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, Anas 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."
Anger's life has always been marked by what he calls a series of "surreal and diabolical coincidences," but he has gotten lucky at times. Although he never appeared in another mainstream movie after A Midsummer Night's Dream, he gleaned old Hollywood stories from his classmates at Beverly Hills High School, studied French, and made Fireworks in 1947 at the age of seventeen. A few years after graduating, he moved to Paris and worked at the Cinemathäque Franaaise, directed the dreamily beautiful Eaux d'Artifice -- now preserved in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress -- and socialized with the likes of Coco Chanel and Alfred Hitchcock: "A very sadistic and fetishistic man. The story in Hollywood Babylon about Grace Kelly privately stripping for him was told by Hitchcock during a gentlemen's dinner in Paris."
In the early Sixties, he moved back to the U.S., creating Scorpio Rising, with the American biker as mythic figure. During a stint in San Francisco he began work on Lucifer Rising, and became involved with an aspiring musician/actor named Bobby Beausoleil. According to Anger, Beausoleil was a "bad boy who took himself entirely too seriously as Lucifer." He was also a thief of art, stealing Anger's Lucifer Rising footage and eventually winding up with the forces of Charles Manson: "The Manson gang wanted $10,000 dollars as ransom for the footage, and I told them to go to hell, which they promptly did." Beausoleil was convicted for his role in the Manson slayings, but he still stays in contact with Anger ("We've become friends again, now that he's behind bars for life at Tracy Prison") and he figures prominently in Anger's 1969 film Invocation of My Demon Brother.
By the late Sixties, Anger had moved to England, landing smack dab in the swinging London era. In typical Hollywood style, he set aside creative differences with Beausoleil, who, from prison, composed a remarkably accomplished soundtrack for the second rising of Lucifer Rising. For a time the royalty of English rock cultivated Anger, who knew something about the black magic of showmanship, "Sympathy for the Devil" and all that.
It was an unusual milieu, even for Anger, but he doesn't seem particularly impressed: "The rock stars of that era -- the Beatles, the Stones, Jimmy Page -- were my social friends. Keith Richards was the toughest cookie, but Mick [Jagger] never went haywire on drugs -- he's too hooked on himself. Brian Jones was very neurotic and shy; drugs made him look like the picture of Dorian Gray. I can't say if he was murdered, but he did have enemies. Richards's girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, had a cruel streak: a woman very aware of her feminine power, though I hear she's quite fat now. It was all very Sixties.
"Marianne Faithfull could be quite conservative really, rather bitchy as well, even though she was always high on heroin. When we all went to Egypt to shoot Lucifer Rising, she smuggled drugs into the country in her make-up kit -- we could have all gone to jail. In that scene where she climbs the rocks, she fell backward and almost snapped her neck; I caught her within inches of death. Actually I saved her life twice. At Mick's house one night, she wandered away and I found her in his bedroom, sawing at her wrists in a pathetic way. Now if you really want to kill yourself, it's very easy -- one quick painless slash." Anger picks up his dinner knife and with a frightening vehemence quickly passes it over his wrist before filling out the details: "But of course Marianne's efforts were only designed to get Mick's attention. She had a red and black scarf on her neck -- a little bit like this shirt I'm wearing -- and I wrapped it around her wrist. Afterward she gave me the scarf as a memento -- the blood stains have turned brown now, of course."
Lucifer Rising came out in 1980, and was supposed to be Anger's last released film. Since then he's avoided difficult actors entirely by working on Mouse Heaven, a film utilizing vintage Disney toys. Throughout the Eighties and early Nineties, he bounced between New York and Los Angeles, finally settling in Palm Springs a few years ago -- perhaps the oddest twist of a very odd life. Although in the Anger world-view any town can be Babylon: "Palm Springs has always been a Hollywood community, although many of the residents are so old. We call it God's waiting room, which I gather is how people here used to refer to Miami Beach.
"One of my best friends there is Billie Dove, the oldest glamour girl in town, but there's still this commanding presence about her. In her day she was one of the most beautiful women in America, the great love of Howard Hughes's life. Billie made some 60 films -- The Black Pirate with Douglas Fairbanks in 1926 being the best known -- but she's outlived her fame. Her mansion is pure Sunset Boulevard. Everywhere you look there are press clippings and photos of her from the Twenties and Thirties. She keeps a huge 1968 Cadillac in the garage. She bought it new, drove it two weeks, and then left it there all these years. I take her out occasionally, Easter brunch and such, and I always hire a limousine -- I don't drive -- bring flowers and a treat for the dog. It becomes quite expensive, but she expects that sort of treatment, and she's a very nice lady. A true star, really, and now forgotten by the world. In her day there was more class, more mystery, like a fairy tale. Those stars were royalty then, but they've been brought down to something crass and unpleasant. The glamour has gone from Hollywood, and perhaps from life itself.
Get the Weekly Newsletter