Inflammable desires

Film still for Inflammable desires

As Kenneth Anger's legendary 'Magick Lantern Cycle' rises again on DVD, Tony Rayns unpicks the hidden themes and influences that made his work so groundbreaking

The first time I saw the name 'Lucifer' tattooed across Kenneth Anger's pecs was at the last performance of the Living Theater's Paradise Now at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, London. This would have been early in 1969. Then resident in Britain, Anger was entering the last really productive phase of his film-making career, reissuing Puce Moment (1949) with an ace new soundtrack, editing Rabbit's Moon (1950) for the first time after retrieving the rushes from the Cinémathèque Française, and beginning a new version of Lucifer Rising (a project he had very publicly abandoned in San Francisco in 1967), initially with money from German television, later with investment from the National Film Finance Corporation. (“Devil film gets state aid,” howled the Sunday Telegraph.)

The 'play' I saw at the Roundhouse famously disintegrated into a free-form encounter between the actors and the audience after a few scripted preliminaries. It hinged on issues of control and 'liberation' dramatised, in the fashion of the time, by asking whether or not it was 'permitted' to get naked. With the actors down to little cache-sexes, Anger contented himself with shedding his shirt to reveal his tattoo and then busied himself performing an invocation or two, brandishing a glass wand he later identified (after it had been snatched and broken by an audience member) as having belonged to the English occultist Aleister Crowley. He was accompanied by the young lad he had cast as his latest Lucifer: Leslie Huggins, allegedly a former steelworker from Middlesbrough. Huggins, too, had been inveigled into going topless and should, by rights, have had 'Lucifer' inscribed across his chest. But since the Lucifer option was already taken he had to content himself with the name 'Thor' - obvious, really, for a steelworker - daubed in red between his nipples.

Anger's displays in the chaos of the Roundhouse that day were both attention-grabbing and slightly embarrassing. For me, at that age, he was the culture hero of the moment, a bastion of true independence triumphing over meagre resources and taking film form and film language into wonderful new areas in three of the most exciting films I'd ever seen. Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) was the first, which I saw at a film-society screening in its original version with a linear narrative and bizarre Harry Partch score. My teenage self found it baffling, but loved its sumptuous colours and its obvious connections with the world of Les Fleurs du mal and Huysmans novels. A year later I got into serious trouble for the first time in my life by booking Fireworks (1947) and Scorpio Rising (1964) for the secondary school film society I was running; my teachers didn't seem to agree that the world's first autobiographical 'coming-out' film or a blasphemous, homoerotic paean to a death cult featuring a gang of Brooklyn bikers were suitable for an audience of teenage boys. Naive as I was, I dimly intuited that these extraordinary movies had roots in other films I was discovering: in the preciousness of Cocteau's film poetry; in the macho energy of Eisenstein's montage; and in the visual opulence of Sternberg's 1930s films at Paramount. I also liked their humour.

A few months after that near encounter at the Roundhouse, I met and interviewed Anger. (The result, containing several remarkable quotes that have been widely lifted ever since, was printed in the magazine Cinema in October 1969.) We subsequently met several more times, notably around the shooting of a disastrous German television documentary about him; I watched a bit of the filming of Lucifer Rising and interviewed him again in 1971 for Time Out, garnering another set of candid and highly quotable quotes. (He manically deferred that interview three times before phoning from a salon where he was having his hair dyed red to say he was finally ready to do it.) Since then I've seen the films many times - almost all reward repeated viewings - and have come to some conclusions about what they do and how they do it. Their arrival on DVD in fine-looking restored transfers, with director commentaries, provides the occasion for a tentative summing-up.

Look back on Anger

The first thing to note about Anger's films is that they are designed to be seen over and over again. Aside from the fragments Puce Moment and Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), both intended as parts of longer films, they are typically cyclic in structure: their endings return to their beginnings, inviting replays. By accident or design, this trait echoes both the picture-palace tradition of continuous performances (in the good old days, kids, you could buy a ticket in the afternoon and sit through the programme as many times as you liked) and the notion of magic rituals that have to be performed again and again, rather like keeping a battery charged. Most of the films begin with the act of waking, opening the eyes, and then follow the protagonist through a quest of some kind; whether the outcome is success (as in Fireworks and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome) or failure (as in Rabbit's Moon and Eaux d'artifice), the clear implication is that they'll go through it again the next day. Anger's characters are certainly goal-oriented, but they don't follow learning curves: they're fated to repeat their successes and failures indefinitely.

