Kenneth Anger in 1955
On 24 May 2023, underground experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger passed away at the age of 96. In tribute to one of most revolutionary figures in the American counterculture, we're revisiting writer Mick Brown's interview from the June 2014 issue of Esquire.
On a recent warm afternoon in Los Angeles, Kenneth Anger was taking a walk in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Anger, 86, is the US’s most celebrated underground film-maker, named as a major influence by directors as disparate as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and John Waters. He is also the elemental spirit whose life draws a connecting line between some of the most intriguing figures of 20th century arts and Bohemia: the occultist Aleister Crowley, Jean Cocteau, the sexologist Alfred Kinsey, Anaïs Nin, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
Anger has always liked visiting cemeteries. “They’re peaceful,” he says. “They’d better be...” And Hollywood Forever, formerly the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, has a personal significance. It is the resting place of a number of famous Hollywood stars and stands behind the original Paramount lot; in fact, the studios were built on a part of the old cemetery.
Anger is an authority on old Hollywood. He is the author of two volumes ofHollywood Babylon, the classic account of Tinseltown’s most infamous scandals, from the silent era up to the Fifties.
A number of the cast are buried here. Rudolph Valentino, whom Anger considers the quintessential Hollywood star (“he had a short, tragic life [dead at 31] and left a big legend”) is interred in a crypt in the Cathedral Mausoleum. And there, beside the path where we are walking, lies Virginia Rappe, the young starlet who died in the riotous orgy of drink and debauchery that led to the comedian Fatty Arbuckle standing trial for rape and murder.
Nearby is the vacant patch of ground that the actor Vincent Gallo, a friend, has told Anger he has purchased for Anger’s own grave. It is next to the grave of Johnny Ramone, which is marked by a spectacularly ugly bust of The Ramones’ guitarist, truncated just above the knee. Contemplating the prospect of an eternity spent in immediate proximity to one of the musical architects of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”, Anger looks nonplussed. He is open-minded about the prospect of an afterlife, but dubious about the Christian view of heaven, or whether that’s where he will be going.
“Well, that would be nice. Good for them. But I am a bit sceptical about harps and so forth...”
Earlier that day, Anger and I had taken lunch at the Chateau Marmont. It is a venerable old Hollywood establishment that exudes a discreet sense of wealth and celebrity, which has served successive generations of movie and music stars. It is where John Belushi died of a drugs overdose at 33. A notice on the table in the restaurant requests you not to smoke or take photographs.
Anger is a stockily-built man of medium height, with ink-black hair and a pale and remarkably unlined face. He is wearing a smart tan suit, a striped shirt and an improbably jaunty tartan trilby, of the kind Bob Hope might have worn at a celebrity golf tournament (jaunty is not an adjective one would immediately associate with Kenneth Anger). Anger’s reputation as a film-maker rests mostly on a body of work made in a 30-year period between the Forties and the Seventies: films that have the feverish, hallucinatory quality of dreams or acid trips, about death, beauty, sex and magic. Many of them reflect Anger’s lifelong immersion in the occult as a student and disciple of Aleister Crowley, the English ritual magician and mischief-maker who revelled in the name of “The Beast”.
I first met Kenneth Anger in London in the mid-Seventies, at the time of the official publication ofHollywood Babylon. We’d arranged an interview but, when I arrived at his modest hotel, that idea was quickly abandoned, Anger insisting instead that we adjourn to the NFT to watch a rather amusing British Thirties musical,Chu Chin Chow. It was a rare showing, he explained, and he didn’t want to miss it. This was Anger the avid cineaste, with a taste for camp.
Anger in 1979
A few days later, we met for dinner. Anger was dressed in a smart corduroy suit, the model of decorum. It was a warm evening and at one point he removed his jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves to reveal a tattoo of the Seal of Crowley on his arm. The effect was strangely shocking. A larger tattoo emblazoned across his chest simply reads “Lucifer”.
Anger is a fastidiously polite but reticent man. Anaïs Nin, the diarist and lover of Henry Miller, was a close friend of Anger’s in the Fifties. Nin once described Anger as living “entirely in a world of his own”; a world he resists being scrutinised too closely. Some questions he greets with a silence so pronounced you wonder if he is going to answer at all, inviting you to suggest an answer to which he may, or may not respond.
So, your films are to do with the subconscious?
Silence. Would you describe them as magical spells?
Anger was born and raised in Los Angeles. His father Wilbur Anglemyer (Kenneth truncated the surname to Anger when he started making films), was an engineer at the Douglas Aircraft Company. He and Anger never got on.
Anger’s closest family relationship was with his grandmother Bertha, who encouraged his artistic interests, and whose gossipy stories of Hollywood stars he would remember as hisGrimms’ Fairy Tales.
As a child, he danced on stage with Shirley Temple, and at five he appeared in Max Reinhardt’s film version ofA Midsummer Night’s Dream(1935) as The Changeling Prince, scampering in spangles and plumes through the enchanted forest thrown up on the backlot of Warner’s studios. The smell of the shellac, he recalls, was “almost like getting high”.
He knew that acting wasn’t his calling, but film had cast its spell. As a teenager, he began making his own films using the family’s movie camera, inspired less by commercial Hollywood than the European art cinema of Eisentein and Bunuel.
He made his first exhibited film, the 14-minuteFireworks, in 1947. It’s a dream-like, homoerotic, masochistic fantasy in which a young man (Anger) is brutally beaten by a group of sailors. At one point, a man unzips his trousers and reaches inside to pull out what appears to be a giant phallus but is in fact a lighted Roman candle. Anger described the film as “all I have to say about being 17, the United States Navy, American Christmas and the Fourth of July”.
Fireworkswas seen by Jean Cocteau, who wrote to Anger expressing his admiration. In 1950, Anger left the US for Paris and took a job at the Cinémathèque Française as the assistant to Henri Langlois. He’d spend much of the next 10 years between Europe and the US.
Anger refined his approach as a film-maker, developing his leitmotif: non-narrative films, with a dazzling use of editing and montage, invoking the silent era in their use of music as a symbolic, and often ironic, counterpoint. InWaterworks(1953), a circus midget in an 18th-century evening gown darts, like a figure from a hallucination, among the fountains of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli to music by Vivaldi.
InScorpio Rising(1963), Anger filmed the rituals of a Brooklyn motorcycle gang, juxtaposing the fetishism of chrome, leather and the holy icons of James Dean and Marlon Brando with images from a Fifties’ “Sunday school” TV series,The Living Bible. It is set to a soundtrack of pop songs such as The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back”, Ricky Nelson’s “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)” and The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack”. