Kenneth Anger

The Observer, Aug 2004

Look back at Anger: He’s been a child star, cult film director and bestselling peddler of Hollywood scandal. Now in his seventies, Kenneth Anger is back with three new films, an exhibition presented by that ‘bitch’ Anita Pallenberg and plans to publish the last in his Hollywood Babylon trilogy, a book that threatens to unleash an avalanche of litigation. Sanjiv Bhattacharya coaxes him out from behind his chicken-wire fence.

kenneth-anger-1 kenneth-anger-2

Photograph by Alex Hoerner

Also at The Observer

Auteur, occultist and Hollywood scandal-spreader Kenneth Anger is a famously irascible old man. Within minutes of our first meeting, I can sense a storm simmering. We’re having lunch in the quiet corner booth of a bistro in Los Feliz, LA, and he’s telling a particularly juicy Hollywood story about an A-list actor who began his career as a rent boy.

‘He was nothing but a 17-year-old hustler, and a stupid one at that,’ he scoffs, Jackson Pollocking my face with egg salad. ‘He contracted gonorrhoea and he must have given it to dozens of people because he didn’t have it seen to for weeks. It got so bad … ‘On an adjacent table, a bubbly young woman begins guffawing noisily with her boyfriend. Anger seethes and leans closer into my tape recorder. ‘It got so bad,’ he repeats, shooting her a vicious glare, ‘that he literally had pus dripping through his pants. Oh for God’s sake…’

Now she’s laughing her head off. Her face is red and shuddering, she’s hooting and banging the table. And with her every burst, Anger’s fury mounts – he winces, his jaw clenches ever tighter, until finally he snaps. ‘Right, I’m going to tell that fucking bitch to shut up!’ And he squeezes out of the booth, this tall and fuming 75-year-old, half-dragging the tablecloth with him. He stomps over to her table and barks: ‘Do you think you could possibly keep it down?’ The glee drains swiftly from the poor girl’s face. ‘I’m trying to do an interview over there and I can barely hear myself think! You really are very loud, you know, you have a very shrill voice. In fact,’ he jabs his finger at her, ‘you have the ugliest voice I’ve ever heard in a woman!’

With that, he returns to his salad, his breath shaking, and tucks himself back in. ‘That told her. The bitch. Now, she’s made me forget what we were talking about. Oh yes, gonorrhoea. So, anyway, by the time he had it treated his tubes were terribly scarred…’ And that is legally where his anecdote must end. To name the star in question would invite a ruinous libel suit.

Though he gives the appearance at times of just an ill-tempered peddler of unsubstantiated gossip, Kenneth Anger is in fact an artist whose influence on modern culture has been immense. As the author of the iconic Hollywood Babylon books (volumes I and II), Anger not only swung open the gates to a world of gossip in which our media now wallows, he coined a title so classic that, like Catch 22, you needn’t have read it to understand what it means. The venereal A-list rent boy has all the hallmarks of a vintage Babylon tale – a huge star with a sleazy secret, lashings of Schadenfreude and the graphic relish of ‘dripping pus’, a typical Anger flourish. But Anger is firstly a filmmaker, one of the most important of the 20th century – gossip was only ever a sideline. Throughout his career he broke momentous ground with his short art films, pioneering both gay cinema and MTV in turn, a ‘trashy channel’ he can now hardly bear to watch. A leading light in the American underground, alongside Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner, Anger was the first to use pop songs instead of a traditional score for his films. His use of jump cuts and sound were a huge influence on music videos and commercials. Martin Scorsese described him as ‘a unique filmmaker, an artist of exceptional imagination’. And yet his life’s work of nine short films amounts to little more than three hours of celluloid. After almost two decades of near obscurity, however, this year is shaping up to be something of a resurgence for Anger. He has at least three films in the pipeline – about cricket; the recent suicide of the musician Elliott Smith; and Aleister Crowley’s The Gnostic Mass, in turn. Anger is an accomplished occultist; his films are laden with myth and symbol. He is such an authority on Crowley that he recently completed a documentary about him for Italian television. And on 2 September, Modern Art, a gallery in Shoreditch, east London, will show an exhibition of stills from his 1969 film, Invocation of My Demon Brother.

