Experimental filmmaker and author Kenneth Anger died on May 11, 2023. In this article, AMASS contributor Patricia Cunliffe explores his life, his work, and his unique place in our culture. Then we hear from Anger himself in a revelatory and surprisingly intimate interview.
It is my opinion that to become well-acquainted with Kenneth Anger’s body of work would be a necessary indulgence for anyone who considers themselves deserving of life-enhancing influences. I might also recommend that the cumulative consumption take place over an adequate period in order to savor and digest each individual piece of work. Anger, perhaps best known for his printed volumes of Hollywood Babylon (I & II) and the cult-classic film “Scorpio Rising,” made his first film, “Ferdinand the Bull,” at the age of eight. When he was eleven, he reflected a child’s preoccupation over the feeling of impending war that permeated even the most clandestine adult conversation in “Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat?” which also incorporated a popular song by the same name. Although it’s the epitome of experimental filmmaking, the Kenneth Anger: Magick Lantern Cycle film-to-video collection seems to be peculiarly obscure.
His films, obscure as they may be, have, ironically enough, made a tremendous impact on not only experimental but numerous mainstream filmmakers alike, not to make light of the fact that it was Anger himself who did invent the entity that we now know as the “music video.”
Anger has been grouped among the likes of John Cassavetes, Fredric Wiseman, John and Faith Hubley, and George Romero by Ray Frumkes, Films in Review Jan/Feb 1997 “Look Back with Anger.” Frumkes went on to label this group as “gifted, nontraditional visionaries without whose work the substance of American cinema would be a dull, near-consistent, currency green.”
Kenneth Anger is preceded by his reputation as a disciple of Aliester Crowley, and has therefore been dubbed with such titles as “Hollywood Satan.” In contrast, this artist is also responsible for having created some of the most visually appealing imagery to be found. Films such as “Eaux d’Artifice,” “Rabbits Moon,” and the incomparably beautiful “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” are but a few examples of his unparalleled mastery of composition and eye for beauty. Heralded as a genius, even by those who are not fond of his work, Kenneth Anger is a man with a wonderful sense of humor who laughs freely and frequently during a conversation. Who was it that said, “Only the insecure take themselves so seriously”? Oh yes, it was me.
Of course, what reason would Anger have not to be secure?
In 1947 at the age of seventeen, Anger made “Fireworks,” which he submitted to a film festival in Biarritz, France, called Festival du Film Maudit (Festival of Damned Film) in which it received the prize for Film Poetique (Poetic Film). His first French fan letter came from none other than Jean Cocteau himself, who happened to be the head of the jury committee. The letter from Cocteau was handwritten, and Anger has kept it to this day along with the treasured memories of the friendship they shared.
Kenneth Anger, an American, held the post of Assistant to the Director of the Cinematique Francais for twelve years, until the death of Cinematique Director Henri Langlois.
In October of 1967, Anger published his own full-page obituary in The Village Voice following the robbery of his “Lucifer Rising” footage, which had taken him a year to complete and was enough for a feature-length film. The dates on the obituary were the dates between “Fireworks” and the original “Lucifer Rising,” and signified for Anger his departure from the world of filmmaking. Fortunately, Anger was finally persuaded to continue and the remainder of the footage was later pieced together to become “Invocation of my Demon Brother,” a short film for which Mick Jagger composed the score.
In 1993, “Eaux d’Artifice” was selected by the Library of Congress as one of the two avant-garde films chosen for their preservation program. The other was Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon.”
Students at Universities from Princeton to UCLA study Anger’s films, and whether he is aware of it or not, he still has a following—a lot of whom were probably not even born at the time he shot his last movie on 16mm.
Like most filmmakers, Anger’s work is easily identified, but not because of the sameness with which we attribute some of the better-known director’s bodies of work. The common thread for Anger is the attention to exquisite detail, from a small costuming element to a breathtaking location to the perfect musical milieu. His images are the equivalent of a sonnet, or a masterpiece, or an opus. His intellect and imagination are endowed with a sort of magical power—a power warranted by having had so much influence on so many other filmmakers.
It is understandable, the amount of artistry that has found its inspiration in Anger’s films. Kenneth Anger has explored his own version of biker culture in which we witness the restoration of a custom motorcycle set to a string of pop songs in “Scorpio Rising.” “Puce Moment” features an array of beautiful costumes from the history of ‘Hollywood’ filmmaking. “Rabbit’s Moon” incorporates classic commedia dell’arte and ballet with an original contemporary rock song to illustrate a lunar dream. “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” found it’s inspiration at a Halloween party in which everyone was encouraged to “come as their madness” and Anais Nin arrived wearing a silver birdcage on her head. “Lucifer Rising” has been described by Anger himself as “the birthday party of the Aquarian Age…ceremonies to make Lucifer rise.” He goes on to explain that “Lucifer is the Light god, not the devil. The Rebel Angel behind what’s happening in the world today.” Anger’s creativity knows no limits, and he instills in many of us the desire to do the same.
The films of Kenneth Anger boast an impressive cast of characters inherent in a variant subject matter, all of whom seem to reflect a personal connection to the intensity of his spirit. His films encompass a ritualistic essence, further enhanced by musical scores that range from Vivaldi to Bobby Beausoliel photographed in equally significant locations which also range from Tivoli, Italy to the Egyptian pyramids to Stonehenge in England and back to Hollywood. Anger’s films command your undivided attention and facilitate you to your own alternative consciousness.
