Dan Fox on the life and work of Kenneth Anger (1927–2023)
Los Angeles, 1947. Black screen, a gentle voice, heady words. “In Fireworks I released all the explosive pyrotechnics of a dream. Inflammable desires dampened by day under the cold water of consciousness are ignited at night by the libertarian matches of sleep, and burst forth in showers of shimmering incandescence.” Then, our first glimpse of Kenneth Anger. A United States Navy sailor, carved from darkness by chiaroscuro lighting, cradles Anger in his arms. He’s asleep but is being carried like a dead comrade. Anger claimed to have been seventeen when he made the film, but he was twenty. He also maintained that his first screen appearance was in the 1935 Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as a child actor playing a changeling prince alongside James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland and Mickey Rooney. This is also contested. Records state it was Sheila Brown.
Kenneth Anger sprang from Kenneth Anglemyer. His films were concerned with myth and his biography was spliced from half-truths. His art was one of adornment. “I don’t need gold if I can create the illusion of gold by artificial means,” he said. Superimposition was one of his favored editing techniques— one image partially obscuring or changing the way another looks. After Fireworks, he avoided dialogue. Music was a stronger intoxicant. Many of his films feature masks and scenes of getting dressed, of putting on jewelry, of buckling belts and boots. But “many” is a slippery word in Anger’s filmography. Fireworks wasn’t his debut work. It was his first officially complete work that has survived. Seven more predated it, going back to 1937, or 1941, depending on your source. He later destroyed them.
Other films were lost, stolen, burned, abandoned or proposed but forever condemned to storyboard purgatory. The finished works number only a dozen. Three of these were constructed from salvaged fragments of incomplete projects: Puce Moment, Kustom Kar Kommandos and Invocation of My Demon Brother. Major works were revised multiple times. By accident or design, Anger’s art existed in flux. So just how “many” is many is hard to say. At the beginning of an oral history interview, recorded at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in 2003, Anger was asked politely by his interviewers to try to keep his answers on track. He laughs: “I’m the great aside artist.”
Fireworks is a gay dream fantasy, with a score borrowed from the Italian composer Respighi. The pictures tell the story like a silent-era movie. Surrealist Paris provides Fireworks its dream logic. Hollywood noir does the styling. The central character is The Dreamer, played by Anger. (Dreaming and somnambulism are common themes in early avant-garde film, serving as both a solid metaphor for cinema and a symbolic escape from the traumas of the time.) The Dreamer wakes by a fireplace in a middle-class home. Scattered on the floor are photographs from his dream of the sailor. He dresses, throws the photos on the fire and disappears through a door hand painted with a sign reading “GENTS.” Now it’s night. Or rather, a thick black nothing, the night abstracted and implied by intercut shots of distant car headlights and flashing signs. The Dreamer visits a bar—a painted backdrop— where he watches another muscular sailor flex and pose like a bodybuilder. The man slaps and punches The Dreamer. Back in the abstract night, a menacing gang of sailors wielding chains approaches through bands of bright light and black. The Dreamer is beaten, thrown to the ground, stripped, whipped. His chest is cut open, and the viscera is peeled back to reveal a gasometer dial. Creamy liquid—you guess the meaning—pours over his face and chest. One of the sailors unzips his pants and pulls out a Roman candle, which he sets alight. Return to the quiet of the living room. The Dreamer is asleep by the fire. A man lies next to him now, his head consumed in a halo of electricity, scratched from the celluloid.
The sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey was so taken by Fireworks’ groundbreaking representation of gay desire that he bought one of the first prints of the film, which had divided audiences from the start. At a private screening at the Schindler House in Los Angeles soon after the film was made, John Cage took Anger and his friend Curtis Harrington— who screened his own film, Fragment of Seeking, that night—and told them, “This isn’t art.”
How wrong Cage was. With Fireworks, Anger had made a precocious, confident debut, a masterpiece of S&M surrealism that demonstrated an instinctive command of the syntax of cinema and found its spirit in material limitations. Anger made the film at his mother’s home. The camera seems to be restricted by space, the shots limited to what he could set up and shoot alone. It’s make-do make-believe, poetry cobbled together from pocket allowances and homemade props. Like all dreams, it is made from the stuff of everyday life.
In a 1965 interview published in Film Culture, the filmmaker, mystic and song collector Harry Smith described visiting Anger in Los Angeles in the late 1940s at the suggestion of Richard Foster, who was then the co-director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s “Art in Cinema” series.