‘Anger has been a huge inspiration,’ says the London-based film installation artist, Isaac Julien. ‘His films are meditative in the poetical, aesthetic sense. They really developed the vocabulary for the new queer cinema in the early Nineties.’ Louise Wilson, of the sibling collaborators Jane and Louise Wilson, is simply ‘in awe’ of Anger’s work: ‘It’s always a shock to look at the dates of his work – he was always so far ahead of his time.’ Doug Aitken, who exhibited at Victoria Miro gallery last November, is similarly dazzled: ‘It’s ironic that you have an individual coming out of the left and yet his influence becomes this mainstream language of popular media,’ he says. ‘Without Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner and Anger, you wouldn’t have the popular media of today – the colourisation, the jump cuts, the fetishisation of objects.’

Anger’s films are short, imagistic ‘pieces of art’, a far cry from traditional three-act dramas. Rich in occult symbols and devoid of dialogue, they hark back to the silent era while using techniques that herald the future. ‘They’re like sketches on a piece of paper,’ he says. ‘I wanted to show that you can make films of merit without huge amounts of money.’ He made his first film at the age of 17, over a weekend, using a borrowed camera. The 15-minute Fireworks shows a dream about the rape of a teenage boy (played by Anger) by a group of American sailors. It’s shocking by any standard, but for 1947, when gay cinema had scarcely been conceived, and American sailors had just returned home as war heroes, it was revolutionary. Jean Cocteau declared that Fireworks came from ‘that beautiful night from which emerge all true works’ and he promptly invited Anger to France. And for much of his twenties, the young Anger was literally the darling of the European avant-garde – hobnobbing with the likes of John Paul Getty II and Federico Fellini.

But the money ran out. So he wrote a book of scandal, and fittingly, his first publisher was Jean-Jacques Pauvert, the publisher of the Marquis de Sade. Weaving in the juiciest stories from pre-talkie Hollywood up to the Manson murders, Hollywood Babylon describes a Gomorrah where stars plummet as well as rise on the back of idol worship. With a wicked wit, Anger recalls Valentino’s taste for submissive sex, Chaplin’s misdemeanours with underage girls and a handful of starlet suicides, each one offset by a wickedly ironic choice of photographs. The New York Times called it ‘a delicious box of poisoned bonbons’.

Typically, Anger was years ahead of his time. The first version of Babylon came out in 1959, in France, although disputes with his publisher meant that it took until 1975 for the English version to come out and become an international sensation. ‘The timing was interesting,’ says Jeannette Walls, a gossip columnist for Msnbc.com, a news and entertainment website. ‘Post-Watergate there was a fascination with tearing down American icons, and the breakdown of the studio system made Hollywood figures fair game. The fascination with Hollywood had gone into a coma, and Hollywood Babylon helped revive it. Kenneth Anger opened a Pandora’s box.’

At first, Anger was dogged by copyright problems. When he returned to California in the Sixties, he struggled to prevent bootleggers from cashing in on Babylon. But he continued to break new ground in film. Scorpio Rising (1964) not only introduced the gay-biker archetype (unbeknown to the apparently heterosexual Bruce Byron, who played Scorpio), it also led to a landmark victory in the State Supreme Court over ‘permissible nudity’ in film. ‘For me, Scorpio is his most important film,’ says Doug Aitken. ‘It has such a peculiar feeling to it, these fetishised shots of bikes. It’s the film that Ballard would have made 10 years before he wrote Crash.’

Most significantly, however, Scorpio was the first film to substitute a pop music soundtrack for a score, a decade before George Lucas’s American Graffiti. David Lynch was evidently moved by Anger’s juxtaposition of dandy bikers and Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’. Scorsese, again, credits Anger’s musical innovation for the soundtrack of Mean Streets. ‘Well, at least he credits me,’ Anger says, with a shrug. ‘I’ve seen my shot sequences copied time and again on MTV. I wish they would hire me for something instead of just stealing my ideas. I mean, I could do with the work.’ The film that inspires the exhibition at Modern Art, Invocation of My Demon Brother, seems designed to create anxiety. It teems with occult symbols and features a grinding one-note dirge for a soundtrack, performed by Mick Jagger on a Moog synthesiser. The Rolling Stones were close associates of Anger. He claims his influence gave rise to the song ‘Sympathy For The Devil’.