According to Lee Harris’s Cult Movies and Video #8, 1993, “The Celluloid Cosmos of Kenneth Anger,” “Liberating influences have helped Anger to create a powerful alternate universe in his films—when you watch them, you leave the familiar and mundane behind.”
In addition to the following conversation, I also had the pleasure of observing him in a public situation, an opening reception for a new Hollywood museum where he was recognized and immediately interviewed by a German television crew. He handled himself in this impromptu situation in the graceful and dignified manner that appropriately suits a man of Kenneth Anger’s stature.
As with any legendary presence, there will be conflicting views. Focusing on discrepancies over his birth date or whether Anger is truly his given name rather than on the substance of his work does no more than prove to me the pettiness of an individual who has to dig so deep to find something uncomplimentary to say about him.
Kenneth Anger is a class act. He is a pillar of grace and generosity. It comforts me to know that traits such as humility, honesty, and humor are still alive, especially today when so few actually live up to half of who they think they are.
What exactly was your original intent for your films?
I consider myself an artist and I wanted to express myself as an artist, using film. I was raised having had some contact with the industry. My grandmother was a costume mistress for silent films, and the stories she told me made me wish that I had been around to make movies then. There was more freedom for a pioneer of sorts.
When I was four years old, through my grandmother, who was a friend of Max Reinhart, I had a small role in the Warner Brothers production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was a fantasy production so it had a lot of elements like fairies on wires, which fascinated me as a kid. So that gave me a little taste of what it’s like to make films in the studio.
But I learned how to make my own films. That was basically it. I didn’t want to go into the industry, so I graduated into working with my parents’ 16mm home movie camera. They only used it for vacations or birthdays, the usual home movie subjects, and it was just sitting there the rest of the year when we weren’t on vacation. There was some film left over from one summer in Yosemite. I looked at the expiration date and the film would expire in a couple of months, so I asked if I could make something myself with this film. They said to go ahead. That’s how I began.
How old were you?
Yes, I was, but I was also lucky that at least I had a camera available and a few rolls of film. The first film I made was at summer camp in Big Bear, I filmed a little silent drama based on “Ferdinand the Bull,” a child’s story by Munro. Munro’s story was actually made into a Disney cartoon a couple of years later.
The first film that I really feel was a work of art on my part was called “Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat.” It was in the summer of ’41, just before the war. There was a feeling of war, particularly among the children. We knew something was going to happen, but we didn’t know what. We were always expecting the Japanese submarines to appear in Santa Monica Bay or something, which is not too far from what happened when they did appear in Santa Barbara. So, I made the film “Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat” after the Mills Brothers’ song of the same name. It’s a song of disquietude. The lyrics are…
Who has been rocking my dreamboat
Who’s been disturbing my dream
I was sailing along, peaceful and calm
And suddenly something went wrong
It never says what went wrong, but it’s a wonderful mood piece. So I did a film of my classmates playing at war games in the streets of Santa Monica. Basically, I just organized them into what they were doing. One of the fellows had a father who worked in special effects and he had a smoke bomb from his father, so at one point the smoke bomb was thrown and they all very elaborately died as if it was the gas. That was my first little art film.
You were so young and you were already exploring political issues within your art.
I knew I wanted to make films as similar to someone else writing a poem. I knew that in France, they made things called cine-poems in the thirties, and that inspired me. I’d been able to see avant-garde films, like Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet. We had, in the Los Angeles area, several good art houses that specialized in the art-type films or foreign films before the days that films were being shown in museums. That was where I saw my first French films in their original versions with subtitles.
That’s what helped me learn French, which is my second language. I wrote the first version of Hollywood Babylon in French and it was published when I was living in Paris in 1959.
Did you ever think of being able to sell your films commercially?
No, but I did want them to be seen. So, by the time I made “Fireworks” when I was seventeen, they had been shown at the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega in Los Angeles in a midnight show. Then I was invited to show them in San Francisco at the Museum of Art. There I met other filmmakers like James Broughton, Frank Stauffacher, Sidney Peterson. I was glad to know that there were other filmmakers working on 16mm.
There was also a woman by the name of Maya Deren who was making films at the same time, but I didn’t meet her while she was here. In 1943, she made “Meshes in the Afternoon,” which is a very dreamlike, beautiful silent film, in the Hollywood Hills. She was lucky to have a very good cameraman as a husband, Alexander Hammid. Her images always had that polished look.
Did you shoot your films yourself?
Yes, I did everything myself, the photography, my own cutting. Occasionally I’d have a friend to push the camera along if I had it on wheels. I usually will get someone else to do the music, but basically it was a one-man operation all the way to the end.
They have that quality to them.
Sort of hand-made.
Did you run into a lot of obstacles just trying to get your films screened?
Well, early enough the word got around that I was making interesting films. Quite a few of my showings were at film clubs or universities and often they would invite me to come and present them. And they did pay me. So that helped spread the word, I guess.
How interesting, then, that they are still studying your films in universities.
Well, I think they have shelf life.
Did you have any idea at that time that generations later would still be studying the works of Kenneth Anger?
