By Stephanie Zacharek
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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 Ana‹s Nin vamping about in fishnet stockings and birdcage headgear.
Ana‹#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."
Anger adds, "It was about the time he married Bianca; he began sporting this vulgar diamond-studded cross. I knew [their marriage] wouldn't last. Too much ego. At least they had a nice young lady as a daughter, Jade."
Nor do those who have ripped off his Hollywood Babylon concept escape Anger's ire. "I don't feel benign or generous about that," the filmmaker laments. "I wish I could franchise the concept, or at least go after [in court] the people who have stolen the idea of a picture book with Babylon in the title that tells spicy, salacious stories. They don't even have enough pride to think up their own ideas. I have a whole shelf of rip-off books -- Nashville Babylon, TV Babylon, Baseball Babylon, even Palm Springs Babylon. Not one word of thanks from any of these authors."
Anger characterizes his attitude toward such unflattering -- and unprofitable -- imitation as "bemused but not bitter." Perhaps Ms. Sherman confused that bemusement with geniality. But Anger ridicules the notion that he's toned down his act. Of an upcoming award he is slated to receive from the American Film Institute, Anger conspiratorially chuckles and muses, "At one time I suppose I was known as some sort of rebel or anarchist. I guess I'm old enough and safe enough to receive an award now."
But while Anger hasn't released anything new in more than a decade, thereby encouraging the illusion that he has mellowed, he has not been idle. He's putting the finishing touches on Hollywood Babylon III, as well as wrapping up a new film featuring mechanical Disney toys made in pre-Hitler Germany. The picture, titled Mouse Heaven, was originally bankrolled by Paul Getty (grandson of oil magnate J. Paul Getty and a pal of Anger's to whom the filmmaker dedicated Hollywood Babylon II). Unfortunately, Anger ran out of capital and has only recently come up with the financing to resume the project.
A movie about Disney toys may not at first glance appear consistent with the oeuvre of a man whose previous films have explored devil worship, sadomasochism, sex and drug experimentation, violence, and motorcycle gangs. But Anger's take on the subject brings that seeming incongruity into clearer focus. His vision of the toys is anything but cuddly. "I try to get on a different wavelength with every film project," he explains. "For instance, these wind-up toys have a sinister, demonic quality which I bring out with my photography. They're like African fetish figures in a way, but with rivets in their faces. And you lose a sense of scale when they're photographed against a flat background. They can be made to seem enormous and terrifying."
Offers to do Babylon books on subjects other than Hollywood have come Anger's way, but so far he has turned them down. "I considered doing Washington Babylon," Anger confides. "There are so many political scandals. And did you know that George Washington grew cannabis?"
Rather than further diluting the Hollywood Babylon concept by expanding it to other cities, Anger has focused his energies on turning out the third volume of Tinseltown trash. The new Babylon was ready to go a while back, but then came the O.J. Simpson case, a show biz scandal of the first magnitude, and Anger decided to close the book with a chapter entitled "The Butcher of Brentwood."
As the chapter title implies, Anger harbors little doubt concerning the football star-turned-actor's guilt. "Of course he did it," Anger proclaims. "The verdict was an outrageous miscarriage of justice, a case of reverse racism, which is particularly ironic considering that the predominantly black jury dismissed overwhelming evidence because they didn't want to convict a black celebrity, despite the fact that O.J. lived a white lifestyle and preferred white women. He'd threatened [to kill Nicole] for years. He was only a minor actor, but he was a major celebrity, and [his case] was a classic example of celebrity syndrome."
While Anger postponed publication to include the outcome of the O.J. trial, the author watched in bemused disbelief as the Hugh Grant scandal broke. "Can you imagine the arrogance?" he asks rhetorically. "Cruising a black streetwalker in his BMW, then parking under a streetlight where anyone could see them? Unfortunately it's a story with no depth. If Hugh Grant had committed suicide afterward, then it would have been a perfect Hollywood Babylon story."
Hollywood Babylon III will also mention Michael Jackson, although Anger has mixed emotions about including the pop star. "Here again, the man is more of a celebrity than a movie star," the chronicler of Tinseltown sleaze clarifies. "He wanted to make a version of Peter Pan with Spielberg. Too bad he didn't. That would have been grotesque, this man with a bleached face and a melting nose. He's such a weirdo -- how can you satirize something so far out? The whole marriage to Lisa Marie [Presley] was a miscalculation by Scientologists attempting to gain control of Michael's musical holdings. Imagine A he owns the rights to most of the Beatles songs. And why should a schoolteacher or priest go to jail for life for making a pass at a kid when Michael Jackson can buy the parents off for $20 to 40 million? And what about those parents? They were equally guilty of either collusion or stupidity."
Spoken like a man with fangs intact.
Kenneth Anger: The Magus of Cinema
"Kenneth Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle, Part 1," a screening and discussion -- with the filmmaker in person -- of four Anger films (Rabbit's Moon, Scorpio Rising, Invocation of My Demon Brother, and Lucifer Rising) takes place on Saturday, February 3, at 11:00 p.m. at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; admission is $10.
"Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon" (as part of the Miami Film Festival seminar series, Anger discusses the trials and tribulations of writing and publishing his lurid books about Hollywood) occurs Sunday, February 4, at 3:00 p.m. at Miami-Dade Community College, Wolfson Campus, room 2106; free admission.
"Kenneth Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle, Part 2," a screening and discussion A with the filmmaker in person A of five Anger films (Fireworks, Puce Moment, Eaux d'artifice, Kustom Kar Kommandos, and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome) is scheduled for Sunday, February 4, at 10:00 p.m. at the Alliance Theater, 927 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; admission is $10. Call 531-8504 for more information.
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