February 5th, 2007


Kenneth Anger: The Musical?

Kenneth Anger: The Musical?
A New Breed Of Film Making
John Ervin

“When I heard that you wrote a script paying tribute to Kenneth Anger,” the long-haired, leather-clad Satanist said to me in front of Minneapolis’ Oak Street Theater, where a film I directed was premiering in the spring of 2004, “I imagined just about anything - except a musical!”

That was the reaction this fellow had after reading a script I had just completed, entitled “Hollywood Rising”, that was, indeed, a musical set in 1930’s Hollywood which paid tribute to the works of avant-garde filmmaker, and fellow Devil worshipper, Kenneth Anger. Largely, it was an homage to “Hollywood Babylon” and “More Hollywood Babylon”, two best-selling books he authored that have, no doubt, paid more bills and given him more fame than his twenty-odd films. Loosely structured but wickedly humorous chronicles of sleaze, perversion and addiction in Tinseltown, and chock full of black-and-white photos from scandal sheets and police files, the books span film history from its first major scandal in the Roaring Twenties - the discovery of the raped, battered body of Virginia Rappe and the subsequent trial of her assumed assailant, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle - to the biggest news to come out of the community in the Jaded Eighties - the discovery of the coke-and-heroin filled corpse of John Belushi at Chateau Marmont.

“Hollywood Rising”, my tribute to these works, and the films of its author, has yet to be produced. However, my decision to make my homage to Kenneth Anger, easily one of the most influential and daring movie makers of the last half of the twentieth century, a musical comedy was vindicated two-and-a-half years after my conversation with the dubious Satanist - who’d been given my script by an associate of mine who thought he might have some pointers to offer on proper veneration of Beelzebub. A screening of selections from Anger’s fifty-year career, the first to finally see the light of DVD on a new collection, was held at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center on a Hellishly cold January night in 2007. The main selling point of this sold-out ceremony was that it was hosted by the auteur, himself, who now has added the title, “Doctor” to his adopted name. As the evening would show, despite the fact that his movies deal with some of the darkest themes in art and humankind - Satanism, Nazism, death, drugs and, most consistently, violent, sadomasochistic homosexuality - they are leavened with black humor and soundtracks which, more often than not, feature popular songs from the first ten years of rock and roll history.

This “Dante’s American Bandstand” aura was immediately apparent in the guest of honor, himself, when he took a podium to one side of the auditorium’s screen. Anger, who, as he approaches his 80th birthday, looked slightly hunched and frail in his “Satan red” sweater and corduroy pants, was still full of vim and vigor. He was also full of the vinegar that has coursed through his veins his whole life, taking a most characteristic swipe at the very source of the evening’s festivities: “I am here under somewhat false pretenses. The fact is, I have not received one cent of the $5,000 I was promised in payment for this DVD release!”

Despite this regret, which Anger regarded with the grudging acceptance of an artiste who has endured a lifetime of slaps in the face, he proceeded to give the full house its money’s worth. Taking a rambling, at times not entirely coherent, trip down memory lane, the veteran veered from one seemingly unrelated topic to the next - not to mention, one decade to the next: his upbringing in Santa Monica, California as a privileged, film-obsessed child, despised by his conservative older brother and sister as well as his “starfucker” mother; the still-living, and still-hated, siblings whom he continues to fight with over the estate they led their poisoned childhood in; the strapping under-21 Army men he would buy beers for as an over-21, and proudly open, gay man; and his enjoyment of the recent YouTube footage of Saddam Hussein and his cohorts getting hanged and, in one case, decapitated (the result not of any support for the Iraq folly, but of his enjoyment of a good execution now and then).