“I went to his house and he was afraid his mother was going to find out that I was there,” Smith recalled. “When Kenneth sat down in something like a golden chair from Versailles of his mother’s, the chair leg fell off. He was very embarrassed. ‘My mother might hear me.’ Then in order to get the leg back on the chair he raised the Venetian blind and the cord broke and the thing fell all over the floor.”
In the slapstick, adolescent awkwardness of Smith’s story, we glimpse a recurring theme in Anger’s career: the friction between the image one wishes to create and the limitations the world insists upon. In 1951, Anger wrote an essay for Cahiers du cinema called “Modesty and the Art of Film” in which he explained, “I had seen this drama [Fireworks] entirely on the screen of my dreams. This vision was uniquely amenable to the instrument that awaited it. With three lights, a black cloth as décor, the greatest economy of means and enormous inner concentration, Fireworks was made in three days.” Filmmakers and critics of the period used the phrase “personal cinema” to describe such work, meaning films that were lyrical, mythopoeic and created far from the industrial movie factories— privately made and privately coded. “Personal” might encompass desire, dreaming, ambition, vision, everything an artist longed to express. But “personal,” presumably, could also mean accident, lack of funds, technical fumbles, your family peering over your shoulder, plain embarrassment.
Anger paints with spotlights and vivid filters. The film is luxurious—the costumes, the painted backdrops, the artfully judged superimpositions and dissolves—while seeming to wink at showbiz razzle-dazzle. It’s never easy to see where Aleister Crowley ends and Busby Berkeley begins.
Los Angeles, 1954. Now Anger is Hecate, goddess of borders and crossroads. He-as-she wears heavy black robes, the face partially veiled, surrounded by white and gold drapes. Hecate offers a blue and gold amphora to Cesare the Somnabulist. This is a scene from Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, a complex film, part occult ritual, part masquerade. It moves at a stately and operatic pace, the music in the now-standard 1966 edit taking the form of LeoŠ Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. (The soundtrack for the original cut was music by Harry Partch.) Inauguration is, among many other things, a Symbolist party shot in sumptuous colors: fancy -dress antiquity.
In 1949, Jean Cocteau—who understood what Cage did not—had invited Anger to show Fireworks at the Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz. Anger would spend much of the next decade in Europe. He made one more film in Los Angeles before leaving: Puce Moment, a gorgeous Technicolor bonbon, and the only scene shot for Puce Women, a longer film about the female stars of the silent film era that he had planned and storyboarded.
Anger made Inauguration during a return visit to Los Angeles following his mother’s death. At the time, he was immersed in the writings of Aleister Crowley and Crowley’s esoteric philosophy of Thelema, a form of modern pantheism. (In the early ’50s, Anger and Kinsey visited Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema, a grim, dilapidated farmhouse in Sicily covered with erotic-occult murals. Photographs of their visit appeared in Britain’s Picture Post magazine. Anger reportedly shot footage of the visit, which was lost soon after.) He soon fell in with a crowd of artists and poets that included writer Anaïs Nin and painter Marjorie Cameron. Cameron was similarly fascinated with Crowley. She was the widow of Jack Whiteside Parsons, a rocket scientist, founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, devoted Thelemite and close friend of L. Ron Hubbard, who died in a chemical explosion at his home in 1952. Inauguration was inspired by a costume party that Anger had attended in Los Angeles, which which resembled a dream he had experienced. Anger reworked the party into a Thelemic rite in which the celebrants share sacraments and assume the identities of deities. Cameron, Nin and other artists starred. “A convocation of enchantresses and theurgists,” as Anger described it. “I wanted to create a feeling of being carried into a world of wonder.”
Like Fireworks, the film plays out in ambiguous black space. Anger paints with spotlights and vivid filters. The film is luxurious—the costumes, the painted backdrops, the artfully judged superimpositions and dissolves—while seeming to wink at showbiz razzle-dazzle. It’s never easy to see where Aleister Crowley ends and Busby Berkeley begins. The stars ham it up. Kohl-lined eyes dart around beneath masks as if to say, “Hey Kenneth, am I doing this right?” But comic moments are synthesized with images of disturbing strangeness: a figure mimicking spasms after eating a serpent, the frightening, imperious gaze of Cameron’s Scarlet Woman. Anger makes us privy to acts we are not initiated into, secrets we shouldn’t know. The playful, the mystic and the sensual gather in the pleasure dome.
