Dr. KENNETH ANGER I
Godfather of American Experimental Cinema (Fireworks, Lucifer Rising, Scorpio Rising), writer of the Hollywood Babylon books and notorious black magician associated with Anton LeVay, Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page.
Here is my article that appeared in Bizarre Magazine:
“Don’t disobey me. Do as I say and don’t talk back!” waspishly screamed the author, artist and filmmaker, waving his fist and practically foaming at the mouth. This was not really an interview; this was more like a strange brief encounter with Kenneth Anger. “I can be charming,” he explained staring straight into my eyes, “but I’m not going to be!” This is a man whose volatile temperament is renowned and recently due to a rare medical condition hadn’t slept for six months. I had been warned though…
“He is Mr. Anger,” cautioned a neighbour of the cantankerous director while I awaited his arrival in the lobby of his apartment block. Actually, the author of the Hollywood Babylon books – insightful, salacious and scandalous tales behind the real film industry – and experimental filmmaker described by the American Film Institute as “the magus of cinema”, should be addressed fully as Dr. Kenneth Anger, since he was recently bestowed an honourary doctorate in humanities. Those that do not observe his wishes are risking the very nature of their existence – he is renowned for placing hexes and curses upon those that cross his path, his own beliefs surrounded by the Thelema religion and the black magick rites of Aleister Crowley.
My questions were pitched during car journeys, a trip to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, a tour of his youthful haunts in Hollywood – populated by many black magicians it seems - and a light lunch off Sunset Boulevard. All were interlaced with wonderfully detailed tales of old Hollywood, incredibly elaborate factoids, stories about his long list of celebrity friends and a politically incorrect stance on California’s black and Mexican communities.
Kenneth Anger was born in 1930 into the land of make-up and make-believe, amidst the dream factories of Hollywood, California. Since his grandmother was a silent-film wardrobe mistress, he found himself quickly indoctrinated into the film industry, surrounded by the implausible glamour of Tinseltown. Aged four, he was cast as the changeling prince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) – which bizarrely featured James Cagney as Puck – and later he danced with Shirley Temple, the blonde-haired kid with a lollipop smile. But performing was just an element of his artistic repertoire, for as soon as he discovered his family’s home cinema camera, he quickly decided to make films. With only a mere seventeen years of life experience, he made his groundbreaking and influential Fireworks (1947), a dreamlike underground classic short with iconographic gay images of sailors who have lit candles for penises. Cineastes place it alongside Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Jean Cocteau’s The Blood Of A Poet (1930) as a key experimental project that expanded the language of film.
After a move to Paris he published Hollywood Babylon in 1959, which promptly became a bestseller in France. Expanded (though purported to be substantially toned-down) and released in America in 1975, it revealed Golden Age Hollywood scandals documenting famous falls from grace like Fatty Arbuckle and revealed the sordid secrets of the industry that were previously mere hush-hush gossip. Hollywood Babylon II later followed, this time with more contemporary skeletons unearthed like James Dean’s penchant for men stubbing their cigarettes on his torso. A third Hollywood Babylon book is now completed and after years of failed attempts to get it published – for it contains taboo stories about many living personalities who may sue – Anger is selling it by mail order only.
Not included in the Hollywood Babylon books was a story of how a young Kenneth Anger was taken by his grandmother to meet Uncle Walt Disney, who was delighted to meet the “little Mousketeer”:
“He put his hand in the middle my – you can print all this if you want, I don’t give a fuck. It’s true. And he did it with hundreds of boys, not girls. Walt Disney liked little boys. He was a closet pedophile. He never took their pants down or sucked them off or anything like that. But this is what happened. He put me on his lap. Slowly I felt within his pants about an eight-inch erection. Right in front of my grandmother. She knew he was a harmless eccentric but he was also a calculating monster.”
Still reeling in shock at this particular image, I walked with the Dr. to the rental car for a tour of where he grew up. I asked him about any negative reactions he may have received from the publishing of the first two books.
“I was only sued by one person,” he explains, almost surprised by the fact. “It was Gloria Swanson and she was proved by my clinical psychiatrist to be mentally unbalanced and emotionally deranged through the effects of menopause. Anyway, she lost. She sued me for twelve million dollars for totally defaming her, humiliating her and making her seem like a common prostitute. Now those were her words. And the judge read what I wrote - there was nothing. I never called her a common prostitute. I said that when she was poor she made some pornographic films because she needed a little money. They were like striptease films, it wasn’t like she was getting fucked by a donkey.”
When we arrived at the car, a problem was immediately apparent. Overnight, some pigeons had left a friendly message on the bonnet and Dr. Anger was certainly not impressed.
“How can you drive a car with bird shit all over it – have you no pride?” he asked, screwing his face in disgust. “You must realise that it’s terrible bad luck.”
He promptly insisted I washed the vehicle immediately and so we drove posthaste to the nearest car wash to appease his fears. During the journey, the director explained that he was currently formulating plans for his new film project, a surrealist chapter play inspired by the old serial format that was so popular in the nineteen forties and fifties. He was looking for inspiration and indeed there was seemingly was magic in the air that day.
While the car was being cleaned we found one of his favourite local Italian cafes to grab some lunch but unfortunately it was closing. However, with a little Dr. Anger arm-twisting, the owner Vincent was persuaded to keep his establishment open. Perhaps he too feared a hex?
