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Kenneth Anger (1927-2023) was an American writer, experimental filmmaker, artist, actor, and occultist, proving the benefits of black magic. His films typically combine esoteric Satanic references, loud rock music, and erotic homosexual imagery, and he was one of the key figures of American and British counterculture from the 1950s, associated with artists, musicians, and sexual pioneers including Jean Cocteau, Stan Brakhage, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Jimmy Page, Donald Cammell, Alfred Kinsey, and Anton LaVey.
He was important in the popularisation of Anglo-American occultism in the tradition of Aleister Crowley, in the hippie movement of the late 1960s, and in cementing a lot of the classic imagery of the American homosexual erotic imagination (bikers, leathermen, etc), much of which subsequently filtered through to contemporary pop culture. He was one of the first filmmakers to use pop and rock music in his films, which is also something you see a lot of these days (he used Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet" before David Lynch, for instance). His interest in motorcycle gangs followed 1950s exploitation films such as The Wild One but preceded Easy Rider and the tragedy of Altamont. And his shaky relationship with the truth also prefigures a lot of modern fake news and celebrity gossip. He flirted with Nazi imagery, but from the point of view of a gay man interested in sado-masochistic sex, so it's fair to say he wasn't a Nazi.
In interviews and elsewhere, he was reticent about his private life, and had made a lot of shit up about his biography, routinely lying about his age, childhood origins, and much else. All his work shows a love of trouble, extremism, spreading gossip and rumor, shocking the bourgeoisie, and general mischief-making. As with Oscar Wilde, he himself may be his greatest work of art. Enjoy him but don't necessarily believe him.
He was born as Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer on Feb 3, 1927, in Santa Monica, California. He claimed to have worked as a child actor in Hollywood in the 1930s, notably in Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1935, although these claims are disputed by film historians who have identified other actors who played the roles attributed to Anger. But he began making his own films as a child, with the matador drama Ferdinand the Bull reportedly his first work shot when he was only 10, followed by other amateur films. In high school he discovered the occult via the Wizard of Oz books, soon graduating to Aleister Crowley's Thelema religion.
He also discovered his homosexuality and began to explore it in various films he made, including Fireworks (1947) which led to obscenity charges. Anger was acquitted in the Supreme Court of California, and sexologist Alfred Kinsey became a fan — the two men enjoyed a long friendship. He moved to Paris in 1950 and befriended Jean Cocteau, returning to the USA in 1953 where he got to know experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage and made the heavily Crowley-influenced short Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), inspired by Coleridge and soundtracked by Janacek. He wrote the notorious gossip compilation Hollywood Babylon, published in France in 1959.
He fitted in well with the later 1960s, with his interest in popular music, non-mainstream religion, and doing his own thing, plus his long-term drug use, chiming with hippie values. In 1967 he moved to London, where his friends included John Paul Getty, Jr. (who provided a lot of money), and Mick Jagger and his circle.
He spent most of the 1970s making films very slowly, and the 1980s saw a bit more fame with the release of his Lucifer Rising and soon after Kit Fitzgerald's documentary Kenneth Anger's Magick. He attempted to retire in the 1980s, but financial problems were one constant in his life, and after more than a decade's silence he returned to work in 2000 with Don't Smoke that Cigarette and other films. He wrote another volume of Hollywood Babylon but didn't publish it for fear of antagonising Hollywood Scientologists, who are much more evil than Satan. Another money-making scheme was selling $300 bomber jackets with "Lucifer" on the back.
He made a large number of experimental films over his life, of varying length and quality. Broadly, stick to the ones which are short and have good soundtracks and you'll have a lot of fun. Scorpio Rising (1963) mixes scenes of bikers desecrating a church with Nazi imagery, semi-naked sexy men, scenes of Jesus Christ, and a kick-ass soundtrack including Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, The Surfaris, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Crystals. It managed to annoy the American Nazi Party but was generally praised by film critics. It's reckoned a good place to start for those interested in his film work.
In contrast, Lucifer Rising (filming finished 1972, properly released 1980) is much more dreary with lots of scenes of Satanists doing mumbo-jumbo shit in the desert. Gerald Yorke, an associate of Aleister Crowley, is credited as acting as "Thelemic consultant", which makes him some kind of mystical adviser. Sadly a Jimmy Page soundtrack never materialised and it was instead scored by Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil, who according to Anger recorded the soundtrack in prison with a band of murderers. The result is only of interest to very strange people. The cast included Marianne Faithfull and Donald Cammell (co-director of Jagger-starring film Performance, and himself an occultist).
His early film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) resembles an ecstatic or drug experience, building to a climax of cross-cut imagery. According to Anger, it "derived from one of Aleister Crowley’s dramatic rituals where people in the cult assume the identity of a god or a goddess". It was very popular with psychedelic drug users in the 1960s. Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) has also been described as an invocation of an acid trip.
