Anger…and Other Deadly Sins

Shadowplay guest blogger and part-time benshi film describer David Wingrove, who writes as David Melville, reports on Kenneth Anger’s appearance — or should one say MANIFESTATION? — at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Read it up!

On a grey and rainy August afternoon (in Scotland, that is not a contradiction) two friends and I took a train to Dundee to meet Kenneth Anger. He is a…well, I could say ‘living legend’ but that hardly seems to do him justice.

David Wingrove on his way back from Dundee, photographed by Fiona, who had just managed to get her camera to work.
For 60 years or so, Anger has been the uncrowned king of gay/experimental/avant-garde/underground cinema. (Just watch Fireworks (1947) or Scorpio Rising (1963) and slot in whatever adjectives fit best.) He is the notorious author of Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II, still the most scabrous books of movie gossip. His long-promised Hollywood Babylon III lies buried under a heap of threatened lawsuits. An alleged Satanist and avowed disciple of Aleister Crowley, he was unwillingly linked (through his ex-boyfriend Bobby Beausoleil) to the grisly Charles Manson killings.

At four years of age, Anger played the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, still Hollywood’s most purely intoxicating blend of Art and Kitsch. He is one of several distinguished survivors from that film – others include Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland – and Warner Brothers’ failure to recruit one (if not all three) of them to do a commentary on last year’s DVD must count as a Crime Against Celluloid Memory. More than 70 years on, Rooney and Anger remain pals. Olivia may still be fuming at that snapshot of her in black lace lingerie (!) that Anger slipped into Hollywood Babylon II.

 

Either Dundee Contemporary Arts, or David Cairns Associates.

No wonder we felt a tad nervous, trudging through a downpour towards Dundee Contemporary Arts. (If the Great Beast didn’t come and get us, the wrath of Miss Melanie very well might.) So it’s a pleasure to say that, in person, Kenneth Anger is a joy. Gentle, soft-spoken, immaculately tanned, he looks a good two decades younger than his 78 years. In the bar after the show, he shared his enduring love of Shakespeare, commedia dell’arte and Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis. “Not long ago, I went to Paris for a showing. My God, have you seen the state of the print? It was so horrible I hid my eyes and ran out of the theatre.”

 

Kenneth Anger, in Dundee.

Judging from that night in Dundee, Anger’s own work has been strikingly well preserved. Lucifer Rising (1981) gave us Marianne Faithfull as Lilith, Mother of All the Demons – looking eerily beautiful with her face painted blue. Invocation of My Demon Brother (1968) had a soundtrack by Lilith’s old flame, Mick Jagger. Cheekily, Anger cuts in a few near-subliminal shots of the Rolling Stones and their court, in between the all-male orgies and the Black Mass. Rabbit’s Moon (1950), with its lovelorn Pierrot lost in a moonlit wood, is an achingly gorgeous evocation of both Shakespeare and Carné. It has the wistful and fragile beauty of a Verlaine poem.

 

Mouse Heaven (1992) is Anger’s celebration of the original Mickey Mouse drawn by Ub Iwerks – a subversive, anarchic little imp – before Walt Disney turned him into an icon of all-American cuteness. One of the most purely joyous pieces of cinema I have seen, Mouse Heaven sparked a ferocious copyright row with Disney. The wounds, for Anger, are still raw. He confided his long-cherished ambition to blow up Disneyland. “If it really is ‘the happiest place on earth’ as the ads say, why do so many children come out looking disappointed? Just look at their faces! Kids know when they’ve been cheated.”

 

Anger’s more recent films, shot on digital video, bear witness to his enduring love of the male form. My Surfing Lucifer (2007) shows a gold-haired beach boy riding the sort of waves that, in Southern California parlance, are called ‘tubular’. Foreplay (2007) spies on a soccer-team as they stretch and limber up before a game. The sight is numbingly normal to the players themselves, yet richly homoerotic to Anger and his camera. Once the official programme was through, Anger invited the whole audience up to the gallery for a ‘private’ showing of I’ll Be Watching You (2007) – a piece of hardcore gay erotica. Two cute French boys make love atop a parked car, while a third cute boy watches on CCTV and…er, enjoys it too. This may be the sexiest film ever made by a man old enough to be your granddad.

 

But the highlight of the late work was the not-yet-officially-premiered Ich Will (2008). A chilling yet weirdly erotic montage of documentary footage of the Hitler Youth. (The title translates from German as “I want!”) Starting with idyllic Sound of Music-style gambolling amid the lakes and mountains of Bavaria, it builds up to a full-scale Nazi rally that evokes the nightmare world of Leni Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will. Its menace is underlined, brilliantly, by the ominous tones of Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony.

 

Invocation of my Demon Brother?

It’s not often one can go from Disney to Riefenstahl – from the Magic Kingdom to the Third Reich – with barely a hiccup in between. That is perhaps Anger’s unique gift. It was only on the dark, wet train ride back to Edinburgh that I got to pondering how similar these three artists really are. Walt Disney, Leni Riefenstahl, Kenneth Anger. All three create images that bypass our conscious mind and enter, direct and perhaps unbidden, into the depths of the id. We are aware, with other filmmakers, of a voice and a vision beyond our own. Disney, Riefenstahl, Anger…they speak from within.

 

The official premiere of Ich Will is set for the Imperial War Museum in London on 29 October. (All Souls Night, as Anger points out gleefully.) One shudders to think what the invited audience of elderly war veterans will make of it. Still, as Anger freely admits: “I’ve always enjoyed being a bit controversial.” That may or may not go down as the greatest understatement of the 21st century. But it will do very nicely for the first decade.