Paris, 1960. Anger’s friend, the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, is visiting France. He has been shooting images that will become his film The Dead. Wanting to finish off a roll of 16mm, he casually grabs a few frames of Anger in a cafe. Later, Brakhage sees something in the footage that suits the work. He puts Anger in the opening moments of The Dead—handsome, serious, his image toggling between positive and negative, juxtaposed with shots of Gothic statuary, people strolling along the Seine and funerary sculpture in Père Lachaise cemetery.
Throughout the 1950s, projects by Anger came and went. Films were aborted, underfunded. He spent time in Paris working at the Cinémathèque Française, practicing his cutting skills on work prints of Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que Viva Mexico! In 1953, he shot Eaux d’artifice, a hallucinatory period costume piece filmed in the terraced gardens of the Villa D’Este near Rome. To a soundtrack of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, he cut together a montage depicting a lone figure (Carmillo Salvatorelli, a circus performer with dwarfism), dressed in a ball gown, dashing through the gardens. The camera captures water spraying from fountains, ripples and splashes patterning the surfaces of pools and basins, turning sunshine into abstract strokes of light. The images are passed through a midnight-blue filter, which creates a day-for-night effect, punctuated with a zing of color painted directly onto the celluloid. With its mysterious lead rushing back and forth as if to a secret assignation, the film has the mood of a mini-melodrama, a tone poem dedicated to old Hollywood. Anger once described the film as an homage to “a Firbank heroine in pursuit of a nightmoth.” Hollywood gripped his imagination throughout his life. He claimed that his grandmother worked in a studio costume department during the silent era. Others have suggested that he conflated his grandmother with a colorful friend of hers known as Miss Diggy, who would tell Anger scandalous stories from her days in the film industry. Eaux d’artifice is a dream of old Europe seen from Burbank studio lots— Shakespeare’s Arden Forest remade as old Hollywood orange groves.
“Magick is not a conjuring trick,” Anger says. “To me, magick is the background to all life … and it is a science and an art to cause change through will. As an artist I have chosen the cinema as my magickal weapon. The movie camera is my equivalent of the wand.”
London, 1970, the apartment of art dealer Robert Fraser. Anger is positioned in front of violet-colored drapes, looking straight at the camera. With his rust-red satin shirt, strong features and pageboy haircut, he could pass for an understudy member of Pink Floyd. Arranged in front of him are a pair of gold dragon statues, a crystal ball, a glass wand, a Sphinx and candlesticks. He is telling us that he “wants to explain what magick is not.”
“Magick is not a conjuring trick,” Anger says. “To me, magick is the background to all life … and it is a science and an art to cause change through will. As an artist I have chosen the cinema as my magickal weapon. The movie camera is my equivalent of the wand … I invoke elementary powers such as electricity, light and color.”
Anger is reluctantly participating in a documentary for German television. He’s doing it for money to plow into the production of his beleaguered film Lucifer Rising. Inspired by Crowley’s poem “Hymn to Lucifer,” this latest project is intended to mark a new Age of Aquarius and celebrate the ancient gods of Thelema. We see Anger shooting it in a small room with an assistant. His camera sits on a short piece of track and he uses a kitchen sieve to create a gauze effect over the lens as a smoke machine blows in the corner.
The German filmmaker explains: “When being watched, Anger took care to direct himself too…. He thought it impossible to answer questions while working. He rather wanted to carefully prepare his answers. And so he built an altar behind which he made his statements, robed as a magician and artist.” There’s that gap again: the one between the sieve over the lens and the Sphinx on the altar, between a desired image and the banal practicalities of low-budget filmmaking.
The 1960s marked a new phase for Anger. He returned to the States to find them transformed by rock’n’roll and reigned over by youth. In 1963, he made his most significant work, Scorpio Rising. It is hard to think of another underground film that has had such an impact. It’s both a homoerotic classic in tune with a harder macho sexuality and the avantgarde invention of the music video: thirteen bubblegum pop songs tracking thirteen episodes in the life of a biker gang. It’s also a retooling of European symbolism for America. People continue as before to dress up and wear jewelry, but now it’s leather jackets, greasy boots, denim and chains. Amphoras and sacraments are swapped out for bikes and cocaine. Scorpio Rising is carefully staged but certain moments—a biker clubhouse party, a ritual hazing, the desecration of a church—are given a handheld, verité quality, suggesting a disturbing connection between ritual and real-world violence. Death and transformation were important ideas to him. It is as if Anger, fresh from Europe, now in his mid-thirties, is seeing America anew. He finds irony in his country’s pop subconscious and, with the help of Bobby Vinton and the Crystals, applies a camp ambivalence to its culture of machismo, materialism and violence. Scorpio Rising was a hit, a major influence on David Lynch, Martin Scorcese, John Waters and many others. Lucifer Rising was a catalogue of disasters. Anger began the project in 1966. In the role of Lucifer, he cast a young musician named Bobby Beausoleil, who, Anger maintained, absconded with his footage after an event in San Francisco. (What was left of the material Anger cut into the short and frenzied Invocation of My Demon Brother.) Beausoleil later became ensnared by the Manson Family and received a death sentence (later commuted to life in prison) for a gruesome murder committed on Manson’s orders. Anger relocated to London, where he found himself among the city’s art and rock celebrities. He cast Mick Jagger, a fair-weather Mephistopheles, as his next Lucifer, and Jagger agreed to compose an electronic soundtrack for the film. But Anger unsettled Jagger and he backed out. Volatility was a central part of the Anger lore—countless stories of temper, caprice, stubbornness, exploitation of friends, hexings, a malevolent reputation underlined by his statements. “I have always considered movies evil…. My reason for filming has nothing to do with cinema at all; it’s a transparent excuse for capturing people.”
