Kenneth Anger Rises Again

Profiles of Kenneth Anger often express surprise that the legendary avant-garde filmmaker and author of the Hollywood tell-all books Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II is, to quote Betsy Sherman of the Boston Globe, "cordial and soft-spoken in conversation, with no fangs in evidence." After all, Fireworks, Anger's first film (made in 1947 when he was only seventeen years old), metaphorically depicts a young gay male protagonist's fantasy of submissive sex at the hands of a gang of brawny sailors, and features controversial (remember, this was 49 years ago) images such as a Roman candle exploding from a sailor's fly.

Anger (who will be in town this weekend to deliver a Miami Film Festival seminar and to screen and discuss his work at Miami Beach's Colony Theater and Alliance Cinema) didn't exactly mellow as he aged, either. A disciple of British occultist Aleister Crowley, Anger often infused his films with arcane mythological references, Satanic rituals, homoeroticism, and liberal doses of good old-fashioned sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Scorpio Rising (1963), perhaps his best-known film, pioneered the phenomenon of merging pop music and celluloid imagery. In it he shows diabolical black-leather-jacketed biker boys playing out violent S-M tableaux against a backbeat of carefully chosen pop songs such as "He's a Rebel" and "Heat Wave." Almost a decade earlier, his Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) anticipated the psychedelic era with its hallucinatory acid-flashback vibe, and also afforded students of erotic literature the guilty pleasure of witnessing Anačs Nin vamping about in fishnet stockings and birdcage headgear.

Anač#s Nin was just one of Anger's (in)famous friends. At the age of four he played the changeling prince in Max Reinhardt's lavish -- Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), which featured another child actor -- Mickey Rooney A as Puck (as well as James Cagney, Olivia de Haviland, Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown, Jean Muir, Billy Barty, and the incomparable Arthur Treacher). A few years later Anger found himself partnered in a dance class with fading child star and future U.S. ambassador Shirley Temple. "We won a prize together dancing in the Santa Monica Cotillion," Anger remembers. "Mr. Temple was a bank director and it was his idea to teach her about democracy by letting her dance with 'ordinary' kids. Of course ordinary meant upper-middle-class white kids. No riffraff." Anger's mainstream acting career ended with Midsummer, but his obsession with all things Hollywood intensified as a student at Beverly Hills High. Anger's classmates were the children -- legitimate and otherwise -- of the biggest stars, directors, and producers of Hollywood's golden years. The kids confided secrets to Anger, who began collecting them as a hobby. Later in life Anger would mine that treasure trove of inside dope for his two Hollywood Babylon books, the first of which was published in 1975.

Following acclaim for Fireworks in Europe, Anger moved to Paris in 1950 and throughout most of the following decade worked for noted French film archivist Henri Langlois at the prestigious Cinämatheque Francaise, which Langlois founded. During the Fifties Anger was one of the darlings of the French artsy set, and socialized with the likes of Nin and writer-filmmaker Jean Cocteau. As the Sixties dawned, Anger's burgeoning reputation as an underground filmmaker and his interest in Crowley's work led to associations with a host of British rock stars, for whom Satanism was all the rage. For example, Mick Jagger contributed the eerie Moog synthesizer soundtrack to Anger's Invocation of My Demon Brother in 1969. Bobby Beausoleil plays Lucifer in the film, and starred in Anger's next work, Lucifer Rising. But Beausoleil allegedly stole the finished footage of the latter film, and all hope of salvaging either the film or the fledgling thespian's acting career vanished when Beausoleil received a lifetime prison sentence for taking part in the Manson family's bloody rampage.

Reached by phone at his residence in sedate Palm Springs, California, Anger indeed proves cordial and soft-spoken. But contrary to Betsy Sherman's description, this interviewer gets the distinct impression that Anger can still curl his lip and bare his canines should the topic warrant. He doesn't mince words, for example, on the subject of Jagger and other rockers who dabble in the occult. "None of these rock-and-roll people were ever really into Satanism," he declares. "Mick, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne -- none of them has a deep understanding of the subject. They're only interested in finding something they can manipulate to add an edge to their own work. They're all sort of postliterate; they've never actually sat down and read one of Crowley's books. Page bought an entire library of Crowley originals, but I doubt he's ever read them. They'll probably just sit in his library unopened and be auctioned off again after he dies.

"Mick is an odd character to deal with," Anger continues. "We have a weird friendship. I think 'Sympathy for the Devil' grew out of my conversations with Mick, but he's never acknowledged it publicly. The soundtrack he does on Invocation A that's probably the only thing he's ever done for free. I wrote a script for him in which he would play Lucifer. It would have been more commercial than my other films, oriented toward releasing in theaters. He said yes but then he backed away. I don't know why."

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