Kenneth Anger obituary | Film

Lucifer played an important part in the life of the avant-garde film director and author Kenneth Anger, who has died aged 96. From his late teens he was attracted by the practices and philosophies of the occultist guru Aleister Crowley, of whom he became a passionate disciple. Like Crowley, Anger, who was one of the first openly gay film-makers in the US, lived by the philosophy of Thelema, a set of beliefs based on the rule “Do what thou wilt”, which included “sex magick”. “Lucifer has appeared in all my films,” Anger once explained. “Sometimes he’s not labelled as such but there’s always a figure or a moment in my films to communicate what I call my ‘Lucifer moment’.”

At least two of his films of what became the Magick Lantern Cycle – nine shorts made between 1947 and 1972 – testify to this: Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) and Lucifer Rising (1972). Anger described the former 11-minute short as “the shadowing forth of our lord Lucifer as the powers of darkness gather at a midnight mass”. A homage to Crowley, it rejects narrative, using dynamic montage to Mick Jagger’s Moog synthesiser soundtrack. Anger himself plays a magus, while the musician Bobby Beausoleil is Lucifer, who appears at the climax. In between are shots of an occult ritual, a Rolling Stones concert and GIs leaping from helicopters in Vietnam.

Kenneth Anger with his 1959 book Hollywood Babylon. He published a sequel in 1984, but a third was not released due to a section on Tom Cruise and the Scientologists, according to Anger.Pin
Kenneth Anger with his 1959 book Hollywood Babylon. He published a sequel in 1984, but a third was not released due to a section on Tom Cruise and the Scientologists, according to Anger. Photograph: Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Lucifer Rising contains startling free-association imagery such as flying saucers hovering over the temple of Luxor. Anger again plays a magus who invokes Lucifer, celebrating his rebirth with a birthday cake with Lucifer Mark VI written in pink icing. The eclectic cast includes Marianne Faithfull, the director Donald Cammell, and Leslie Huggins, a young Middlesbrough steel worker, in the title role. An earlier version of the film, shot in 1966, was stolen and buried in the Mojave desert by Beausoleil, a member of the Charles Manson Family who is currently serving a life sentence for murder.

Anger’s most famous film, Scorpio Rising (1963), was highly influential in US underground cinema and, with its leather biker-boys orgy juxtaposed with clips from Cecil B DeMille’s King of Kings (1927) and Marlon Brando’s biker movie The Wild One (1953), what would later be called “queer cinema”. It also made use of Nazi symbolism, occultism and rock songs on the soundtrack.

One of the first film-makers to use rock music instead of a traditional score for his films, Anger’s use of jump cuts and sound were a huge influence on music videos and commercials. The experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage once likened watching an Anger film to reading an Ezra Pound canto on the news ticker in Times Square.

With his diabolic philosophy and surname, one would have thought that Anger would be a frightening presence. Far from it. Having met him a few times in his later years, I found him a charming man, full of witty anecdotes, whose favourite film was Robert Siodmak’s camp classic Cobra Woman (1944), and who had a love for early Mickey Mouse films, expressed through his short film Mouse Heaven (2004), featuring various vintage Mickey Mouse toys.

He was a pussycat, albeit one with claws ready to strike when necessary. His salacious book Hollywood Babylon, first published in France in 1959, was full of scandalous tales of the private lives of stars such as Lucille Ball and James Dean, and was banned immediately on its US release 10 years later. It finally made it through the lawyers in 1975, as did a 1984 sequel. In both, the seamiest recesses of Hollywood were mitigated by Anger’s black humour.

Born Kenneth Anglemyer, in Santa Monica, California, he was the son of Wilbur, an electrical engineer, and his wife, Lillian (nee Coler), a seamstress. He grew up in Beverly Hills and attended the Maurice Kosloff dancing school in Hollywood.

A still from Fireworks, 1947.Pin
A still from Fireworks, 1947. Photograph: © The Estate of Kenneth Anger, Courtesy Sprüth Magers, 2023

Almost as much of a mythomaniac as a necromancer, Anger later claimed that he had appeared, aged eight, as the Changeling Prince in the all-star Warner Brothers film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), although the cast list shows that a Sheila Brown actually played the role.

He also said that he had made five silent short 16mm films before he had reached the age of 18, although there is evidence of only one, The Nest (1943), featuring a 17-year-old John Derek (billed under his real name of Derek Delevan Harris).

However, Anger did make an impact with Fireworks (1947), the first of the Magick Lantern Cycle and an oneiric and onanistic movie heavily influenced by Jean Cocteau’s first film, The Blood of a Poet (1930). Anger himself played a bare-chested young man who dreams of meeting a muscular seaman in a bar before a gang of sailors appear to gang-rape him. It ends with the young man finding himself back in bed beside the sailor. Among the memorable surreal sequences are when Anger is being beaten up and his nose starts to bleed profusely, when milk is poured over him in slow motion, and when a phallic roman candle explodes through the flies of a sailor’s trousers.

Anger sent Fireworks to the Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz and Cocteau, who was on the jury, gave it a prize. Because the film was prohibited from public showing in the US, in 1950 Anger went to live in France, where he met Cocteau, Jean Genet and Colette. He also met Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémathèque Française, who offered him an unpaid job as his assistant. It was with the help of Langlois that Anger was able to make Rabbit’s Moon (begun in 1950, completed in 1971), a short Pierrotesque piece, on 35mm.

The Scarlet Woman (Marjorie Cameron) from Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.Pin
The Scarlet Woman (Marjorie Cameron) from Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Photograph: © The Estate of Kenneth Anger, Courtesy Sprüth Magers, 2023

Anger worked at the Cinémathèque from 1950 to 1962, during which time he made Eaux d’Artifice (1953) – in the gardens of the Villa d’Este near Rome, and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), both ciné-poems demonstrating his brilliance as an editor, derived from his study of, and admiration for, the films of Sergei Eisenstein.

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, which he shot on a visit home to Los Angeles, went through several incarnations. The first had a soundtrack by Harry Partch, the second used Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass to better effect. In 1966, following his permanent return to the US, Anger added an opening reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan accompanied by stills of Crowley and talismanic symbols, creating what became known as the Sacred Mushroom edition. After Lucifer Rising he made nothing much of substance, virtually living on his reputation and on royalties from Hollywood Babylon. He told the Guardian in 2010 that a third book was written, but he was unable to release it due to a “whole section on Tom Cruise and the Scientologists”.

However, as his influence on the music video, and in editing in commercial films, began to be fully recognised, from 2000 he returned to filming, making a series of shorts including Mouse Heaven and Elliott’s Suicide (2007), about his friend the singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. From 2009 he was represented by Sprüth Magers gallery, with exhibitions in Berlin and London.

Kenneth Anger (Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer), film director and author, born 3 February 1927; died 11 May 2023

Ronald Bergan died in 2020

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