If Kenneth Anger understood anything, it was that cinema was the ultimate ritual to an otherworldly realm. Anger, the trailblazing avant-garde and experimental filmmaker, actor, occultist, and quasi-Hollywood seer and author of Hollywood Babylon (1959), plumbed the depths of the dark side of humanity — and of the film medium’s potential to make both angels and demons. The director died on Sunday, May 11 of natural causes in Yucca Valley, California, at an assisted living center. He was 96.
Born in 1927 in Santa Monica, Anger frequently had trouble financing his films, some were made over long stretches of time and not released or finished until years after their initial production started. Anger was a bit of a myth-maker of himself, with some of his biographical details reportedly difficult to corroborate. Rubbing shoulders with Jean Cocteau, Alfred Kinsey, and James Whale helped flesh out his charismatic and cinephilic persona. From his earliest known short film “Fireworks” in 1947 (the then-20-year-old made it while his parents were away for the weekend) to his ode to musician Elliott Smith, “Elliott’s Suicide” (2007), the manipulation of mythology served as the crux of Anger’s fascinations. Towering figures of power and their sexy, homoerotic, and corrupt foundations were, to Anger, worth exploring and exploiting — sometimes simultaneously, as in his tell-all Hollywood Babylon, which film historian Karina Longworth called “an elaborate game of Hollywood telephone.”
These pieces of iconography — be they images of sailors, men in uniform, or boys donning leather to emulate their bedside idols seen in Method acting classes and big movie houses — floated freely through the culture, and had its wide flock on its knees. But Anger was one of the few who knew how to channel the ecumenical effect Hollywood and pop culture had on people.
His films like “Scorpio Rising” (1963), “Kustom Kar Kommandos” (1965), and “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969) laid bare the connections between worship and consumption. Fueled by pop songs of the era and featuring imagery that quickly mutates from the banal to the hypnotic and disturbing (mechanics, motorcycles, the fresh glint of a tailpipe), Anger captured the elemental way that folklore was created from the barest ingredients. They were pumped and blown up onto a big screen, larger than life, so that they were like a god. Or maybe closer to a fallen angel.
“Lucifer is the patron saint of the visual arts,” he once quipped. And while this kind of occultist fascination pervades much of Anger’s work, not least of all “Lucifer Rising” (1980) and “Rabbit’s Moon” (1971), Anger’s inclination to tie the dark sides of worship, humanity, and Hollywood stood out because of his uncanny proximity to that Hell. For the openly gay filmmaker, there was titillation and excitement in the danger of these mythologies of White masculinity, of these gargantuan titans and demigods. Marlon Brando and James Dean were not of this earth, and the contradictions of Hollywood Babylon painted for him, even through totally unethical methods of “reportage,” a battle of good and evil. Of course, evil is always a little more fun and tempting.
Evil’s seduction was perhaps the point of Anger’s oeuvre, a paradoxical invitation and warning. The blunt and shocking turns of some of his films to reveal their (or his?) fixation on fascist imagery — leather, eagles, swastikas — are both provocation and revelation. Anger dared to point out that the roots of our favorite ways to pray in pop culture weren’t so far from the iconography of fascism itself.
Anger’s films could turn any place into a house of veneration and den of iniquity — venues like Los Angeles’s Cinema Theater, whose manager Michael Getz was charged with obscenity in 1964 for showing “Scorpio Rising,” or fine-art galleries like Sprüth Magers, whose exhibition Icons toured Berlin, London, and Los Angeles in 2013.
If it is difficult to engage with Anger’s work because of his racial and social politics, it is also worth remembering that Anger basically invented a language of queer desire — one founded upon a level of exclusion and fetishization and the deconstruction of dominant ways of desiring. Deemed transgressive for his directness and confrontation at a time when gay and LGBTQ+ artistry was either coded or remained underground, he innovated a grammar for those who weren’t necessarily listening. The same techniques he employed to critique and question these forms of idolatry were swallowed up and incorporated into cinema’s vernacular without much inquiry. Even as Anger told us about the dangers of worship at the same time as he was explicating its pleasures, all we could do was close our eyes and pray for self-oblivion.