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Of all the luminaries who have passed through Miami, Kenneth Anger -- avant-garde cinema pioneer and author of the Tinseltown trash classics Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II -- may be the most remarkable. Anger has been flown in as a featured attraction of the Miami Film Festival and the Alliance for Media Arts, and appropriately enough, his first night in town commences with a dinner party in his honor at the Foundlings Club on Miami Beach, a resolutely elegant setting that seems to agree with Anger, who radiates a curious kind of loopy charm. He's one of those rare beings who have stared, unblinking and pitiless, into the horror of their own hell and the beastliness within other mortals, uncovering a certain cheer at the heart of the abyss. The renegade enfant terrible of the Fifties, the youthquake leader of the Sixties, Anger now seems content to keep things light. As he has famously observed, "You can't hold off human nature forever," and like any unregenerate gossip, he saves his most affectionate vitriol for his friends.
There are times when an entire world can be contained within one dinner party, and over the course of four hours Anger merrily drops every known name in the civilized world. As with Jean Cocteau, an associate from his Paris period, Anger is a fascinating mix of high and low tastes, a figurehead who's been everywhere, known everybody (Shirley Temple, Ana‹s Nin, Jean Genet, Mick Jagger, J. Paul Getty, assorted Hell's Angels, and followers of Charles Manson) and done everything, from dabbling with LSD to undercover sex research for the Kinsey Institute. Throughout, his life and art have revolved around the work of his spiritual mentor, Aleister Crowley, the legendary master of the occult and black "magick." Anger's "Magick Lantern Cycle" of short imagery-clogged films without dialogue -- from 1949's Puce Moment to 1980's Lucifer Rising -- generally circles around myth, fable, ritual, and frank homoeroticism, leavened with a dose of dramatic Satanism. The name of the fallen, light-bearing angel, the rebellious "Lucifer," is tattooed on his chest, an infatuation concealed this evening by a slightly demented pop-art-goes-tropical shirt.
Anger, whose obsession with movieland glamour and its perils stretches back to a pivotal if elusive moment of glory as a precocious four-year-old in 1935 -- when he played the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream alongside Mickey Rooney and James Cagney -- has been on a roll lately, working the rebirth-of-fame circuit from his home base in Palm Springs, California. Hollywood Babylon III is set to come out shortly, snapshots of the sordid this time around encompassing O.J. Simpson and Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss: "It's really just an excuse to write about the old days, when true houses of prostitution would have hookers who looked exactly like Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow." The Hollywood Babylon books, informed by Anger's outright contempt for modern Hollywood and ambivalent reverence for the halcyon era, are studiously cruel masterpieces of purple prose, though something of an acquired taste. While the countless star suicides and case studies of degradation -- such as Fatty Arbuckle's conviction on rape charges and subsequent fall from grace -- remain riveting stuff, the graphic police-file shots of hacked-up corpses are not for the faint-hearted.
Aside from Anger's scholarship in the slag heap of pop culture, his films -- which have influenced Martin Scorsese, John Waters, and MTV -- have been experiencing a resurgence of interest. Last summer he was given an "Excellence in Cinema" award by the Harvard Film Archive. His hosts this particular evening at the Foundlings Club are Bill Orcutt and Don Chauncey of the Alliance, along with Bruce Posner, a former film archive curator who had presented Anger at Harvard. This September, Anger will be honored at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh -- a curious twist of fate, considering that Warhol's boredom-as-art movies eventually eclipsed Anger's far more provocative work in underground cinema. But Anger has been granted one dubious Warholian honor, an unauthorized biography -- Bill Landis's Anger -- that the filmmaker would just as soon not talk about.
The night before his dinner at the Foundlings, Anger received the Maya Deren award for independent film and video artists from the American Film Institute in New York ("a Tiffany crystal star and $5000 A experimental filmmakers are still the orphans of the art community"), and had a rude shock later at the home of art collector/museum benefactor Jill Sackler, who hosted a gala dinner for the AFI. In the land of the rich was a totem from Anger's past, a renowned work of art that he hadn't seen in two decades: "It was one of those Manhattan palaces with twenty butlers, and right there on the wall was my mirror, an eighteenth-century baroque piece depicting the fall of Lucifer. I'd bought it in the mid Seventies for $10,000 at Sotheby's in London, using a royalty check from Hollywood Babylon. An extravagance, and, unfortunately, I later had to sell the piece for a small loss. Now the Metropolitan Museum in New York has offered a million dollars for the mirror. My life could have been changed forever."