I started a conversation about his interest in the occult - Kenneth Anger’s later films are obsessed cinematic visions of occult practices and beliefs. They symbolical explode images of demonic forces, gods and mystical energies (as with 1969’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome that used the elaborate rituals practiced by Aleister Crowley to Mick Jagger’s moog soundtrack) and explore their embodiment and fetishism in contemporary popular culture such as in Scorpio Rising (1963). The director has never fully embraced synchronised sound, preferring to concentrate on silent, sensuous images and using music to support them. That particular short mixed the homoerotic world of leather-clad bikers with imagery of Jesus Christ, Adolf Hitler and the Devil. He used thirteen pop songs for the score, pre-dating the world of the MTV music video, a groundbreaking decision that influenced countless filmmakers to use ‘found’ music as a soundtrack source, such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.
What’s his interest with magick and Aleister Crowley?
“It’s ‘Crow-lay, rhymes with magic unholy,” explained Dr. Anger correcting my apparent mispronunciation. “A crow like the bird, and a lay which is a field from England where all the crows gather on a dead tree or a field.”
Fair enough, but what displays of powerful magick has he experienced?
“I never talk about it with people that aren’t magicians. Because they would think you were a fucking liar. But you see I’m not a Satanist. Some people think I am. I don’t care. Some people call me a cannibal because a child disappeared at one point. I mean, I had nothing to do with it. Well, cannibalism is vulgar and I would never harm a child in any way, shape or form.”
He did however, cast several hexes during the strenuous filming of his lifetime project, Lucifer Rising (1970-1980). Shot in England, Germany and Egypt, the film is a haunting study of ceremonies and rituals, mixing the Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithfull, the pyramids and Satanism.
However, the first shooting began in 1967 with Bobby Beausoleil (the guitarist in the acid rock band Love) as the eponymous lead, who was living with Anger in the old Russian Embassy in London. Events are unclear, but apparently Beausoleil was kicked out for a hiding an enormous parcel of marijuana in house and the guitarist absconded with most of the footage, burying it somewhere in Death Valley. Furious, Kenneth Anger placed ‘the curse of the frog’ on him, by trapping a frog in a well. Soon after, Beausoleil became associated with the Manson family and murdered music teacher Gary Hinman. Though he escaped the death penalty because of a legal loophole, his association with the murderous clan meant a seemingly permanent incarceration behind prison walls, just like the poor frog.
Incredibly, Bobby Beausoleil did eventually write the score for a later version of Lucifer Rising after reconciliation with his old flame, though it was composed and performed from inside prison walls. The original composer Jimmy Page (also obsessed with the teachings of Crowley) was sacked by Anger and he too faced a dreaded curse from the magus.
“He’s a multi-millionaire miser,” he recalled with venom. “He and Charlotte, that horrible vampire girl - the druggie that got him on heroin - they’re both junkies. They had so many servants, yet they would never offer me a cup of tea or a sandwich. Which is such a mistake on their part because I put the curse of king Midas on them. If you’re greedy and just amass gold you’ll get an illness. So I did turn her and Jimmy Page into statues of gold because they’ve both lost their minds. He can’t write songs anymore.”
The dialogue is halted as a Mexican street peddler staggers into the café with a tray full of feathered pen toys, multi-coloured birds with sucker cups.
“Look. Isn’t it fabulous?” he squeals with delight, holding one of the birds in his hand. “I’m going to film these and put them in a movie. If you turn them the feathers like this, they’re totally animated. I can make this into a whole idea for my dream sequence and you’ll see it. I’m going to film it this summer. That’s the magical way I put my films together.”
After ten minutes of jostling with the peddler over exactly which of the feathered fiends he wanted, the account was settled. Within minutes though, another person enters the café, this time a tall surfer dude and Dr. Anger takes a keen interest.
“I’m a casting director. Would you like to be in a movie?” he asks.
“Sure!” nodded the blond-haired man without hesitation. This was Hollywood after all.
“You’ve got an incredible face,” exclaimed Dr. Anger. “You look rather like a young Charlton Heston. Do you want to give me your card or your phone number? I’m not trying to pick you up. Well here’s my secretary, he’ll take it down.”
The mischievous director pointed at me, forgetting my name. Unsure of my response, I decided to simply play along.
“That’s a very interesting tattoo how long have you had it?” he enquired of the bemused twenty-something, who later explained he was actually the cousin of Emilio Estevez. Kenneth Anger stood up, unbuttoned his orange silk shirt and pulled it apart to reveal his own “LUCIFER” tattoo emblazoned across his chest, and promptly informed the young actor of his friendship with James Dean, revealing a few juicy tidbits about his death. After particulars were taken, Dr. Anger asked me to photograph the guy who afterwards swiftly disappeared, quite unsure of what to make of the director.
“I will die in the attempt to make him a star!” Anger cried, inspired by these recent encounters. “First came the toys, then came him and they are all part of the movie. Like he dreams they’re dancing around.”
I commented on the synchronicity of it all.
“No. It’s called magick,” he explained. “I caused him to happen. And you can say, well it was just a fucking coincidence. But I swear I will do it.”
With the burning determination in eyes, this magus of cinema was definitely going to be casting cinematic spells to make his visions happen, and perhaps something magical would occur. Though Dr. Kenneth Anger is a complicated and contradictory character, he certainly spins fascinating and wondrous tales, on page, on film and in person – despite his infamous difficulties. Off-screen, his lifestyle is equally as intriguing and as enigmatic as his exotic experimentations with celluloid. With so many plans afoot, I just hope he finally gets some sleep.
(Words and Photos - Copyright Mark Berry)