I made them as something that I’d hoped would last, at least as long as I would and hopefully longer. I put a lot into the films, and to me they are the equivalent of a painting.
Your films have been interpreted in many different ways, by as many different people. What kinds of statements were you trying to make?
There is no such thing as pure art. Art always reflects the time that it is made, and no matter how much of an ivory tower the artists may think that they are in they are still a child of their times. “Scorpio Rising,” for example, definitely reflects the period that it was made. At that time, there had been a Hollywood film on motorcycles, The Wild One, which had Marlon Brando playing a biker, wearing the classic leather jacket. I saw a whole other side, an anarchic side, to the bikers that I wanted to represent, so that’s how that film came about.
Were you a part of the biker scene at that time?
I had friends who were. I’ve never owned a motorcycle. That was a group in Brooklyn, where I was living for awhile, they were mostly Italian-American guys that made their money working at the Fulton-Welsh Fish Market at night. They made pretty outrageous money for that time, but it was hard work unloading the cargo from the ships to go to all the restaurants in Manhattan. I was at one point considering making a documentary film of them at work. I wish I had, now.
There is a lot of work that goes in to restoring a motorcycle piece by piece. It’s interesting that you thought to use that as part of your subject matter.
All of the bikes that were shown in “Scorpio Rising” were handmade by the guys that are in it. Each one had their own bike and they spent all their spare time and money working on it. Once or twice a year there would be a bike show in New York, usually at the Coliseum, where they would exhibit and some of them would get a prize. A lot of the bikes were not what you would call practical street bikes. I call them “dream machines.” They are more like a fantasy.
Is it true that the images of James Dean and the swastika were not a part of a contrived set but actually a part of the biker’s natural habitat?
One of the bikers had an older brother who was in WWII and had gone through the campaign right into Germany, and like hundreds of other soldiers just gathered up souvenirs. These things were just lying around at that time, so they would just stuff a Nazi flag in their duffel bag or whatever. So, this younger brother inherited these things. And he liked them without even giving them any particular political significance.
There are supposed to be two symbols of the twentieth century, which will survive and be recognized hundreds of years from now. One is the face of Mickey Mouse and the other is supposed to be the Nazi flag because it’s such a powerful design. It is revived from a Vedaic solar symbol, which is thousands of years old. It’s part of American Indian lore, too. But, the Nazi’s used it in a way that was a very powerful symbol.
It was a beautiful flag, not by association, but by what it was of itself, an exclusive design. A good design, in politics, amounts to something. Often, it can be for an evil purpose, but if you have a powerful design you’re halfway there. It’s like power of persuasion, and Adolf Hitler was into repetition. This was years before pop art or Andy Warhol doing a string of a dozen silk-screened images. But, Hitler understood that, the way he just saturated Germany with these images of his new regime which were just everywhere.
There has always been the exploitation of the female form. Did you meet with much criticism by courageously giving equal time to the male form?
That was just my own interest. The actors who appeared in “Scorpio Rising” were working class, Italian-American heterosexuals. In other words, there was no homosexuality there at all. But people think, the way I photographed it, that there’s more of that feeling than was actually there. But, I also saw something in them that I call a latent quality in that they would never admit to something, but it’s still there.
That was a bold thing to do at the time.
It was bold, but it was a time to be bold. In other words, I did it, but I did it before Andy Warhol or other people, even Jack Smith, were to use male nudity. I just did it as an artist. Rhat’s what I wanted to do, and so I did it. It was controversial because it was very outspoken.
How do you see your particular style of filmmaking in relationship to reality?
I’m capturing reality by using almost deliberately restricted means so that I can have my freedom. For instance, I don’t use direct sound, I tell my narrative, and they do have narrative even though it is not an obvious narrative, using a kind of music background which is usually, as in the case of “Scorpio Rising,” of an ironic content.
What kind of a response were you expecting to get, or did you know that your films would go above the heads of the average public?
I was always expecting to find a hip audience, which I did. The same one which would appreciate or understand a William Burroughs novel, or Kerouak, so I never got close to what you could call an average audience.
Of all my films, “Scorpio Rising” was very widely shown because it received notoriety in California. The first showing in a Los Angeles theatre called the Cinema was busted by the vice squad. It seems laughable now, because there’s so little in it that you could possibly finger in that way. But that case got it notoriety. It went to the California Supreme Court. Luckily, I had my champions and they found for me Stanley Fleischmann, a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union who represented me voluntarily. I didn’t have any money to pay him, but he thought it was an interesting case. It was cleared by the California Supreme Court as being of redeeming social merit. I got real good coverage on that case.
What were they trying to say about it? What could be wrong with it?
Well, there are some flashes, about three frames long, of nudity which are so brief you can hardly see them. It was never anything you could linger over. But in the first trial, the Hollywood vice squad made huge blowups of these frames, which are seen so briefly in the film, to put them in the faces of the jurors saying, “Do you want your children to see anything like this?” It was laughable, but it was at a time when these cases were important. On the East Coast, Jack Smith had a similar situation with his film Flaming Creatures. This was the mid-sixties, the film had stopped showing in New York, but eventually it was cleared. The same with my film—it was cleared and shown anywhere in America, finally.
At the time it was a hassle, but it was important. Somebody had to do it. In other words, we cleared the way for freedom of expression. I’ve been thinking since, somebody had to do it and I’m just as glad to be part of that history.