Louise Wilson senses in the film ‘an incredible menace, it’s physically unsettling to watch. You can tell this is a time of LSD, that there’s a war going on, that bad things are happening. I see it as a brilliant protest against Vietnam.’

‘Invocation is his most intimidating film,’ says Walter Cassidy, the curator of the exhibition. ‘All of his films stand up to closer inspection, but Invocation was made like a spell. Kenneth crafts his films like an artisan, frame by frame, and there are so many flash images that appear for only two frames – when you think that film works at 24 frames per second, that’s almost subliminal.’ Cassidy has blown up a selection of these images for the exhibition, some of which recall the sombre Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park in July 1969, two days after Brian Jones died. When I mention this concert to Anger, he rolls his eyes: ‘Yes, that was a disastrous concert. Thousands of white butterflies died for no reason. They were going to release them but they all died from the heat. I said to Mick Jagger, “They’re not just a cheap prop, you know.” He said, “I know, they cost $1,000.”‘

Invocation grew out of footage originally intended for Anger’s occult tour de force, Lucifer Rising, a film he began in 1969 but took until 1981 to complete. It features Marianne Faithfull as Lilith, the kabbalistic goddess of destruction, in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, and Donald Cammell, the director of Performance (1970), as Osiris, the Lord of Death. Anger had persuaded an 18-year-old musician, Bobby BeauSoleil, to create the film’s soundtrack, but then 1,500ft of shot film and camera equipment went missing, and Anger accused BeauSoleil of robbing him. BeauSoleil, who had connections to the Manson family, was then caught up in a murder and sentenced to life in prison. Anger claims to have persuaded Jimmy Page, a fellow Crowley enthusiast, to perform the soundtrack in BeauSoleil’s place, but Page didn’t deliver, so years later Anger arranged for BeauSoleil to record the soundtrack with a band he had formed in prison. Lucifer Rising is still the only film soundtrack ever to have been recorded in jail.

kenneth-anger-3 kenneth-anger-4

Ever since 1981, however, Anger has been remarkably quiet. He made a brief anti-smoking short in 2000 called simply Don’t Smoke That Cigarette (Anger loathes cigarettes) and in 2002 a documentary about Aleister Crowley, called The Man We Want To Hang. It’s hardly a prolific turnover in 23 years, which explains his excitement over his next film, which he hopes to begin in September when he next visits ‘that cancerous area known as Greater London. The air there is unbreathable.’ Over the last few months, he has been preparing for a film about cricket – a 59-minute ‘ballet’ entitled an Arrangement of White on Green, in tribute to the paintings of James Whistler. He has planned it meticulously. The soundtrack is secured, the poster designed, but then his patron, the late Sir John Paul Getty II, passed away last year, and now Anger is unsure whether the film is a ‘go’ or not. It’s odd that, for so long, Kenneth Anger should have struggled to get a gig: after all, the likes of Dennis Hopper, Anaïs Nin and the Stones were close friends, though he now describes the latter as ‘a ragtag band of senior citizens’. Only Keith Richards comes away without a savaging – Anger concedes he was ‘nice’. As for Anita Pallenberg, however, Anger told me that ‘she thought she was a witch, but she was just a bitch, if you ask me’. Yet Pallenberg is scheduled to host the reception for Anger’s exhibition in September.

In an effort to lighten him up, I suggest we take a walk through the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It’s one of his favourite haunts, full of the tombs of celebrities past – much of the cast, in fact, of Hollywood Babylon – and as we wander about the palm trees and the springy lawns, Anger dispenses canape scandalettes about who was murdered or raped, who took an overdose and so on. ‘You know Paramount,’ he says, pointing to the studio that abuts the graveyard. ‘They built the studio right over the tombs of the first pioneers. They didn’t remove the bodies.’

We pause reverently at the tombs of Douglas Fairbanks and Valentino, with whom he’s particularly smitten, and discuss acid, Armenians and how to invoke the storm demon, alighting inevitably on the war in Iraq, erstwhile seat of the Kingdom of Babylon but now, ‘a hideous little country, like a Pekinese nipping at America’s heels. We’re in the new Dark Ages with all these beheadings,’ he muses. ‘Pretty soon, beheadings will become rather ho-hum and some new horror will emerge. Like eye gouging.’ Anger abhors the ‘cry-baby liberals’ of Hollywood, particularly one A-list actress who, he says, threatened to burn her American passport and declare herself a citizen of Iraq backstage at the 2003 Oscars. ‘Perhaps I’ll include that story in Hollywood Babylon III.’

