The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. II * * * 1/2
Scorpio Rising (1964)
Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965)
Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969)
Rabbit's Moon (1979 version)
Lucifer Rising (1981)
The Man We Want to Hang (2002)
Would it please Pat Robertson to know that Hollywood's real prodigal son is a gay Satanist? Kenneth Anger has been making striking underground shorts since the 1940's, and is commonly cited as a major influence on Martin Scorsese, Andy Warhol, and Guy Maddin, among others. His films over the years have been periodically screened in museums or clandestine gatherings, but haven't been officially compiled in a non-bootleg format until Fantoma, after spending years clearing rights and engaging in a bit of wrestling with Anger himself, finally released two volumes of the director's best known material. The first, which covered his work of the 40's and 50's, was released at the beginning of the year; my review of that set is here. The second volume picks up in the 1960's with his highest-regarded (and most notorious) work, "Scorpio Rising," and follows through to 1981's epic "Lucifer Rising," with his recent documentary "The Man We Want to Hang" thrown in as a nice extra.
"Scorpio Rising" is perhaps Anger's most transgressive work (I say "perhaps" because I haven't seen his intriguingly-titled "Senators in Bondage" ). Like so many of his early films, it foreshadows the music video format by overlaying contemporary popular music to his quickly-edited, dialogue-free images. Here his music of choice is that of 60's girl groups, surf music, and Elvis songs: "He's a Rebel," "Wipeout," "Fools Rush In," and so on. First he depicts bikers getting suited up for a ride, with lots of shots of bare torsos and leather-and-zipper crotches, the hunky guys grooming themselves, brushing their hair, reading comics (with choice panels given a queer double-entendre meaning), watching Marlon Brando in The Wild One in a room covered in James Dean pin-ups, and carefully polishing their bikes. Finally they stride forth into the streets, intercut with scenes of Jesus and his disciples, borrowed from some Biblical epic, doing the same. They wander into a gay club and prankishly fool around, with more explicit sexual material almost subliminally cut into the scenes--was William Friedkin taking note, for his film Cruising? Then the Nazi imagery takes over, and the film flirts with fascist propaganda. Swastika flags, pin-ups of Hitler, and a biker delivering what must be some Triumph of the Will-style sermon becomes a frenetic montage while the bikers hit the streets, headed toward death. It's the editing which is the star of "Scorpio Rising." Anger elevates his personal festishes to the level of high art, and envigorates his various objects--be they a skeleton prop sitting on a bike, or the bikers themselves--so that the entire world seems to be animate, existing in a state of extreme arousal and eminent danger. It's not just that the images are occasionally taboo; the world becomes a theater of contraband ideas, and is all the more exciting for it.
In his New York Times column, Dave Kehr singles out "Scorpio Rising" for praise, citing it as a prominent and influential film in American cinema, but only passingly mentions the rest of the work included here. That might be because they express the even more notorious side of Anger: his occult obsessions. After "Kustom Kar Kommandos," a brief extension of "Scorpio Rising" which links a car and its mechanic as equal sex objects, this DVD volume begins its spiraling dive into the Underworld. "Invocation of My Demon Brother" features an electronic score by Mick Jagger, a squealing drone that seems to be Jagger's attempt to match the trance-level of Anger's tableaus. There are brief images of Jagger in concert with the Rolling Stones, but these seem to be included only as some perfunctory nod to Jagger's presence; they are too well-lit and lucid to really fit the rest of the material in this short. We see a Satanic ceremony attended by some acid dropouts who seem to be headed next for Frank Zappa's 200 Motels. They all take tokes from a smoking skull. We see the leader of the ceremony, waving a dagger and invoking the Devil. We see a spider tattoo, a goldfish in a bowl, a grinning man hiding behind a potted plant, Egyptian iconography, soldiers jumping out of a helicopter in Vietnam, and much kaleidoscopic imagery: two naked torsos joined, many circling eyes, and Anger's trademark technique of overlapping multiple images at once, like a living palimpsest. It's all very spooky, but it ends with a bizarre joke: "ZAP/YOU'RE PREGNANT/THAT'S WITCHCRAFT." Remember that the Anger production company is "Puck Film Productions," with the slogan "What Fools These Mortals Be!"
Still, "Invocation of My Demon Brother" does, like his earlier "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome," operate on an almost psychic level, which I gather was always one of Anger's goals. His are subliminal films. They mean to speak to your subconscious, with only passing, winking regard to your conscious mind. This is best demonstrated in his magnum opus, "Lucifer Rising," a decade-in-the-making costume drama which is his own version of Ben-Hur, or, rather, Cleopatra. There's no dialogue. It begins with the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris (the later played by filmmaker Donald Cammell) greeting each other, and the fact that Anger actually shot on location in Egypt, with his bare-chested actress raising her arms to the air to greet the sun (and Osiris raising his ankh in the air to make lightning strike!), immediately lends the film an impressive air. As it progresses, we see the two beginning a ritual, echoed by a modern-day girl who marches past Stonehenge to a secret altar in intercutting accompaniment to the march of her torch-wielding, druid forebears. All come to summon Lucifer, who makes his entrance like a rock star; he's played by Anger himself, naturally. You know he's Lucifer because the name is embroidered on the back of his leather jacket. At his appearance, earthquakes strike, volcanoes erupt. Ultimately, glowing flying saucers sail through the air. The film is rich with coded occult symbolism, but you don't have to understand every esoteric flourish to be caught up in the film. The film communicates psychically, beaming into your consciousness like Philip K. Dick's divine pink light in his novel VALIS. This would make a fine late-night double-feature with Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain. Just make sure you have some illicit substance available and a rock band in your presence. Note that the excellent music score is by Bobby Beausoleil, an incarcerated member of the Manson Family!
Fantoma has included a bonus film in the collection, Anger's wordless documentary "The Man We Want to Hang." It's a survey of the artwork of Aleister Crowley, the famous occultist. Turns out his artwork isn't that interesting, although Anger, as always, is.