Were you conscious that that was what you were doing, or were you just making your film?
I wasn’t deliberately putting things in it which I thought would get me in trouble. I was just making a film reflecting this biker culture, as I knew it. It’s just interesting, in retrospect, the guardians of morality being so uptight at the time.
Do you come from a very politically aware—or even active—family?
I’m the black sheep of the family, because my family is quite conservative Republican. I remember as a little boy they didn’t want me to put a picture up in my room of FDR. They thought he was a bad man, which of course is how Republicans felt about Roosevelt. They were always indignant about this “rich man” who was playing at being a socialist. But I always liked FDR.
Did you put it up anyway?
I put it up inside my closet.
Were you an only child?
No, I have an older brother and sister but there was quite a gap in the ages. I was eight years younger than my brother and they were already away at school when I was small, so I almost grew up as an only child. My grandmother had quite a bit to do with raising me. She was a costume mistress and she was also a painter, a member of Women Painters West. We used to drive down to Palm Springs around Easter in her big old Packard, because at that time there were these fabulous dunes covered with wildflowers and the desert verbena and she used to love to paint them. She was a good painter. I carried her paint box, I set up her easel and I was her companion while she painted.
Did your grandmother live long enough to see any of your finished works?
She bought the camera with which I made “Fireworks” when I was seventeen, a Bell & Howell that had served in World War II as a kind of newsreel camera. It was kind of beat-up, but they are a very sturdy camera. They only carry a 100 ft. roll of film, they have a variable speed and a wind-up motor that will only last maybe ten seconds, so you can’t have long takes. But I didn’t want long takes anyway, so it was quite suitable.
So she bought my camera for me and actually paid for the film, which was very inexpensive to make. But that was the extent of my family’s involvement. I remember my parents were not interested in my personal artwork. Certainly my father wasn’t.
Did they actually say that? “We’re not interested?”
Basically, yes. I mean, my father was an engineer, my brother was an aeronautical engineer, and they expected me to follow the family tradition, in which case my way would have been paid through Cal-Tech. But I said, “I’m not a scientist and I don’t feel inclined in that direction. I can’t force myself to do it, and I won’t.” So that was the end of it.
When my father died, he left me nothing. Had I been more diplomatic and not been so Machiavellian maybe I could have bluffed him along to a certain extent, but I just didn’t feel like it at the time. At any rate, I got out without too much damage.
Your grandmother did manage to see “Fireworks” before she died?
I showed it to my grandmother after I made it, and she said, “It’s terrific.” This was a woman in her eighties. She was a very dear person in my life.
It’s important to have somebody like that behind you.
I had one member in my family that was sympathetic. I was never close to the other members of my family, and I was glad to get away from them as soon as I could. A couple of years after my grandmother died I left for Europe and started a new life in Paris.
What a great place to start a new life.
Particularly then. It was1950 and there were so many interesting people alive then. I had sent “Fireworks” to a film festival in Biarritz. I didn’t know that Cocteau was the head of the jury, but it turned out that he was and he gave it the prize for poetic film. For a seventeen-year-old, this was kind of amazing. He wrote me a letter, a one page letter, handwritten, that I still have. It was signed with his signature, a little star, which he always did. I decided then that I would have to go over there and meet him.
I just took off on my own, with very little money. Luckily, I got a job in Paris very quickly as assistant to the director of the French film museum, The Cinematique Francais, Henri Langlois. I was his assistant for twelve years. That was a wonderful place, not only to meet people, but to see incredible prints of films. The Cinematique Francais has one of the best collections of silent films in the world. They’re all the original prints, on nitro.
What was the economy like in Paris, at that time?
It still felt like a kind of hangover from the war in 1950. The tourist thing was just beginning again. There were very few Americans. I remember they still had some rationing and some kind of black bread, a peasant bread, that I found very good but the French were all complaining about it. I guess it wasn’t the baguette that they were used to.
I took a brief trip over to London to meet some of the people at the British Film Institute, and it looked like the war had just ended. In 1950, London had rationing and not enough heat. They hadn’t rebuilt it yet, so it still looked pretty beat up. But I found it a fascinating atmosphere.
Then I went into Germany and saw Frankfurt and it was just miles and miles of pink rubble. The city was bombed to bits. You could see beautiful carvings on one fragment or another. It’s really a pity that all that had to happen to Europe and to its hundreds of years of too-colorful history. I’ve been back since, and from all those fragments the Germans methodically numbered each piece and rebuilt it, so now it looks like it did in medieval times. A lot of their old buildings were rebuilt from scratch, painstakingly, taking nearly twenty years.
Americans has been far too cavalier about their past. A lot of things have been knocked down that shouldn’t have been.
Did you have difficulties getting your work visas in order so that you could work, in Paris?
Well, there never was any of that because I was hired as the personal assistant of Henri Langlois, who was the head of the Cinematique Francais. So, he arranged everything. In other words, I never had to sign a paper or anything. Even though they had a very tempestuous relationship, the money for the Cinematique Francais still came from the French government. They were always threatening to cut him off because he was spending too much. In 1968, Andre Malraux tried to fire Langlios, and all the people came and occupied the Cinematique so that Malraux couldn’t take it away. I remember seeing Truffaut there and quite a few other French directors—Alain Resnais, Marcel Carne. This was the beginning of the 1968 Paris Student Rebellion. Later, in the month of May, there were the street demonstrations, some quite violent.