After no less than six variations of the declaration, “Okay, here, now are my films!”, the guest finished his very entertaining intro, and stepped away from the podium. The first item on the roster, and the first film by the director to receive significant attention, was 1947’s “Fireworks.” A rumination on gay cruising and its attendant risks, set to a sweeping orchestral theme fit for a Joan Crawford melodrama, the movie featured innumerable examples of the director’s incredible audacity - and acid wit. For starters, the beautiful and consistently smug protagonist, played by a twenty-year old Kenny Anger, wakes up in bed under a blanket with what appears to be an enormous erection. Removing the sheet, it turns out to be an African statuette, either a symbol of the director’s future devotion to the Horned One, or a memento left behind by a departed guest. Following this are dreamlike encounters with enough men to fill the fevered imagination of Pastor Ted Haggard: a shirtless, Charles-Atlas-sized beach bum flexing his muscles in front of the seemingly disinterested protagonist; a sailor unzipping his pants and unveiling a firecracker, which, thankfully, he lights; and a crew of less frolicsome navy men surrounding the main character and beating him, kicking him, and sticking two of their fingers up his nostrils, unleashing a torrent of blood.

Told you it was funny.

Less severe - in fact, a rare Anger work that could be shown to a classroom full of the kids the childless director openly admits to disdaining - was “Rabbit’s Moon”, which, like many of the director’s work, has many completion dates ranging from 1950 to 1979 (!). Accompanied by a soundtrack made up of 1950’s ballads like “There’s a Moon Out Tonight” and “I Only Have Eyes For You” , a ballet of sorts takes place between a clown with a perpetually open mouth, a jester with a dangerously wicked grin, a fairy princess out of “Swan Lake”, and a three-foot high sprite who could be the clown’s “Mini-Me.” Though Anger acolytes like the Satanic script reader - who did not, so far as I could tell, appear to be in attendance at the Walker - may not get their rocks off on this work as much as his more notorious ones, I found this to be among my favorites. Certainly it’s his most enchanting turn, thanks to the lush photography, the feathery, phantasmagoric sets, the silky smooth soundtrack and, most of all, the black humor laying underneath the antics - particularly the “bang” of an ending!

“Scorpio Rising”, the next selection, from 1964, is, of course, the film that not only makes Mephistophelean and other hard core “Angeristas” get a groove on, but would forever cement the doctor’s reputation as cinema’s Prince of Darkness. A meditation on biker culture, gangland partying, devil worship, and Nazism, the work chronicles one night in the life of several leather-clad hedonists, with scenes of motorcycle enthusiasts lounging in their skull-bedecked dumps, snorting something that isn’t good for them, competing in biker drag races, and committing gang rape (with mustard, no less). Alternating with all this rough trade is footage from a low budget film about Jesus’ last days that the filmmaker reportedly received by mistake in the mail while he was shooting. This lucky accident resulted in “Scorpio’s” most inspired, and humorous, segments: shots of JC leading the faithful across the desert, aiding the sick and the dying, and committing other benevolent acts - alternating with shots of the equally faithful bikers tearing about in their hogs, bowing before a Swastika flag and duking it out with a motorcycle cop. All the while, the girl group classics “He’s a Rebel” and “I Will Follow Him” act as a kind of Greek chorus broadcasting from the radio frequency 666. In fact, the soundtrack has enough pop nuggets, circa 1955-1965, to make a TV-offer-only compilation fit for a soc hop ... though I’ll never again hear the opening gale of laughter from “Wipe Out” without thinking of a skull in shades and a leather cap.

Dude Anger would continue this gear head theme with his next picture, “Kustom Kar Kommandos.” Despite the authoritarian title, the 1965 piece works in a more gentle vein, capturing two young hunks lovingly polishing a Model T while still more Top 40 sirens serenade them. Living up to its title, and more befitting of its creator’s reputation as a follower of master “Satan-ite” Aleister Crowley’s philosophy of Thelema, was 1969’s “Invocation of My Demon Brother.” Avoiding almost any attempts at comedy, this film links an abrasive chain of quick shots of sinister, witchy hippies, who look like future members of The Manson Family (thanks, in part, to the fact that one of them, Bobby Beausoleil, would become one in real life) engaging in Magick shows, passing a bong that looks like a gremlin's eye and consorting in other drug-induced mayhem in an old house with one of those tall, “Psycho” staircases. A middle-aged Ken Anger makes some scary cameos in a red robe, leading a ritual in honor of Mr. Big Stuff. As for the soundtrack, it also departs form his other work, being nothing more than a relentless drone on a Moog synthesizer, suggesting the drill of an particularly sadistic dentist. That drill, interestingly enough, was wielded by none other than Satan wannabe Mick Jagger. Even more interestingly, Sir Mick’s contribution to the Anger musical canon was the one I found myself humming on the way home.