Mouse Heaven (2004) was made with Getty money about Mickey Mouse. Drawing on the Disney collection of Mel Birnkrant (and his daughter's Mickey tattoo), it reportedly acts as a critique of Mickey Mouse's deterioration or "castration" by the Disney empire, and draws links between the mouse and Nazism.
Anger was a follower of Aleister Crowley's religion Thelema, and included references to it in his films, showing rituals, allegorical imagery, and symbolism such as fire. He was a member of the Crowleyite Ordo Templi Orientis, a sort of Thelemic freemasonry, and involved in the worship of Lucifer. He claimed to be a loner who does not have much to do with communal worship. He said he hailed the Sun every morning, but it's not clear how far his mystical practices really went beyond that.
He had instructed people in the practices of Thelema, reputedly including Jimmy Page, guitarist of rock band Led Zeppelin. However, it's not clear exactly what that instruction involved, and may just have been a short chat or demonstration, such as the trip he made with Alfred Kinsey to Crowley's temple in Sicily.
If you're looking for evidence of his magical practice, the chief source must be his films. His mystical beliefs manifest in various ways in his films: the recording of rituals and other magical practices; allegorical representations of his beliefs; and attempts to capture the energy and power of mystical spells and ecstatic experiences. But Satanism is the most trollish religion, with its parodies of Christianity, and this probably fits in with Anger's sense of mischief and desire to shock, confuse, or deceive, as manifested in many of his interviews, books, and films.
Of his films Lucifer Rising is probably the one which deals most seriously with the occult, drawing on esoteric interpretations of Egyptian myth from Crowley and others. It focuses on the arrival of the "Aeon of Horus", a new mystical age that supposedly follows those of Isis and Osiris. Isis represents primitive goddess worship, followed by patriarchal Osiris, and lastly Horus, the aeon of the child and of spiritual awakening. In the film, the Egyptian gods attempt to summon Lucifer to bring about this new age. The film depicts the awakening of Lilith (played by singer Marianne Faithfull), who personifies the chaos that will accompany the new era (a rupture that is also represented symbolically by volcanoes).
As mentioned above, other films such as Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome attempt to give a more impressionistic reproduction of a mystical, magical, or drug experience, rather than depicting specific points of theology.
Anger on occasion denied being a Satanist, instead claiming to be a pagan. This is despite the prominent references to Lucifer in his work, and his long-term friendship with Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. He claimed the root of his beliefs lies in "an appreciation of nature". This seems unlikely, depending on your idea of nature (which may include psychedelic drugs and naked men), but it fits with a long tradition of trollish satanists such as The Satanic Temple (who themselves may or may not be Satanists).
One of his most famous works is the book Hollywood Babylon (1959), written as a temporary fix for his near-permanent lack of money. This appeared at a time when the tight grip of Hollywood studios on the press was beginning to loosen and it compiled a lot of gossip and unsourced rumor running back to the era of silent films, including stuff about Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Fatty Arbuckle's crimes, the Hollywood blacklist, and more. Later editions (1965 and 1975) also covered such lurid tales as Sharon Tate's murder by acolytes of Charles Manson (Anger knew Manson associate and petty-criminal-turned-murderer Bobby Beausoleil). Although many of its stories have become widespread urban legends, the book has been criticised for making shit up; the more respectable film historian Kevin Brownlow politely attributed most of Anger's information to "mental telepathy".
- See the Wikipedia article on Kenneth Anger.
- Kenneth Anger, Harmony Korine, Interview Magazine, June 30, 2014
- Kenneth Anger Explains Why We Need to Get Along With Lucifer, LA Weekly, Sept 16, 2016
- Kenneth Anger: 'No, I am not a Satanist', Simon Hattenstone, Mar 10, 2010
- Kenneth Anger: 'The occult never quite goes away', Edward Helmore, The Guardian, 29 Jan 2016
- See the Wikipedia article on Scorpio Rising (film).
- Where to begin with Kenneth Anger, Oliver Lunn, British Film Institute, 1 Feb 2018
- Kenneth Anger: how I made Lucifer Rising, Chris Michael, The Guardian, 22 July 2013
- Jimmy Page on Lucifer Rising, LAShTAL.COM: The Aleister Crowley Society Feb 8, 2007
- See the Wikipedia article on Lucifer Rising (film).
- Mouse Heaven, Anna McNeary, Sartle, accessed 20 March 2019
- See the Wikipedia article on Ordo Templi Orientis.
- Egyptology and occultism in Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising, At Most Fear
- See the Wikipedia article on Aeon (Thelema).
- See the Wikipedia article on Hollywood Babylon.