This structure is laid out very clearly in1947's  Fireworks, the earliest film that Anger includes in his 'Magick Lantern Cycle'. The film explores wish fulfilment. A horny young man wakes from a dream in which he's cradled, pietà-like, in the arms of a sailor. He gets dressed and ventures through a door marked 'GENTS' into another dream space which is simultaneously a night freeway, a bar and a men's toilet. There, he is first treated with violent contempt by a muscle-queen and then viscerally beaten up by a gang of sailors. He survives both ordeals, turns into a Christmas tree in delight, and is finally seen back in the bed where he started, this time with a male lover beside him. The DVD reissue thankfully restores Anger's own opening narration, missing from the prints distributed in the 1970s: “Inflammable desires, dampened by day, are ignited at night by the libertarian matches of sleep. These imaginary displays provide a temporary release.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Fireworks retains all its original power to shock audiences, but it's easy to forget that it was unheard of in 1947 to 'come out' as a homosexual seeking sexual fulfilment through a masochistic surrender to gay-bashing. Making the film was, among other things, an act of reckless bravery, not least because the protagonist is played by Anger himself. (He claims that he was 17 at the time; other sources suggest he was 20.) In the penultimate shot, the lover's face has been physically scratched off the celluloid, obviously because the other actor didn't care to be identified in such a compromising position; Anger has since 'outed' him as Bill Seltzer, seen earlier in the film as the young muscle-queen.

We'll never know for sure what impelled a Los Angeles teenager to - literally - bare himself to the world in this way in 1947, but an encounter with the work of Jean Cocteau was clearly crucial. Seeing Le Sang d'un poète (1930) may have inspired some of the images in Fireworks, such as the sculpture of a hand with broken fingers which is 'healed' in the final shot, but it was the confessional element that must have struck the young Anger most forcefully. In the second half of his film, Cocteau dramatises the story of his schoolboy crush on 'cruel' fellow pupil Dargelos, first described in the novel Les Enfants terribles a year earlier; Dargelos throws a snowball, maybe containing a stone, and it hits the poet in the heart. This was, I think, cinema's first overt statement of gay desire, and it appeared in the context of a transparently autobiographical fantasia which knowingly placed itself some way from the norms of commercial film-making. Anger would have seen it at a gay-friendly film-club screening - perhaps at one of the Coronet Film Society midnight shows at the Coronet Theater on North La Cienega Boulevard, where Fireworks later had its own premiere, reputedly with James Whale and Alfred Kinsey in the audience. It's easy to imagine how Cocteau's poeticised candour might have inspired the young Anger to give his own amateur film-making a similarly daring, confessional thrust.

Are there also echoes of Battleship Potemkin in Fireworks' sailors? Sergei Eisenstein, who gave the cinema at least as much homoerotic poetry as Cocteau, was Anger's other aesthetic godfather, and there's a shot near the start of Fireworks which consciously quotes a visual idea from Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico! footage. (Sol Lesser's edit of this footage, titled Thunder over Mexico, was one of the first films Anger ever saw.) Eisenstein had chosen men with Mayan features and posed them against Yucatan sculptures and ruins to highlight parallel physiognomies and shapes; Anger poses himself between a phallic figurine in the foreground and his own art-class painting The Enraged Christ in the background, to similar effect.

Eisenstein is a more obvious influence on the first film Anger completed in Europe in 1953. As its made-up-French title suggests, Eaux d'artifice (it's a play on feux d'artifice or 'fireworks') picks up on the opposition between fire and water outlined in the opening narration of Fireworks. But the entire film is a riff on the celebrated 'cream separator' sequence in Eisenstein's The General Line (1929): Eisenstein shows a peasant collective greeting its first mechanical apparatus with quasi-orgasmic delight, filming jets of milk as if they were multiple ejaculations. Anger sees the fountains in the water garden of the Villa d'Este in Tivoli the same way, but frames his film as an inverse parody of Fireworks: his protagonist, a diminutive woman in antique dress, cruises the garden for the 'rough trade' of its dark gods and sprites, just as the dreamer in Fireworks cruised the muscle-queen and the sailors, but she fails to provoke them into action and ultimately leaves the garden for a 'dry' world. Like Rabbit's Moon (shot in 1950, edited in 1972 and again in 1979), this account of a failed adventure doubtless reflects the setbacks and frustrations that Anger experienced during his years in Europe.

The visual quotes from Eisenstein in early Anger films are, incidentally, the earliest of their kind I'm aware of. Were any other film-makers deliberately recreating motifs and compositions from admired films in this way in the 1940s and early 1950s? Anger was still doing it in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, the film he edited during his brief return to California in 1954, in which the shots of Renate Loome lowering skull masks to reveal her face painted as a skull replicate images in the 'Day of the Dead' coda to Que Viva Mexico!. In the same film, the climactic close-ups of Samson De Brier gloating over his orgiastic party guests are based directly on Josef von Sternberg's shots of Marlene Dietrich exulting in her victory at the end of The Scarlet Empress (1934).

By the 1960s, though, Anger was pioneering another strategy by 'sampling' actual shots from other films - hence the glimpse of Mickey Rooney as Puck (from the Reinhardt/Dieterle A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1935) at a particularly puckish moment in Scorpio Rising, which also contains snatches of Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) on television and, notoriously, shots from a pious, Sunday-school gospel film.

