One of the major figures of the avant-garde "New American Cinema" of the 1950s and 60s, Kenneth Anger (born Kenneth Anglemyer) grew up in Hollywood, was a child actor (most notably in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" 1935) and was allegedly making films by the age of ten (e.g., the short "Ferdinand the Bull" 1937; "Who Has Been Rocking My Dream Boat?" 1941). After meeting famed underground filmmaker Harry Smith in 1947, he adopted the name 'Kenneth Anger' and, over two weekends, completed his first important work, "Fireworks" (1947). This personal psychodrama received a public screening and won critical acclaim in 1949 at Jean Cocteau's "Festival of the Damned" in Biarritz. Its protagonist, played by Anger, is a guilt-ridden homosexual who dreams of being viciously beaten by a group of sailors and his punishment leads to images of sexual liberation and fertility. The film's final images are of Anger asleep with another man, the dream only temporarily abating his internal anguish over his homosexuality. Shocking in its time for its sexual content, "Fireworks" was praised as a imaginative and daring personal expression.
After moving to France in 1950, Anger shot his next major work, "Eaux d'Artifice" (1953), in the gardens of the Villa d'Este in Tivoli, Italy. "Eaux d'Artifice" is a beautifully photographed, single-character exercise in symbolism. Wandering through the garden, a woman in baroque evening dress becomes frightened by hypnotic fountains and ominous gargoyles and tries to flee the labyrinth. The film begins with her emergence from a spurting fountain and ends as water engulfs her. While in Italy, he also shot "Thelema Abbey," a no longer extant documentary of an expedition headed by Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey to the Sicilian home of occultist Aleister Crowley. Before leaving France, Anger completed 20 minutes of "Histoire d'O/The Story of O" (1958-61), footage he has claimed is still locked in the Cinematheque Francaise because the character "O" was played by the 20-year-old daughter of the then-Minister of Finance.
"Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome" (1954, 1966) depicts an imaginative world of gods invoked and controlled by the untamed desires of Lord Shiva and his female self, the Scarlet Woman. It has been shown in several versions, including one with three-screen projection inspired by Abel Gance's "Napoleon" (1927). Lord Shiva's mythical world is paced with ritualistic pomp, from the slow entrance of the gods and the deceitful intoxication of Pan to the orgiastic finale set among the flames of hell.
Thirteen popular songs from the period provide the framework for Anger's most influential film, "Scorpio Rising" (1962-64). Each song is juxtaposed ironically with startling visual images. The song "Blue Velvet" accompanies men ritualistically dressing up in blue jeans and black leather. As the audience hears the lyrics to "I Will Follow Him," the screen flashes a montage of images that includes Adolf Hitler at military rallies, disciples following Jesus Christ in clips from a low-budget educational feature "The Road to Jerusalem," Marlon Brando leading a motorcycle gang in "The Wild One" and Anger's Scorpio figure directing his followers in a motorcycle race. While these juxtapositions may seem jejune to contemporary audiences, the "poetic" symbolism of "Scorpio Rising" was striking to the audiences of the new art-houses in America in the early 60s.
"Invocation of My Demon Brother" (1969) presents a pastiche of images as seen through the mind's eye of a male albino: marijuana smoked through a skull pipe, soldiers in Vietnam, a burning cat, naked males wrestling in bed, and Mick Jagger performing on stage. Inserted throughout are shots of Anger as Magus, performing occult rites on stage in celebration of the Autumnal Equinox.
Anger made "Invocation" with scraps of footage originally photographed for "Lucifer Rising" (1980). His childhood fascination with fairy tales led to a lifelong dedication to the occult, specifically Aleister Crowley's religion, Thelema. In "Lucifer Rising," the forces of nature (e.g., volcanic eruptions, lightning, turbulent water, an eclipse of the moon) awaken Lucifer. Anger includes numerous symbols drawn from alchemy and imagistic references to the cosmology of Crowley. Stunningly photographed in Egypt, Germany and England at the sites of sun worship by ancient cultures, "Lucifer Rising" culminates with the spiritual rebel of the title conjuring up a luminous flying object over the pyramids and pharaohs of Egypt.
Anger has equated filmmaking with "casting a spell," or invocation. "Lucifer Rising" marked his attempt to move from the solipsistic visions and images of his earlier films to the invocation of a higher spiritual and intellectual order. Anger appeared the sketches of Jonas Mekas' 1985 film "He Stands in the Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life" and was among the notables who honored Mekas in a documentary, "Jonas in the Desert" (1993).
Those who do not know of Anger as filmmaker may be aware of his book "Hollywood Babylon," in which he related numerous scandals in the film industry. Throughout his life, he has shown a penchant for embellishment and fantasy. He recreated himself, casting off his childhood and adopting a new persona complete with new name. Anger often claimed that the source of the stories for "Hollywood Babylon" was his grandmother, a studio costume mistress. (In reality, she was an interior decorator.) Anger had a love-hate relationship with Hollywood and harbored some bitterness toward the film industry for not recognizing his talent. The disappointments he felt over his failed acting career somewhat fueled his writings. He wrote and published the book while living in penury in France. Inspired by the lurid tabloid CONFIDENTIAL, Anger embellished on gossip he had heard as a child; while the less lurid stories tend to be more truthful, many of the stories in his book generally detailed sexual exploits or described brutal and horrifying deaths. Subsequent research, however, has disproved many of his accounts, yet the success of the book and its sequel and a short-lived 1992 syndicated TV version hosted by Tony Curtis has allowed many of the tales to enter popular consciousness as fact.
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Played the role of a changeling in Max Reinhardt's film, "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Made first film at age ten, the short "Ferdinand the Bull"
Directed, photographed, edited and conceived short subject, "Who Has Been Rocking My Dream Boat?" at age fourteen
Made silent film "Demigods"
First exhibited film, sound version of "Demigods" now titled "Escape Episode"
First arrested for homosexual behavior
Changed name to Kenneth Anger
Met renowned underground filmmaker Harry Smith
Completed first extant film, "Fireworks"
Completed "Puce Moment" (fragment of unfinished feature "Puce Women," about Hollywood in the 1920s)
Went to France
Shot "Eaux d'artifice" in Italy
Returned to California
Made "Thelema Abbey" (no longer extant) in Sicily for the BBC
Appeared in Stan Brakhage's "The Dead"
Published book "Hollywood Babylon" in France
Worked on, but never completed, feature "Histoire d'O"
Received Ford grant to make a feature but completed only fragment (until death of actor playing protagonist), "KKK/Kustom Kar Kommandos"
Began feature, "Lucifer Rising", but abandoned project after rough cut was stolen
Placed ad in VILLAGE VOICE: "In Memoriam Kenneth Anger 1947-67", announcing end of filmmaking career
Completed second version of "Lucifer Rising" ("Invocation", released 1980)
Acted in experimental film "He Stands in a Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life"
Was advisor on TV series derived from "Hollywood Babylon"