Iconic underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger was honored at Harvard during a three-day screening festival. Hosted by the Harvard Film Archive, Anger spoke at the Carpenter Center during the final two days of the festival.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

Looking back at Anger

9 min read

Iconic, offbeat Hollywood filmmaker visits Harvard

For three days (Oct. 8-10), Harvard had a brush with Anger — as in Kenneth Anger, the iconic underground filmmaker who made his first visit to the University in a decade.

The occasion was a screening festival honoring the 83-year-old director, who is known for his painterly collage of cinematic images, for his rock scores, and for his challenges to social and cinematic boundaries. He spoke before and after screenings on the final two nights of the festival, which was hosted by the Harvard Film Archive (HFA).

Anger told the Saturday night audience at the Carpenter Center’s basement theater that he made his first film at age 8, shooting with the “silent, cinematic” 16mm camera that his family saved for vacations. His parents let him use up film that was about to go out of date.

Anger owed his parents another career debt. When he was still at Beverly Hills High School, they were away for a weekend, giving him time to pick up a group of sailors who became the unwitting stars of “Fireworks” (1947), a dreamlike work about desire and violence. The film, which was the first on the program, remains “the most explicitly homoerotic of all his films,” said HFA programmer David Pendleton. It is not the oldest of the films, he added, “but the earliest seen today.”

At the time, Anger was a teenage filmmaker still wowed by silent movies, but he already had the signature principles of his cinematic repertoire in place. Among them are his still-continual experimentation with film collage and his fascination with non-actors.

Using unpaid casts on screen was part of making films on the cheap, and so was the fact that Anger made (and still makes) only short films. One of those shown at Harvard, “Death,” ran less than 60 seconds. The festival’s longest, at 38 minutes, was “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome,” a 1954 evocation of a gala costume party, now best known for its complex, superimposed images.

“The films tonight were made under duress — very little money,” Anger told a sold-out audience Saturday night. That resulted, he said, in “austere” early films that required intense pre-planning. “One take, if possible. I try to get everything down in my mind before filming.”

The opening program on Friday screened the first five films of Anger’s self-described “Magick Lantern Cycle,” nine films made from 1947 to 1970.

“Puce Moment” (1949), a 6-minute homage to silent films, hints at saving money too. It opens with a strangely affecting “dance” sequence that features empty gowns being shaken in front of the camera. Anger had inherited them from his grandmother, who made dresses for the movie stars of the silent-film era.

“Rabbit’s Moon” (1950), filmed on a Paris stage set with a paper moon and trees of painted leaves, is about a clown in love, and how the clown’s impossible love for the moon is dashed. The operatic costumes and melodramatic miming recall silent films, but the rock ‘n’ roll score brings it crashing into the future.

“Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” is another look back at the silent era and the costume galas once hosted by impresario Samson De Brier, who appears in the film. That’s one thing about Anger, who also knew the legendary director Fritz Lang in Hollywood: Anger straddled the past and the future of American filmmaking.

Saturday’s leadoff film was Anger’s most famous, “Scorpio Rising” (1964), a glimpse into the ritualistic masculinity of a Brooklyn motorcycle club and a loving paean to the gleaming custom machines they rode. “Scorpio” also showed off other motifs that are part of a decades-long Anger signature: loving, slow close-ups (here, of men and machines) and jukebox musical scores.

“Scorpio Rising,” 28 minutes long, is set to 13 rock ‘n’ roll songs, played in full. It was the kind of music blaring from transistor radios in 1962, when Anger shot the film. That was the same year he returned from a decade in France, so the pulsing “Scorpio” renewed his love affair with American culture, with its darkness, sex, and daring. “I love pop music,” Anger told his Harvard audience, “up to rap.”

But the music for “Scorpio” came at what was then a big price, he explained: $8,000 for the rights, which immediately doubled the cost of the film. Still, none of the actors was paid. In fact, the bikers thought Anger was just a “camera nut” out to film their custom-shop Harleys and their elaborate riding gear. Instead, he said, “I got into their bedrooms.”

One of the bedrooms belonged to Scorpio, a former Marine whom the audience meets while he is reading the Sunday comics in bed. It takes quite a while for Scorpio to rise, and — cigarette dangling — slip sockless into his motorcycle boots, and carefully button, belt, and snap into his leathers. The stocky biker lived with two Siamese cats, Anger said of his real-life protagonist, and he was a negligent housekeeper.