Sympathy for the devil

The most surprising thing Anger said to me during the 1969 interview was his confession that he'd long used film-making as a pretext for a particular kind of social intercourse: “Photography is a blatant attempt to steal the soul … [Making films is] a transparent excuse for capturing people, the equivalent of saying, 'Come up and see my etchings.'” Even at the time I didn't believe that this was more than a partial truth, but it certainly illuminates one of the core ideas in his best films. Fireworks, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Scorpio Rising all spring from a fantasy of total control: the protagonist manipulates the behaviour of a group of other people in order to make himself stronger, something more than he was before. The dreamer in Fireworks magically assimilates the sailors who beat him up: when he stirs on the floor of the toilet after the murderous beating, they have vanished and he is wearing a sailor's cap. The party host in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, who feeds on jewels, adopts a different persona to receive each of his guests and ingests the precious gifts they bring; he then makes the party swing by 'venoming' the drink of his male guest Pan and watching with serene satisfaction as the women lay into him like the Bacchae. And Scorpio in Scorpio Rising, first seen in his room with his cats, then out desecrating a church, exerts some kind of psychic control over the other bikers, even though he's never seen together with them; it's as if he's the malign god they subconsciously worship (“I will follow him…”), and the anarchic energies released at their Halloween party empower him to 'direct' the climactic wipeout.

For sure, this fantasy has some psychological connection with the outlaw status of homosexuals in the time before gay lib - that distinctive mix of victimhood, defiance and pride in belonging to an 'exclusive' private club. You could see the will to dominate as a strategic part of the fightback against prejudice and ostracism. But the emphatic 'coming out' in Fireworks got Anger clean through the challenge that most gay men of his generation found so arduous, absolving him of any need to politicise his sexuality. The camp/queer sensibility prevails throughout the work, reaching its apogee in the brilliant fragment of Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), but the films after Fireworks show no interest in the day-to-day traumas of gay life. In Fireworks, asking a stranger for a light is an adolescent pick-up line; when the Scarlet Woman asks the Great Beast for a light in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome it's some kind of sacrament; and when Scorpio needs a light he generates his own fire by striking a match on his teeth. The way the cigarette-lighting motif evolves across the films implies a growth from insecurity to self-sufficiency, but I suspect that relates more to the school of hard knocks that independent film-makers have to go through than to any question of sexual identity.

In any event, at some point in the early 1950s Anger's own will to dominate led him away from the gay ghetto and into the spiritual arms of Aleister Crowley. Rather depressingly, he cast himself as a disciple rather than a leader, although membership of a secret society must have seemed like a step up from a private club. It all apparently sprang from an acquaintance with Marjorie Cameron, who plays the imperious Scarlet Woman in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and also appeared in films by Curtis Harrington; there's no space here to go into it, but Googling the name of Cameron's husband Jack Parsons will explain a lot. Anger spent some time in the autumn of 1955 removing whitewash from Crowley's obscene murals on the walls of his one-time base in Sicily (there are photographs in Picture Post, 26 November 1955) and later started foregrounding Crowleyan imagery and symbols with the 1966 'Sacred Mushroom Edition' of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, with its multiple superimpositions and sublime Janácek soundtrack, as on the DVD. The late films Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) and Lucifer Rising are rather tediously saturated with Crowleyan rituals, very much like the ultra-didactic series Promethea by graphic novelist/magician Alan Moore.

Anger has repeatedly insisted that Lucifer (Milton's fallen angel, the Gnostic 'Bringer of Light') is the great love of his life, and he certainly spent the late 1960s and most of the 1970s trying to 'capture' a succession of volatile non-actors in the role. But the mischievous and wayward behaviour of his 'stars' is equally evocative of his earlier love, Puck, who reflected Anger's almost umbilical attachment to A Midsummer Night's Dream. When he formed a company for the first time in the early 1960s he named it Puck Film Productions and emblazoned its logo with a quote from the play: “What fools these mortals be!” - the perfect tagline for his best films. The transfer of allegiance from Puck to Lucifer exactly parallels a shift in William Burroughs' writings from the “greased and nameless asshole” of Naked Lunch to the homosexual “body of light” in the Cities of the Red Night trilogy. (Not coincidentally, Burroughs used stills from Fireworks to illustrate the first edition of his 1970 book The Last Words of Dutch Schultz.)

You can't gainsay a man his great love, of course, but it seems to me that Anger peaked when he was at his most puckish: gloating over the collapse of Hollywood Babylon, trumping the radiant Anais Nin with the bilious Marjorie Cameron, clashing pink and azure in Kustom Kar Kommandos, getting off on Coney Island bikers and The Surfaris...

A two-disc set of Kenneth Anger?s ?Magick Lantern Cycle? is out now on BFI DVD and Blu-ray

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012