I feel fortunate that I lived in Paris during that period. I didn’t have to pay for rent when I lived there because I was a guest of the Cinematique Francais. I actually lived in an apartment that was designed by Lazare Meerson, who was the set designer for Rene Clair and all those wonderful films in the ’30s. The apartment, even though it was rather shabby by this time, having gone through the occupation of France, was still ultra-modern. It was designed in 1932 so there were a lot of glass surfaces and chrome furniture. I was literally living in a mirrored booth. Lazare Meerson was one of France’s top set designers.
What kind of a reaction did you get, as an American, from the people?
In Paris, I met people like Francois Truffaut when they were film critics, before they became directors, when they were writing for a journal called Arts, and another one called Cahiers du Cinéma, which is still being published. Their ambition was to become directors, and they were quite friendly, but I did get some different reactions. Godard was never a friend, he was always very hostile to me. At that time he was espousing a kind of Maoism and he considered me a decadent American, an interloper or something. So, I was never friends with Godard even though I admire at least one of his films, Weekend.
I wrote a little bit for the Cahiers du Cinéma myself, and that was the beginning of my Hollywood Babylon books. Because I had told them some of the stories I knew best about old Hollywood, they wanted me to write about them. The stories came to the attention of a French publisher who asked, “Why don’t you turn this into a book and we’ll publish it here?” That’s how that came about. The first book was published by Jean- Jacques Pauvert and it came out in 1959 in Paris, in French.
Where did you get all those pictures?
I had a collection of over 5000 stills, and photographs of Hollywood, which I began collecting as a kid. But it was always for a purpose. I always said, “Someday I’m going to do something with these stills.” So I would ask around. I knew people who worked in the industry so I’d ask if they had any stills, and little by little I built up my collection.
And the books are picture books. In other words, they are meant for you to turn the page and you are as surprised by the picture accompanying the text as you are by the text itself. And so the whole thing is designed to be almost like a movie.
Do you remember where you got the Black Dahlia picture?
I got the Black Dahlia pictures from a retired detective who worked on the case. He was an alcoholic, and I used to sit and talk with him while he would drink. He would have several drinks and I would have maybe half of one. But you see, I was keeping him company, and he voluntarily just gave me those photographs. And I was the first one to publish those pictures. Hollywood has some fascinating mysteries, but that one has never been officially solved.
Do you remember what the political situation was like in Hollywood when you left?
I was glad to get away from America because probably if it hadn’t been for the McCarthy period of anti-Communist hysteria in the late ’40s and early ’50s I probably would have tried to get a job in a Hollywood studio. I had enough contacts so that I could have at least started in the mail room, which is the classic place where a lot of famous people started. But I found it so unsympathetic. Friends of mine at Columbia Studios were being interrogated for having belonged to some youth organization back in the ’30s that was considered to be left-wing. There was nothing anti-American about it; it was just that people helped each other to find jobs and to try to get some unions going and things like that. But all of the dancers at Columbia decided, as a sign of protest against what was happening at the studio, to quit and move to Paris. So they went there before I did. These were the dancers in all the Rita Hayworth musicals with the choreography by Jack Cole. It was wonderful, they were my American friends. We were all getting away from the ridiculous political situation in Hollywood, which was very unpleasant.
I knew Gale Sondergaard, a very good actress, very sweet, who played the spider woman in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman. She was very tall and angular and very beautiful—there was really no one else like her—and she couldn’t work anymore because she belonged to some, what they considered to be a left-wing organization. I found the whole thing so ridiculous. I just wanted to get away from it.
So I’ve spent actually more time as an adult in Europe than I have in America. I came back here when my Hollywood Babylon books were going to be published in New York. I rewrote the books, so I had to be in New York for that. That was in the eighties.
I noticed that in “Hollywood Babylon” you only dedicated one paragraph to the murder of Sharon Tate. You included a sentence which made reference to the lives as having been wasted. Whose lives were you referring to?
I have gotten a lot of flack over that sentence. Particularly from the brother of Abigail Folger, who was killed. He called me and talked to me. He told me “Well, you know we really loved Abigail. She was very dear to us. The irony of her being at the wrong place at the wrong time because she really had nothing to do with anything…we thought the whole situation was so bizarre.” He was very polite on the phone. He obviously showed he was a person of breeding. He and Abigail were the heirs of the Folger’s coffee fortune. But she was, nevertheless, brutally killed.
It’s the only line that, in retrospect, I regret writing. I won’t take it out of the book. But I still regret it. What I meant, in my perception at the time, was that all of the people who were involved in the case were kind of like cartoons. I was reducing them to the level of cartoons. They were like caricatures of Hollywood people, or hippies gone bad, or whatever you want to call it. I won’t exactly take it back because that’s how I felt at the time, and if I were to revise that sentence I’d just have to revise everything. It’s a reflection of how I felt at the time.
Your films boast a very interesting array of characters who have participated: Mick Jagger, Marriane Faithful, Anais Nin, Donald Cammell, Bobby Beausoliel. Did they seek you out to participate in your films or were they part of the usual crowd of friends who naturally just ended up being a part of your work?
