The 100 Essential Directors Part 1

Chantal Akerman - Bernardo Bertolucci

by PopMatters Staff

1 August 2011


Kenneth Anger

Kenneth Anger
(1927 - present)

Three Key Films: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Scorpio Rising (1963), Lucifer Rising (1970-80)

Underrated: Rabbit’s Moon (1950). Combining classic fairy tale images (a fake forest filled with paper foliage), elements of mime, a harlequin and a ballerina, and enough doo-wop songs to send PBS directly into telethon mode, what we have here is one of Kenneth Anger’s most gorgeous jokes. Using a single series of images to illustrate his title object—a cartoon moon coming closer and closer to the camera—and a series of mannered turns from his foreign cast, there is commentary on the cruelty of nature and the incompleteness of emotional bonds. There is not much storytelling. All we see are costumed statues playing dress up in a place that recalls friend and mentor Jean Cocteau at his most fascinatingly flamboyant. As the ‘50s music melds with the images, we wind up with a tale told by inference. The lyrics seem to describe the action, but the overall experience is gradual and fragmented. No one can deny Anger’s way with a lens, his camera creating a stream of unconsciousness quality that sells the dream theater extremes present.

Unforgettable: The chrome and crotch adoration/idolatry in Scorpio Rising. Along with the often indescribable Kuchar Brothers, Kenneth Anger was at the forefront of bringing gay ideals, sensibilities, and aesthetics to the emerging post-modern cinema. He fetishized the male form, took elements of the growing subculture (bikes and leather) and gave them a formidable flashiness. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the various motor boy montages that fill up the majority of Scorpio‘s running time. Like a wake-up call to a still slumbering suburbia, these scenes challenged the conventional conservative wisdom and laid the foundation for the experimentalism (individually and artistically) of the ‘60s.


Scorpio Rising (1963)

The Legend: There are really two Kenneth Anger’s running around in the new millennium—three if you add in his current crusade as a certified pagan, supporter of the works of Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey, and advocate of Wicca. Many might know him from his famous show biz tell-alls, Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II, terrific pre-tabloid tomes that exposed many of Tinsel Town’s tawdriest secrets. But for the chosen few who have followed the careers of such motion picture mavericks as John Waters and David Lynch, Anger is an idol, an experimental underground filmmaker who forged a specific celluloid identity out of his experience with old school studio films, a complicated childhood, and his emerging homosexuality. By the time the ‘80s rolled around, he had contributed more to the fringes of the full blown independent movie scene than any other artist from his time.

From the obvious name change to a youth surrounded by conflicting influences, Anger would never be an easy individual to pin down. He once claimed to be friends with famous child stars like Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple and long insisted he was the Changeling Prince in the 1937 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). During these tender years, he was doted over by his mother and grandmother, each one dominated and driving his love of performance. With his family’s camera and some leftover film, he made his first ‘feature’, a take on the classic fairy tale Ferdinand the Bull (1937). Along with several other efforts he helmed in his teens, it is now considered “lost” (though it has been reported that in 1967, Anger destroyed most of his early work in a fit of rage). It was also in his adolescence where he would discover two things that would forever change him—his love of the occult and his love of men.

While attending USC and experimenting with drugs, he made his first major film, Fireworks (1947). It got him arrested for its blatant gay content. It also caught the interest of sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who Anger befriended and aided over the years. Throughout the ‘50 and ‘60s, he continued to indulge his passions, living in Paris and Rome, meeting up with mentor Jean Cocteau, and eventually penning the first of his sizzling, scandal filled books. The 1961’s Scorpio Rising, he found a modicum of mainstream notoriety, the movie being banned, and challenged, all over the country.

From then on, he continued to combine his love of ancient mythology, Golden Era Hollywood, the supernatural, alternative culture, and the hallucinogenic effects of his newfound passion—LSD. With the counterculture came celebrity and acceptance, something that seemed to drive Anger further into himself. As his expressions—Invocation to My Demon Brother (1969) and Lucifer Rising (1970)—became more fragmented and indebted to Satanism, he decided to retire. In the late ‘90s, however, he announced a kind of comeback, hitting the lecture circuit and even dabbling in directing again. Yet it is his early work that remains a celluloid cornerstone, linking the past to the present in a way that was both prescient and very personal indeed. Bill Gibron



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