But Scorpio represented what Anger wanted in his film — “real-life people” — and what he wanted for his camera, “to film their world.”

The Brooklyn bikers were not a gang, he said. “They worked all night at the Fulton Fish Market, then put all of their own money into their bikes.”

The resulting film, with its unwitting stars, is among the best illustrations of another trope in the canon of his films: an unblinking celebration of the grace and beauty of young male bodies. Early on, we get a familiar image that appeared first in “Fireworks:” a man, torso bared, lying at ease on a bed.

Then there is that other Anger signature, which plays out in nearly every film, and eventually rises to the status of a joke he shares with audiences: those lingering shots of male buttocks, a visual motif Anger pokes fun at later. In one of his video efforts, the 10-minute “Mouse Heaven” (2004), viewers get a close-up of a gyrating Mickey toy from the 1930s, with his bubble-round posterior buttoned into short red pants.

“Mouse Heaven,” a short animated by a vast collection of Mickey geegaws, was one example of how the flexibility of video becomes an older filmmaker like Anger. “I’m still making films, even though it’s digital,” he said at Harvard. “I appreciate the convenience of it.”

There were other iconic close-ups too, starting with Anger himself zipping up his fly in “Fireworks.” There are the lingering early shots in “Scorpio Rising” that pan across chrome, wheels, and gears. And there is Scorpio himself, slowly getting up to ritually gird himself, in a dressing scene whose loving detail seems to take minutes and minutes.

Rituals are an Anger motif, inspired in part by his boyhood fascination (still active) with British occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). “I’ve taken ritual ideas from Crowley and run with them,” said Anger, a self-described “follower” of the man once called the wickedest in the world, until Adolf Hitler. “He probably wouldn’t approve, but I don’t care.”

Anger has written his own satanic rituals, in such films as “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969), “Lucifer Rising” (1970), and elsewhere. But he doesn’t embrace movements or meetings (“I’m a loner”), and he takes issue with how much language Crowley’s satanic rituals require. “I don’t use words,” said Anger of his cinematic style. “I made tests for sound and said: That’s not for me. I prefer to work with images.”

When there are words, they are most often from songs laid in under the moving images. Anger admitted at Harvard that he is still making silent films, which were the norm when he was born.

“Scorpio Rising” has no dialogue, though there is plenty of silent haranguing by a gesticulating Scorpio. But it remains the ur-film for fitting a rock soundtrack to images and has complexities “we’re only beginning to understand,” said HFA director Haden Guest.

He introduced Anger Saturday as “one of the true, real visionaries the American cinema has produced,” a self-taught filmmaker who learned his craft before there were film schools.

The results were stunning from the beginning, said Pendleton. He described Anger as a director who regarded film as “a new form of magic,” and who had wide influence on later filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Derek Jarman, and Todd Haynes.

One of the unexpected additions to the show on Sunday was “My Surfing Lucifer,” mesmerizing minutes of footage set to “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys.

Riding the surf is Anger’s friend, sugar fortune heir Bunker Spreckels, a blond sun god who was soon to commit suicide. “Which is very unfortunate,” the director deadpanned, “and he should have left me some money.”

Anger later described himself in sunny terms, denying that his dark films were a reflection on his personality. “I’m not a morbid person,” he said. “I’m a happy person.”

But death seemed to hang over his films, in and out of the frames, even beyond the blood required in satanic rituals. There was Spreckels. There was the Elliott Smith of the video “Elliott’s Suicide,” also not on the original Sunday program. There was Manson family member (and former Anger lover) Bobby Beausoleil, who was convicted for a 1969 murder after appearing in “Invocation of My Demon Brother,” and who later wrote the score for “Lucifer Rising.” He is still in prison.

As for the murder, Anger deadpanned: “I was very disappointed he fell from grace that way.”

Then there was mass murder. Twice over two nights, Anger choked up, near tears, at the mention of the Hitler Youth who appeared in his “Ich Will!” (2008), a 35-minute video set to music by Anton Bruckner, Hitler’s favorite classical composer. The footage, from World War II archives, took Anger 10 years to research and edit, showing lines of robust young men on the march through a vanished, picture-book Germany.

“They were beautiful boys,” he said.