To say Kenneth Anger makes short films would be a gross understatement. I made short films as an undergrad, and they were all pretty terrible. A more accurate assessment is that Anger’s films are experiences. His techniques are massively influential, but no one has been able to successfully mimic his artistic style. Anger has spent his entire career outside of the studio system, largely self-funded, without a producer nudging him to make a movie that could play to mainstream America. With that amount of creative freedom, Anger was able to create genuinely innovative and groundbreaking work.
The core of his works, bundled together as “The Magick Lantern Cycle,” consists of films made between 1947 and 1981: Fireworks (1947), Puce Moment (1949), Rabbit’s Moon (1950), Eaux d’Artifice (1953), Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome (1954), Scorpio Rising (1964), Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), Invocation Of My Demon Brother (1969), and Lucifer Rising (1981).
His first, Fireworks, was inspired by a dream Anger had. Shot in black and white (still photo, above), the twenty-year-old Anger is first seduced by a muscular sailor who lights his cigarette for him and flexes. The dream takes a dark turn when Anger is accosted by a group of sailors, who proceed to torture and sexually abuse him. Throughout, it is impossible to tell whether Anger is in the throes of agony or ecstasy. At the film’s end, it is made apparent that it is the latter, as a sailor ignites fireworks from his own groin area, symbolizing sexual release shown in the dream sequence.
Puce Moment was a fragment from an unfinished project Anger had planned to call Puce Women, which would have explored the mythology of Hollywood by filming former silent starlets in their homes. What remains is a breathtakingly beautiful six-minute study of a woman who prepares herself for a night out, choosing the right dress and applying perfume; in the end, she is simply getting dolled up to walk her dogs (video, below). The music, added much later in 1966, was recorded by a musician named Jonathan Halper. Though Halper made no other recordings, his contributions to the film are haunting and ethereal.
During an extended stay in Europe, Anger worked on Rabbit’s Moon in Paris and Eaux d’Artifice in Tivoli, Italy. Rabbit’s Moon brings disparate cultural icons together, with the rabbit in the moon being an element of both Japanese and Aztec mythology; the rabbit’s moon is objectified by Pierrot (a staple figure of Italian commedia dell’arte), but he is fooled by an impish Harlequin who deceives him with a vision of a beautiful woman. The music consists of classic doo-wop tunes, punctuated with Indonesian gamelan sounds. Eaux d’Artifice is a beautiful exposition of the Villa d’Este gardens and fountains, set to Vivaldi’s “Winter” concerto.
Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome (still photo, below) predicts the psychedelic era as a colorful display of various mythological figures. While the counterculture of the 1960’s largely turned to Indian religious deities and their colorful presentations, Pleasure Dome features occult figures. Of Anger’s early films, this is the most technically impressive, with layers of superimposed shots, parallel imagery, and a bold sense of color. The images are made more chilling by the prominent display of religious symbols such as the Eye of Horus, the Satanic pentagram, and the inverted hexagram, the symbol of Anger’s religion, Thelema. Founded by the self-proclaimed “wickedest man in the world” Aleister Crowley, Thelema’s founding principle is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” giving a dimension of meaning to the pleasure dome of the film’s title. It also has a notable cast, with erotic author Anais Nin, occultist Marjorie Cameron, and filmmaker Curtis Harrington appearing as various ancient figures.
Although Anger was a member of the Silent Generation, he found embracing audiences both in the downtown art world of New York and the hippie scene in San Francisco. His two major films from the 1960’s reflect his appeal to both. Scorpio Rising begins as a character study not unlike Puce Moment, using pop songs to enhance the imagery, with a biker getting ready for a night out. His night out gets increasingly disturbing; by the end of the film, we have witnessed an orgy, the desecration of a church, and images of Christ subverted into Nazi propaganda. Throughout, the music provides both a fitting and ironic juxtaposition of ideas. For example, The Crystals’ “He’s A Rebel” plays underneath scenes of Jesus, Hitler, and Scorpio while he urinates in a chapel; Kris Jensen’s “Torture” plays during the orgy, where a participant is stripped and doused with what appears to be mustard. In its time, Scorpio Rising also found itself entangled in an obscenity trial. It is still a shocking work of art today, but that does not hamper its brilliance, as its ideologies are far more powerful than the film’s unsettling content. Kustom Kar Kommandos follows in a similar vein, emphasizing America’s fetishization of the automobile. A handsome greaser is seen waxing and polishing his car while “Dream Lover” by The Paris Sisters plays.
It is a testament to Anger’s sense of vision that he was able to produce a film as dark and terrifying as Invocation Of My Demon Brother (video, below) at the height of the hippie movement in San Francisco. Demon Brother is a cyclical showcase for Anger’s devotion to Thelema. Anger himself appears in priestly garb conducting a public ritual that includes burning a Nazi flag on a stage, footage from a Rolling Stones concert is intercut with soldiers in Vietnam exiting a helicopter in combat, and an erotic orgy is hinted at, but never fully shown. Mick Jagger provided the music, which consists of a noisy Moog synthesizer in a hypnotic loop. Starring as Lucifer was a young artist named Bobby Beausoleil, who gained notoriety two years after Demon Brother had been filmed for his involvement with the Manson Family murders. While everyone else was dreaming of a flower power utopia, Anger predicted an advent of evil.
The last work of the Magick Lantern Cycle, Lucifer Rising is Anger’s magnum opus. It develops on ideas first presented in his earlier works, specifically Pleasure Dome and Demon Brother, pushing the message of Thelema into a film that is visually appealing, even to those who know nothing of Crowley’s esoteric religion. Crowley claimed humanity’s existence can be divided into eras called Aeons. In civilization’s infancy, the world was in the Aeon of Isis, named after the Egyptian goddess; with the growth of art and culture in the Middle Ages, mankind was in the Aeon of Osiris, the paternal Egyptian god; Crowley felt man was due to transition into the Aeon of Horus, which would be a period of increased spirituality.
Countless religious and occult figures are shown in Lucifer Rising. Osiris and Isis, shot among the fascinating landscapes of Ancient Egyptian ruins, conjure storms. The mythical partner of Lucifer, Lilith, is seen among rural hills before crossing paths with Osiris and Isis in the desert. Cut throughout all of this is the young, handsome Lucifer offering a sacrifice, taking a ritual bath, and preparing himself for the new Aeon. The film’s climax ends with the beginning of the Aeon of Horus. The film’s score was recorded by Bobby Beausoleil in prison; the resultant soundtrack is the only album with such a dubious distinction.
It is hard to pitch Kenneth Anger’s films to just anybody. I can certainly see the limited appeal in a bunch of films that deal with homoeroticism, ritual sex, the Occult, and the deconstruction of American exceptionalism. For those who are comfortable with such potentially controversial subjects, Anger’s films are magical treasures, the very definition of visual art.