All of the people that you mentioned were my friends that just became incorporated into my films. They were part of my surroundings, my landscape. And they were also of a good nature. In other words, there were maybe some friends that I didn’t ask to be in my films, but these I knew would do it. They were creative and liked what I was doing, so they participated.
You implemented a lot of special effects in the days before computer generated images. Were you limited by what was possible to achieve from the equipment at hand, in comparison to what you envisioned in your mind’s eye?
Well, I had no access to a special effects department like the studios had. Even though things are enormously expensive, you can practically create an image of anything today. In the earlier days I had to think up ways of creating my effects, which were more like George Melies, the French film pioneer, with sometimes very simple superimpositions. I was trying to see how far I could go using these simple means of rewinding the film, getting double exposures, doing dissolves, or printing other colors on top of each other.
Tell me about “Puce Moment.”
I planned and began to make a film on the old Hollywood of the 1920’s called “Puce Women” and I only made one episode, “Puce Moment,” which was just five minutes of what was supposed to be a feature-length film. The costumes that were shown in the film were my grandmother’s, which she’d left to me from her days as a costume mistress. I’ve since presented them to the Cinematique Francais, where a couple of them are on exhibit in their museum.
I noticed you used the footage again in “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.”
Yeah, well that’s one of the things I like to do. It’s a bit of a self-reference.
You must have a lot of fun in the editing room.
I do. That’s the stage of filmmaking that I enjoy most. Basically, when you’re editing, you settle on the material you have, which often is difficult because you might think, “Damn, if I’d only had two or three days more of shooting, I’d have this, that, or the other thing more.” But once you resign yourself to what you’ve got, then you can just find amazing possibilities in what you have available. And you’re also in complete control. Basically, editing, what Eisenstein called “montage,” can be the most exciting and satisfying part of filmmaking. It is the editing that gives the film its rhythm, its tempo and its meter relationships. So, I hope that my editing will be recognized.
I recognized an obvious resemblance between the film Tommy and “Lucifer Rising,” not only in visual style and technique but even in acting direction. Do you notice a marked number of other people’s work that bear similarities to your own?
Wasn’t that by Ken Russell? Well, he’s copied me several times. That one about altered states, he copied a couple of images. I had lightening bolts over the Egyptian pyramids, which is something you would never see in Egypt, but I dreamed it so I put it in. And then it turned up in his film too.
Has he ever given you any credit for inspiration?
No. The only one that has used some of my ideas and has given me credit is Martin Scorsese. He saw “Scorpio Rising” and it gave him the idea of using pop music as a soundtrack for Mean Streets. He told me that and he has also written it.
I don’t know about David Lynch, with Blue Velvet. I used “Blue Velvet” as a song in my film “Scorpio Rising” in 1964, and his film Blue Velvet was many years later. So I was the first one to use it. But the music was around. I’m not even sure if he’s ever even seen my film. People keep saying, “You’ve obviously been an influence on David Lynch,” but I’m not so sure about that.
Has anyone ever formally given you credit for making the first music video, which you obviously did?
Well, they have it in print. There have been a few references to “the Godfather of music videos.” I have gotten a few awards in my time, like the Maya Deren Award at the American Film Institute, which is a little Tiffany crystal star. But, the interesting thing is that none of these people who produce music videos has ever thought of offering me the chance to do one.
A couple of bands have approached me. One was called Combustible Edison. They sent me a tape and asked me if I would like to do a video for them. The name of the piece of music on the tape was “Bluebeard,” and apparently their idea was something to do with the myth of Bluebeard and the wives that he slaughtered, which is a rather grim legend. But, I told them I didn’t want to do it. In other words, I really have to be deeply in love with a piece of music before I’ll want to make a movie. So that was that.
Tell me about that piece by Andy Arthur that you used in “Rabbit’s Moon.” The date on the film is 1950. Was he making that kind of music that far ahead of time?
No, I put the music on later. Andy was a young man I met in England. I showed it to him silent, because for years I didn’t have any soundtrack. Then he said, “Well, I’ll do some music for it.” So he took his guitar and he did “I Am a Hermit.” That was a fortunate thing. It was an original piece of music and he just gave it to me.
Later on, Mick Jagger did the same with the music for my film “Invocation of My Demon Brother,” which was basically just percussion on the Moog synthesizer. It’s quite unpleasant, actually, a lot of people really don’t like it. But I wanted that. I wanted something very dissonant and invasive.
Bobby Beausoliel did the music for the second version of “Lucifer Rising.” In his case, even though he is serving a life term in prison, he was able to record it with other prisoners. With the help of the head psychiatrist of the prison system, a wonderful woman by the name of Dr. Minerva Berthols, who is now retired, I was able to arrange it. She arranged for me to be able to bring a tape recorder into the prison, to record music played on the instruments that they had in the prison. The other musicians were also in on long-term sentences. They came from that San Francisco culture where they’d all been musicians, some of them had been in some rather well-known bands. So that worked out well. I think it’s the only time that’s ever happened.
Did you know Bobby Beausoliel when he was part of the Manson Family?
No. We had a disagreement when I found that he had lied to me over something rather serious. I’d given him some money to buy some amplifiers and instead he bought a rather large amount of marijuana. What you’d call a kilo, like a bale of hay. He’d stored this in my studio without telling me. He was about nineteen at the time. If anyone had found this, I would have been busted. So I told him, “OK, you can take your drugs and get out. It’s over. I’m not going to work with you anymore.”