 

David Melville

 

Thanks to the Amazing Dr. Anger, to Yvonne Baginsky and Fiona Watson – who shared the experience – and to the fabulous staff at Dundee Contemporary Arts.

Special thanks to David for being there and writing it down.

 

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22 Responses to “Anger…and Other Deadly Sins”

  1. Merci Monsieur. Melville. Kenneth Anger is as complex, mysterious and multi-faceted a “piece of work” as you are likely to meet. Also on board in Lucifer Rising is Donald Cammell — the great British enigma and autuer of that most convulsive of masterpieces, Performance.

  2. Fiona says, “He looks scary in pictures, but he’s very approachable in real life.” He was talking about his love for Aleister Crowley, and Ken Russell’s Crowley project was mentioned. “Can you IMAGINE?” he said with glee. “But he’s too much of a drunk now.”

  3. When Anger learned that Donald Cammell had as a child sat in Aleister Crowley’s lap he immediately went over and sat in Cammell’s lap.

  4. Heh!
    Cammell, of course, was born in Edinburgh, under the famous Camera Obscura, appropriately enough.

  5. And he committed suicide here in L.A. in the presence of his estranged wife. It was something he’d talked about doing for a long, long time.

  6. A shame some of the gossip around that suicide seems to be untrue. But it makes a great legend: him being alive and in no pain for 45 minutes… shooting himself using a mirror to get the precise spot… asking “Can you see the picture of Borges?” (a rather nifty Performance reference, that).

    It would be very interesting to know if any of his unproduced screenplays are extant.

  7. Melville looks like Stephen Hawking in Fiona’s photo!!

    *Everyone* should pick up the two Anger DVDs released by Fantoma, complete with brand new transfers, audio commentaries by the man himself and large booklets with contributions from Scorsese, Van Sant, etc. Fantastic stuff.

  8. Oh, don’t! He was worried about that photo, now he’ll distrust Fiona’s photographic skills. Anyway, he’s in a train seat, not a wheelchair!

  9. Here’s a link to the IMBD listing of a rather good documentary on Cammell. Kenneth Anger is a featured participant as is Barbara Steele.

    I met Cammell once at the press screening of his marvelous and barely known thriller White of the Eye. He was handling all the pres himself. It was the first time I’d ever see a film director do that. He was quite nice and both surprised and pleased that I knew who he was and loved Performance so much.

  10. David C, didn’t you send me that Cammell documentary some years back? I swear I have it on vhs somewhere.

    Calling Melville one of the greatest minds of the 20th century is hardly a dig :)

  11. I probably did send you that doc, Chris. It is indeed excellent. No mention of China Cammell having left him for the sound recordist on Wild Side, but plenty about his Strange Death.

    Yeah, but LOOKING like the greatest mind isn’t necessarily a compliment either…

    Cammell’s Barbara Steele connection is fascinating.

    The A-Z of Performance is a pretty interesting book — they even managed to track down Michele Breton.

  12. What book is that? Colin McCable’s? I thought Michelle Breton had OD’d.

    Dennis Cooper tells me that the sex scene that makes up Anger’s I’ll Be Watching You wasn’t shot by him at all but is a direct lift of a piece of Russian gay porn. All Anger did was slap the song by The Police on the soundtrack. Dennis, who loves Anger’s previous work, was very disappointed by this new stuff.

    I met China Cammell at Lance Loud’s funeral. Quite a fascinating woman.

  13. The book is by Mick Brown, part of Bloomsbury’s Movie Guide series. Worth a look. Brown tracked her Breton down in Berlin in 1995, even though some, including Marianne Faithfull, thought she had died. She did develop a massive drug habit, but supposedly quit. She last saw Performance in 1987: “I was feeling kind of sick looking at this. It was a feeling of death.”

    Using found footage — even Russian porn found footage — seems acceptable to me. But I haven’t seen the film so I don’t know HOW he uses it, and how the song transforms it.

  14. WOW I’ll have to get that. Colin McCabe’s BFI book on Performance is truly teriffic.

    Of course looking at her younger self brought on a “feeling of deeath.” She’s been described as “an invention of Donald’s” — rather the way Sylvain Jacques was an “invention” of Patrice Chereau’s.

    Using found footage is indeed acceptable. But Dennis (who’s planning to make a porno movie himself) didn’t feel Anger used it interestingly.

  15. Fiona’s view: the porn was kind of sweet, but also kind of “staid”.

    The Jones book isn’t a masterpiece, but it picks its way carefully through the facts and the legends, acknowledging them all and offering a handy guide through the labyrinth.

  16. David Melville Says:

    Any idea what Cammell actually did on Lucifer Rising?

    I’d be curious to know.

  17. He acts in it, doesn’t he? I think that was the extent of his involvement.

  18. ybaginsky Says:

    It was an honour meeting Kenneth Anger, an icon from my teenage years of sneaking off to then-almost-illegal arthouse cinemas in downtown Boston to watch forbidden films. Speaking to him around a table after the screenings at DCA we were stuck by what a gentleman – and a gentle man – he is. I wonder how many new filmmakers know his work?

  19. There are lots of new filmmakers who don’t know ANYTHING, but Anger is quite well-placed among the experimental crowd, and his films are at least available, so that if you get a decent film education you’re likely to be introduced to him. Hopefully he’s still influencing people as powerfully as he did Scorsese. I always cite him as one approach to the question of music copyright: “You can, of course, choose to completely ignore it!”

  20. Whenever I am feeling blue, I watch Rabbit’s Moon and instantly I am alive again. Anger is a hero, in my perspective.

  21. It’s great to encounter such a strong sensibility, it makes you see the world anew.

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