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page—who met Anger at a Sotheby’s auction of Crowleyana—then agreed to do the soundtrack. Eventually Page too would back away, although, along with Marianne Faithfull, he would appear in the finished film. Beausoleil would write the score from prison.
Anger completed Lucifer Rising in 1981. The central role went to an unknown, Leslie Huggins. Shooting took place in Egypt, Germany, Iceland and Britain. Anger captured vivid images of erupting volcanoes and brooding oceans, of the Pyramids and Stonehenge. These elemental evocations of fire and water, light and dark, sites of ancient mystery, are beautiful. But they are contrasted with scenes from the dress-up box. Critic Parker Tyler once wrote that “Anger has simply never had the material means to develop … his poetic style.” Money problems were a constant subplot, in part because Anger was an artist unable to get out of his own way, with the result that he was frequently left isolated, bitter and broke.
At the end of the German documentary, the crew follows him to the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire, England. Traffic sounds from a nearby main road can be heard as Huggins struggles to change into a robe embroidered with sigils and glyphs. Bleating sheep wander in and out of the shot. Anger, dressed in a sheepskin coat, looks like a 1970s football manager as he tries to direct Lucifer despite the English wind and cold. There is an almost tragic bathos to the scene. “I want to be independent, I want to show things my way,” he says in the documentary. “And that has, up until now, meant working on a small budget. But I am free.”
Los Angeles, 1991. Anger, dressed in a black tuxedo, sits in a vintage hearse. A BBC documentary is recounting the story of his career and his notorious cult book Hollywood Babylon. Anger visits mausoleums holding the remains of dead film stars. Like an underground Norma Desmond, he visits the Tower Theater picture palace and watches old movies repeating personal legends of childhood stardom and his grandmother’s days as wardrobe mistress. We meet a woman who is still mourning Rudolph Valentino. A pair of elderly embalmers, Jim and Henry, describe the celebrities whose corpses they have preserved: Hedda Hopper, Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe.
The film historian P. Adams Sitney described Hollywood Babylon as “a slander catalogue.” Anger began it in the 1950s while living in France. It was originally a series of articles about the scandals of golden age Hollywood. Each spread is packed like a movie fan’s scrapbook: old publicity stills, headshots, lurid newspaper clippings, crime scene photos. The tone is breathless and bitchy. Anger gossips about affairs, addictions, murder, rape, tragic suicides, gruesome accidents and the lengths gone to by the film industry to cover them up. Hollywood Babylon speaks to its readers with a make-believe intimacy borrowed from the cutting-room floor. Much of it is fiction.
The stars in Hollywood Babylon loomed large in Anger’s imaginary. Hardly known today, they might as well all be fiction. The same goes for the songs in Scorpio Rising, and soon—if not already—1960s rock aristocracy itself. Time eventually runs each popular face out of town. Anger was, uniquely, a child of the silent era fascinated with both the deities of ancient myth and the American jukebox. In a sense, we’ve returned to the era of the “personal” and modest film from which he emerged: Millions are now posted and seen around the world every day. But they’re not the kind of expression that Anger’s generation dreamed as the usher of a new age; banality, commerce and diaristic intimacy carry the day. Someone, go wake the Somnabulists, start The Dreamers rising again.
Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician living in New York. He is the author of two books, Limbo (2018) and Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016), and his essays on art and culture have appeared in a wide variety of exhibition catalogues and anthologies. For twenty years, he was an editor and staff writer at Frieze magazine. He is the co-director of the film Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (2020).