He still had my van, and he came back a few nights later. He’d waited for a night when I was out, and he broke into my studio and stole all of the footage that he could see of the film, the first “Lucifer Rising.”
Then he took it and the van and went to southern California. The van broke down in the San Fernando Valley on the road in front of Spahn ranch, where the Manson family was living. He was there on the highway, trying to get the van working, and the girls invited him to come and live with them. And unfortunately, he accepted. He didn’t see any reason not to. But that’s how he got mixed up with the Manson Family. He was in jail at the time that Sharon Tate was killed, but he killed a musician named Gary Hinman in Topanga Canyon over a drug deal that went wrong. So that’s all part of the folklore of California.
So that would account for the ten-year span of a date for “Lucifer Rising.”
Well, often I’d run out of money. I’d start making the film and I was determined to finish it, but I’d run out of money. Then I’d have to wait until I’d earn some more. So, that’s why some of my films have long dates, till I finally could release it with the music I wanted in more or less the final print. Though there are still some films I’d like to go back and tweak a little bit.
How did the obituary idea come to you?
After the film had been stolen, I was thoroughly disgusted. Also, the date on the obituary was from my first film to the time when it was written. It wasn’t of my death, even though some people thought it was. I must admit that it’s the sort of thing that I did at the time, but if a similar situation were to occur today I wouldn’t do it again. I’ve always admired Salvador Dali and his publicity stunts, so it was a little bit of that kind of thing. And it did stir up quite a bit of a ruckus.
But you did make friends again with Bobby.
It was easier to make friends with him after he was behind bars, and I went to visit him in prison.
What brought you to that, though?
Well, he had a lot of good qualities. It’s very unfortunate that he ever got mixed up with somebody like Charlie Manson. Actually killing someone, that’s about the worst you can do and I don’t make any excuses for it. But I’m quite capable of seeing in people a good side and a bad side. My training with Aliester Crowley has shown me that people have a shadow side and a bright side, and Bobby certainly had that.
He’s very talented in the sense that he’s still recording in prison. We didn’t discuss the crime, but he was actually quite optimistic. He was discussing music he wanted to do, paintings he wanted to do. He no longer had a chip on his shoulder.
I heard a rumor that you had done LSD with Aldous Huxley. Is that true?
Well, I was like fourteen at the time. My grandmother knew Aldous. He just lived up the hill when I lived with her in Hollywood. I experimented with it at that time. I certainly have no more interest in pursuing it.
Later on, I also knew Stanley Owsley who was the chemist that made the best LSD, working out of Berkeley. It was interesting, certainly, but that was then and as an artist I am glad that I experienced it.
I met Tim Leary, but I always thought of him as kind of a false prophet of sorts. What was that saying of his, “Tune in, Turn on, Drop out”? I always thought that was just silly, because life is not something you drop out of.
What did you think of Andy Warhol?
I never met him. He had that something that I never had, which was that commercial knack to make a fortune. But I never liked his aesthetic, which to me was a trashy aesthetic. I always tried to make my films as good as I could with their limitations. I never set out to make deliberate trash, whereas he did. That was just his aesthetic; he embraced bad techniques as a style, and that’s OK. I’ve seen his films, but I don’t consider myself a fan.
How do you perceive your work as being received by popular culture today?
Some of my films have made a mark and will be remembered at least as a footnote.
Significantly, considering the fact that I’ve made my films with practically no money at all. But I think they’ll be remembered as part of twentieth-century pop culture, and I’m glad I made some contribution. Of course, I’m not so sure about the twenty-first century.
Do you find that your views tend to change as you get older?
Basically, I’m the same. I may not be quite as vocal about certain things as I once was. You’re supposed to get more conservative as you get older, but in my case I just think it’s more a kind of settling in to yourself. I’m not conflicted anymore, which, I suppose is the nature I was to a certain extent. But I’ve sort of found myself, more or less. There are a few things I’m still working on, like procrastination and things like that, but today I’m pretty happy with myself.
What was your first introduction to the teachings of Aliester Crowley, and when did you count yourself as a disciple?
Well, he’s been with me since I was a teenager. I was a friend of Marjorie Cameron, the widow of the rocket scientist Jack Parsons who invented the fuel that took the Apollo to the moon. Parsons was very interested in Crowley and was in fact his magical son, who, if he hadn’t been killed in the explosion, might have inherited the job of running the order, OTO. Marjorie had a lot of the Crowley books, so, from my teenage years I began collecting the books and studying them. I haven’t gotten tired of them. In other words, he still amazes me every time I open a book and I come across a sentence that seems to apply very much to what I’m doing.
What were the elements that positioned themselves to bring about your embracing of Crowley’s beliefs? Were you consciously seeking?
Well, I just felt a strong affinity with them. At the time that I came across the books, it was like I’d found a friend in Crowley. I just fell right into his philosophy, and also his use of paradox. He had a great sense of humor. You have to understand his sense of humor, because he can make some outrageous statements, and you have to realize which are tongue-in-cheek and which are to be taken straight. He also did things, called “blinds,” which seem to be completely false, but a blind is something that you work around and he’ll always give you clues. And, of course, they are written in a kind of fascinating code which I just found very intriguing. And I still do.
