It was also formally audacious, introducing colour to Anger’s work, using near-subliminal explicit images (prompting another landmark court victory) and sarcastically interpolating footage of Christ’s donkey-mounted arrival in Jerusalem from a mediocre Sunday school film serendipitously left on Anger’s doorstep during editing.
‘Scorpio Rising’ was also the first ever film scored with “found” pop songs – ‘Blue Velvet’ accompanies the donning of biker gear, for instance – setting a trend that went mainstream with the likes of ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘American Graffiti’ a decade later. Anger used the same technique for ‘Kustom Kar Kommandos’ (1965), in which a young man suggestively polishes his automobile with a powder-puff to the strains of ‘Dream Lover’. The three-minute sequence is all Anger was able to complete of a proposed film about the hot-rod craze.
He did manage to shoot lots of footage for the Crowley-inspired ‘Lucifer Rising’, but in 1967 he fell out with his Lucifer, 19-year-old Bobby Beausoleil, and the film went missing. In despair, Anger publicly (if temporarily) retired from filmmaking and moved to London; Beausoleil became a member of the Manson family and was convicted of murder in 1969. (A decade later, Anger managed to complete the film, the pair were reconciled and Beausoleil composed its score from jail – another first.)
Anger, meanwhile, was at home in Swinging London. ‘I was a close friend of the Rolling Stones, particularly of Keith Richards, in the very early days – you know, when they were fresh-faced. Now they’re sort of wrinkle-faced. At least they don’t do face lifts – that I know of – but Mick has an amazing rubber face. He always did… It’s an interesting study in ageing, because there was a time when they said, “Who will want to watch you at 50?” This was a mocking thing they said about Mick. But obviously many people are willing to pay high prices to see them, and they’re considerably over 50.’
Jagger provided the dirgelike experimental Moog soundtrack for ‘Invocation of My Demon Brother’ (1969), while two other friends – Donald Cammell and Marianne Faithfull – took prominent roles in the revised ‘Lucifer Rising’. Anger reports mixed emotions in these friendships. ‘I told him to get out of Hollywood,’ he says of Cammell, ‘but instead he stayed in his house up in the Hills and shot himself in the head, as predicted in his film, ‘Performance’. I told him, I said, “Hollywood will kill you. Get the fuck out of here, get back to London, which is a civilised place. It’s barbaric here.” It was his own demons that made him do it, but it was a tragic loss.’
And Faithfull? ‘I have kind of a rocky relationship with her because every now and then I tell her the truth. Now she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer, did you know that?’ The phone line begins to break up. ‘I’m just saying Marianne Faithfull has been diagnosed with breast cancer,’ Anger declaims, which must seem odd to anyone passing the payphone in the lobby of the Gershwin. ‘Well, good luck, Marianne. But the only reason I bring this up is that for years I was perstering her about being a chain smoker of cigarettes. And I said, “You’ll pay for this.” And, of course, she said – this is a quote – “It improves my voice. I want to sound like Lotte Lenya.” She got a more and more raspy voice, which is what the poisonous smoke mixture does to your throat.’
Anger declares himself ‘a rabid anti-smoking fanatic. I’m kind of intolerant of it: it’s an insidious, horrible habit, worse that heroin to quit.’ Indeed, it’s the subject of what seems to be his first film since ‘Lucifer Rising’, 2000’s ‘Don’t Smoke That Cigarette!’ Culled from colour TV commercials for cigarettes just predating their prohibition, it ends with medical footage of tongue, mouth and throat cancer – a lesson in the gory wages of glamour worthy of ‘Hollywood Babylon’.
A similar tone creeps in when Anger mentions his erstwhile patron John Paul Getty, Jr, whom he knew until his death in 2003: ‘I offered him a kidney. I said “I’m healthy, I’ll give you a kidney”, and I meant it. He said, “Thanks, but I think the operation would kill me,” and he died anyway shortly after that.’ Getty’s support enabled Anger to make his most recent short, another recontextualisation of vintage pop culture. ‘Mouse Heaven’ (2004) is a record of a rare collection of Disney memorabilia ‘started back in 1928 by my friend Mel Birnkrant, who’s a toy designer himself. He has a much better collection of Disney toys and artefacts than the Disney company.’ A devoted fan of the early, more mischievous Mickey, Anger was surprised to be offered access to Birnkrant’s collection ‘because he’s so afraid of being robbed by fanatic Disney collectors. People will kill to have a certain toy. They become all glazed in their eyes to know that someone else has a certain toy – you know, something that sold for 25 cents in 1932.’
It’s just as Anger is extolling his delight in mechanical Mickey figurines – and more specifically what he considers to be the implications of their movements – that we are abruptly cut off. ‘The dancing ones I put in my film, including the Wanking Mickey. Did you know that one of them has a wanking gesture? In fact, he wanks himself with right and left hands. It’s a gesture any schoolboy knows…’ At that point, for reasons unknown, our call is terminated.
Kenneth Anger introduces ‘Fireworks’, ‘Rabbit’s Moon’, ‘Scorpio Rising’ and ‘Kustom Kar Kommandos’ at the NFT on Sun (4pm). ‘Anger Me’ shows at the NFT on Fri (1.45pm) and Sun (7pm).