With the former rent-boy actor and the closet-Iraqi actress, Hollywood Babylon III is sure to cause an enormous fuss when it comes out. Sadly, that day may never come. For over a year, the manuscript has been gathering dust on the desk of Anger’s publisher, since in its present form it would unleash a blizzard of litigation. ‘I no longer conceal my contempt for Hollywood,’ he says, ‘and I’m no longer amused by it. I was genuinely fond of some of the stars in the first two [books]. I’m no longer fond of anybody in Hollywood. So I indulge in the luxury of hating them.’

True to his word, in one diatribe he expresses a loathing for Julianne Moore (‘she’s an airhead’), Meryl Streep (‘an old sourpuss’), Johnny Depp (‘an actor I hate’) and John Travolta (‘box-office poison’) – not to mention Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Tom Cruise and the late Marlon Brando, all of whom are slandered mercilessly. Most worrying for the publisher is Anger’s assault on Scientology. ‘Getting sued by Scientologists is like getting pecked to death by ducks,’ he says. But he wades in regardless. Anger was good friends with a now-deceased Crowleyite scientist whom he feels was viciously betrayed by Scientology’s founder, L Ron Hubbard, so Babylon III is Anger’s revenge. Ominously, however, the editors at EP Dutton claim to know nothing of such a manuscript.

‘Look,’ he says, exasperated, ‘I just don’t give a fuck any more. Maybe I’ll publish the first edition in Germany, where libel laws are more lenient. Failing that, I’ll self-publish. I just don’t know.’

In some ways, Anger is like a caricature codger who is sent misty by the pictures he grew up with, but left cold by this modern nonsense. He doesn’t go to the cinema any more, ‘because I object to being deafened’. He doesn’t watch television – ‘I call it the vampire of time.’ Yet for all his bluster and eccentricity, he is also a tragic figure – an artist whose influence on the mainstream has been huge, and yet he is isolated, vulnerable and struggling for money now in his old age. Though he claims that he still receives publishing royalties, he has precious few belongings beyond his books and photographs. He puts a brave face on his penury, but last year he became effectively homeless and now rents a tiny place in Echo Park, behind a chicken wire gate, surrounded by gang violence.

No filmmaker of Anger’s edge and attitude would ever be found riding around a Florida golf course in a buggy, but he seems hardly at peace with his lot. He won’t allow me to see his home. He took a bus to the restaurant, today, rather than let me pick him up. For all the exposés he has written about others, he remains acutely sensitive about his own secrets. He lives alone – ‘I’ve always been a loner’ – and is a chronic insomniac: ‘I tune my radio to the BBC World Service,’ he says. ‘I can’t dream, but at least I can listen to the nightmares of the real world.’

Perhaps if Anger lived in Europe, where he once prospered, life would be easier. ‘Hollywood is the wrong place for him,’ says Louise Wilson. ‘It’s legendary for people stealing your ideas. And just mention the occult and they’ll pull your funding.’ But his situation is not helped by financial irresponsibility. Last year, the San Francisco Film Arts Foundation awarded him a cheque for $7,000, which would have covered his year’s rent. Instead, he threw a lavish party and blew the lot in a night, even tipping the taxi driver $100.

What would a young Anger have made of the man before me? His story seems to amply qualify for Hollywood Babylon III. He was a brilliant young filmmaker, a pioneer and visionary who suffered nevertheless ‘a cemetery of abortions’. Naturally, Anger denies any resonance between his story and those of his books – ‘I never made a Hollywood movie and I never had enough money to live the life.’ But what of the occultist who decried Hollywood amorality while his own courtroom victories kicked open the door for pornographers, ushering Babylon in? Or the artist who earnt his keep from books of scandal? And most of all, a man who, as a teen, changed his name from Anglemyer to Anger, only to find that his temper may have been his undoing? Why did he change his name all those years ago? Does he think it has worked like a spell?

‘You’re being impertinent,’ he says, irritated.

‘It says Anger on my passport, that’s all you need to know.’ Anger’s eyes thin and he peers suspiciously at me. ‘I would stay away from that subject if I was you.’