Laughs, and golden oldies, reared their big-eared heads again on the last official selection for the evening, “Mouse Heaven.” One of two shorts the director released after a drought of over twenty-five years (his last completed work, according to the IMDB, being the presciently titled “Senators in Bondage”), the 2004 release features no human actors, leather-clad or otherwise. Instead, it stars dozens of action figures of Mickey Mouse marching back and forth, dancing violently on strings, and pummeling one another with drum sticks, all in some kind of Thelemic ode to the world’s most beloved rodent. The usual gaggle of pop hits from the fifties and sixties accompanies, though the film does finish off with a more contemporary nugget from the nineties, this one by Scottish one-hit wonders The Proclaimers, whose twin lead singers look frightening enough to belong in a future Anger work.

Whether there will be a future for this adventurous and supremely self-confident auteur remains to be seen. As the guest of honor explained during his Q and A following the movies - which, true to his rambling nature, was more “A” than “Q” - he is due for a serious operation in late February. Suffering from a severe variation of that affliction of the prostate that all men over forty are burdened with (for reasons still unknown to modern science, though if you ask this over-forty sufferer, I think Anger’s muse has something to do with it), the doctor in our house agreed with his doctor that they should “take the fucker out.” This will, hopefully, allow him to live long enough to finish a labor of love that he provided a rough, six-minute sample of for our inspection.

Entitled “Ich Will!”, this work is intended as a tribute to the director’s two distant cousins, both of whom were members of the Hitler Youth in 1930’s and 40’s Germany, and both of whom were killed defending the Furheur’s bunker in the last days of the Reich. What unspooled before us was a pastiche of Fatherland-approved promotional films, illustrating to young Aryans the joys of working with, marching with, and, especially, camping with the Nazi Eagle Scouts. The footage was unedited, and featured no music besides that which came with the original 35mm stock (and, for the first time in an Anger work, it contained dialogue - albeit in German). Provided he can finish the project, and provided he continues to engage in his love for hits from rock’s early years, I think 1966’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets”, by Staff Sergeant Barry Sanders, would be a good place to start (and I’m not being flip, here).

That, indeed, is why I think a musical comedy is the perfect way to pay filmic tribute to this man who is claimed as an influence by cinematic pioneers like Martin Scorcese and David Lynch, as well as by lesser cineastes like Yours Truly, who, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, has appeared in his own and others’ films under the stage name “John E. Anger.” After all, not only has a third edition of “Hollywood Babylon” been completed (but, so far, not published due to legal action threatened by the star-studded Church of Scientology), not only did the book’s author grow up in and around the musical comedy soundstages of Hollywood, not only did he attend dancing school with Shirley Temple ... but, as a seven-year old named Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer, he made his film debut as the Changeling Prince in the 1935 version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” If that doesn’t prove he is worthy of a razzle-dazzle spectacle worthy of the Golden Age of Cinema that’ll put a song in your heart and a dance in your step, I don’t know what can.

More importantly, let us all hope that, in addition to the transformative treats I and the Walker audience saw this evening, the remaining treasures from the K.A. vault get the DVD restoration they deserve - particularly his 1972 masterpiece “Lucifer Rising”, which features a hauntingly beautiful score by the San Quentin Penitentiary Orchestra, under the direction of “Demon Brother” castmember, Manson acolyte and current San Quentin resident Bobby Beausoleil (!). And, of course, let us all pray - to the man upstairs or, better yet, the dude in the basement - that Dr. Kenneth Anger comes through his serious surgery well enough to finish “Ich Will!” and, perhaps, make other explorations into the underbelly of human nature. I mean, who better to provide tips on Devil worship and show-stoppers on the set of “Hollywood Rising?”