How do you view “Satan”?
Satan is just a concept. I’m not a satanist and I don’t have any attraction to that element. Crowley wasn’t a satanist either. There is a lot of confusion over that. Crowley was called “the wickedest man in the world” by Lord Beaverbrook, who wrote editorials in the Sunday Express, which is like the News of the World in England today. It was the most trashy-minded tabloid journalism, that’s how they sold papers, you see. So, the label has sort of stuck with Crowley. It amused him for a while, but then it became sort of a burden.
Crowley was kicked out of Italy because of the press in England. The papers got back to Mussolini and his newly established fascist regime in the early ’20s and in 1923 Crowley was given orders to leave Italy. Mussolini had a strong animosity towards England, anyway, and then the idea that there was this strange English guy doing weird things with a lot of wives. They didn’t understand all these women around Crowley, so they thought he had a lot of wives. There were articles published in Italy at the time calling him a Mormon, which was hilarious.
The Fascists found enough excuse. Crowley was getting bad press because someone had died in Cheffali, which is where he lived. A student from Oxford died because he drank water and got typhoid fever, but by the time this story got back to England this was supposed to have been a human sacrifice. So that was typical of the kind of exaggerated nonsense.
What about your own reputation? Is that exaggerated nonsense, or did you kind of feed into it for publicity?
No, I’m just myself. I never do anything deliberately. About the most exaggerated thing I’ve ever done—which was more of a reaction to despair—would be something like the obituary. But, I received an incredible amount of encouragement, after that, and was very soon convinced that I should begin making films again.
Do you have any other works in the archives of Anger, that have yet to be made available to public viewing?
I have about a dozen unfinished projects. I may decide to release them on DVD at some point. Even though some of them are very short, if I were to put all of the fragments together they would become a rather interesting mosaic.
More recently, I’ve begun working on video because I can afford that. 16mm has just become too expensive for me. I do my cutting on an Avid. I now have three new finished projects. One, in fact, is titled “Don’t Smoke That Cigarette” and was originally screened at a film festival in Amsterdam. It was also viewed in America at the Conference for Disinformation in New York in February.
What do you consider your shortcomings?
The inability to hustle money. When I’ve run out of money, I’m just too proud to go asking.
I’ve had a few grants, but usually they were the ones that were rather effortless. I’ve received a Ford Foundation grant, the National Endowment grant, and the New York State Art grant. But, the more difficult ones, like the Guggenheim, I’ve never gone after because they require what to me are onerous propositions. For example, the fact that I need to have four people to attest that I’m a good citizen, and that sort of thing. I find that so insulting. But, by the same token, everyone that gets a Guggenheim has to do it. Then, I look at the list of people who have gotten a Guggenheim…
The reason I haven’t made more films is just the hassle of raising money, and I find it difficult to set aside, out of my book royalties, enough to make a movie. Even 16mm is no longer so affordable.
How do you feel about the choices that you’ve made in your life?
I think I’m pretty happy. I’ve had a couple of ideas for commercial features and I’ve often thought that if I could have pursued them a little bit more aggressively that perhaps I could have gotten a feature made. I do have ideas about feature films. In other words, I’m not so much in an ivory tower that I don’t have any interest in commercial films. But I do not have the personality to go after a commercial career, and I never did. What I know about Hollywood and the film industry is enough to make me back away from it.
At one point in the ’60s when “Scorpio Rising” got quite a big play in theaters from all of the publicity, a producer did come to me and say, “We’ll use the title and remake it as a commercial feature. Only, of course, you’ll have to add a girlfriend and dialogue and narrative.” And I said, “Well then, it’s another film. It’s not my film anymore if I do all that.” So that fell apart. In a sense, I’m kind of sorry I didn’t, maybe, try it. But I didn’t.
I’ve had a few times like that, that I regret. I’ve only worked once on 35mm, and that’s when I filmed “Rabbit’s Moon.” I’d like to do more work on 35mm.
Do you still have it in your heart to do more films if the means were available to you?
How do you want to be remembered?
As a maverick. An individualist. As an artist. I do consider myself an artist.
I hope that my films will survive in some form. I’m moving on soon to have them available on DVD, which seems to be a pretty permanent record. So I hope that maybe a hundred years from now someone can still manage to look at something that looks like my films.
THE WORKS OF KENNETH ANGER
FERDINAND THE BULL – 1938
WHO HAS BEEN ROCKING MY DREAMBOAT? – 1941
ESCAPE EPISODE – 1946
FIREWORKS – 1947
PUCE MOMENT – 1949
RABBIT’S MOON – 1950
EAUX D’ARTIFICE – 1953
INAUGURATION OF THE PLEASURE DOME – 1954
HOLLYWOOD BABYLON (book, French release) – 1959
SCORPIO RISING – 1964
KUSTOM KAR KOMMANDOS – 1965
INVOCATION OF MY DEMON BROTHER – 1969
LUCIFER RISING – 1970-1980
HOLLYWOOD BABYLON (book, American release) – 1975
HOLLYWOOD BABYLON II (book) – 1984
DON’T SMOKE THAT CIGARETTE – 1998
BOY SCOUTS IN THE GERMAN REICH – 1999
BACTERIA PIE – 2000
MEN WE WANT TO HANG – 2002