Anger, fear and desire

Pierrot creeps and dances beneath the blue-bleached light of the moon. A Hollywood star chooses between glittering outfits in which to walk her oversized dogs. A lonely man dreams of being held in a sailor’s arms only to be savagely beaten by members of the US Navy. The images which Kenneth Anger orchestrates in his films are so rich and forceful that they will remain at the forefront of your mind years after first seeing them. The beautiful stories he tells are dreamlike: shrouded in hidden desires and meanings but enhanced by blaring pop songs and glaring colours. They wave over like a cycle of sleep, usually lasting between fifteen and forty-five minutes. Like a slice of unconscious thought they incorporate memories and musings, fears and fantasies. The results are at once violent and tender. Anger shows us a lonely, sometimes terrifying world from a wide-eyed, childlike perspective.

Anger, born Kenneth Wilbur Angelmyer, has been paving his way as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers for over sixty years. Beginning with his first film at the age of ten, he continues to this day to create startling, sparkling lovesongs to the occult, the erotic, rock‘n’roll, Hollywood, myth and fairytale. Attending the same drama school as Shirley Temple, he would become the child star’s antithesis, showing the underbelly of popular culture rather than its glossy cover. Puce Moment, 1949, shows the empty life of a Hollywood star. We are only shown a fleeting ‘moment’, an insight into a life of vacuous glamour, yet in six minutes this film depicts a woman painfully adrift. Infamously, he wrote the scandalous book Hollywood Babylon which tore the wholesome lid off the Shangri-la of Hollywood to reveal the sordid secrets of the rich and famous. He is associated with figures as disparate as Jean Cocteau (who described Fireworks as “touching the quick of the soul, and this is very rare”), Dr. Alfred Kinsey (whom Anger helped in his research on sexuality, including having been filmed masturbating), The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger composed a pulsing soundtrack for Anger’s Invocation of my Demon Brother, 1969), Elliott Smith (Anger directed Elliott’s Suicide, 2004, an homage to the late singer) and Anton Szandor LaVey (the founder of the Church of Satan. Both men admired Aleister Crowley and the religion of Thelema.)

Two films in particular, from the beginning and from the heyday of his career respectively, have consolidated Anger as a visionary genius. Of his 1947 film Fireworks, Anger said “a dissatisfied dreamer awakes, goes out in the night seeking a ‘light’ and is drawn through the needle’s eye. A dream of a dream, he returns to his bed less empty than before.” The ‘light’ the dreamer seeks is primarily for a cigarette, but turns out to be a sado-masochistic encounter with a group of sailors that reveals the man’s loneliness and repression. Fulfilled, the dreamer’s final ‘light’ comes in the visual metaphor of the sailor’s phallic, sparking Roman candle while, in ecstasy, the dreamer metamorphoses into a Christmas tree.

Fireworks shows Anger fall, from narcissistic gazing, through the looking glass. Before venturing into the underworld of the sailors (through a door marked ‘GENTS’), we see the dreamer buttoning up his jeans and shirt in front of a mirror. As he sees his own reflection he passes into an unknown realm; one of sexual desire and subjugation. We see at play the twofold nature of masculinity, with the sailor as both protector and intimidator. As the dreamer gazes at the bulging muscles of the sailor we, also voyeurs, are made to feel just as isolated as he.

Anger’s 1963 masterpiece, Scorpio Rising, is a wild pastiche which combines imagery of barbarian bikers, Third Reich rallies, religious and occult symbols, Sunday comics and teen idols. Anger spoke of the film in four parts which build towards a fatalistic climax, as Alice L. Hutchinson describes in her book on Anger, La Petite Mort. It begins sensually, with the motorbike, much like in Kustom Kar Kommandos, 1965, as the object of male desire (or the Wind Up Doll of Little Peggy March’s soundtrack song). Anger entitled this first part ‘Boys and Bolts (masculine fascination with the Thing that Goes)’. We see the biker assemble and clean his machine with the utmost care and love. This introduction sets Scorpio Rising up as a Western for the sixties, with the motorbike replacing the horse and the tough leather boots replacing the cowboy boots and spurs. The rebel biker is as much the outsider as Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and every bit as morally ambiguous.

In the second part, or ‘Image Maker (getting high on heroes: Dean’s Rebel and Brando’s Johnny: The True View of J. C.)’, the film swerves from the fetishising of machines to the fetishising of man. Anger juxtaposes, and therefore directly compares, the heartthrob status’ of James Dean and Marlon Brando with the blind following of Hitler, and depicts Jesus as ‘the leader of the pack’. A mixture of teen idealism and pagan beliefs, Anger plays the worship of the sacred and the sordid off of one another, showing excessive good and excessive bad as one and the same. He transcends religion and politics to reveal pure human nature, focusing on the ‘purest’ of humankind, the young. Anger’s youth is hedonistic, divine, passionate and misunderstood. It is a generation obsessed by death, with skulls, skeletons and nooses littering the shots, who believe in the ‘live fast, die young’ mentality. The young live for the immediate and therefore are nihilistic, emotional and extreme. In Scorpio Rising, their world of crazes, idols and social status is a microcosm of, but perhaps culturally more important than, the wider world of the passionless, authoritative adult.

The bikers enter a wild costume party and proceed, by stripping and humiliating a member of their group (to Kris Jensen’s love song Torture), to rile themselves up for a biker’s rally. ‘Walpurgis Party (J. C. wallflower at cycler’s Sabbath)’, part three, shows the transition from carefree to threatening, climaxing in part four ‘Rebel Rouser (The Gathering of the Dark Legions, with a Message from Our Sponsor)’. The young rebels ‘surf’ (music from The Surfaries lends their mayhem an element of ‘cool’) rampantly through city streets. A few bright lights illuminate the darkness of the finale: a fairground, headlamps and finally a revolving, red police light which brings an end to the growling motorbikes and flying swastikas. With the rally smothered by the rhythmic wail of the police siren, Scorpio Rising does not give an optimistic message to the passionate young. A final image of the film shows a skull smoking away a cigarette called ‘YOUTH’. Youth will eventually be controlled, be it by overruling authority, by death, or by growing up.

I encountered the man myself at an exhibition of stills from Invocation of my Demon Brother showed at the Modern Art building on Vyner Street, Bethnal Green in September and October of 2004. Waiting for him was nerve-wracking and I circled the room, strangely fretful. Anger has been quoted to say “by the most heart-wrenching efforts one gains the phosphorescent layer of myth”, and to me he was a myth. I was expecting him to be as forceful, rebellious and dominating as a film such as Scorpio Rising would suggest. After an hour in the exhibition, however, I realised that, unnoticed by me, he had already arrived. The red, blue and white jacket he sported, with ‘ANGER’ emblazoned over the front seemed somehow at odds to his apparent quiet and friendly nature as he chatted to friends and looked, happily and contented, at his work.

Briefly meeting him as he neatly signed my book “Love Kenneth Anger” changed my former interpretation of his films. The myth had not been spoiled, rather my opinions matured. I realised that as a teenager I had idolised him as a maker of self-assured, dogmatic, undoubting films. I later came to realise that his colourful, noisy and powerful style of direction misled me, and with regards to his subject matter, it is the unobtainable in his films which gives them their might and force. In Fireworks, Anger only experiences a melancholy and threatening dream. In Rabbit’s Moon, Pierrot dances for the attention of the still and silent moon and, distraught, learns that this is an impossibility. Scorpio’s Rising shows the transient nature of youth and the hopeless idea of absolute freedom. These, and others of Anger’s films, show a bitter longing for something lost or unattainable, which becomes a fantasy, or a dream, or myth.

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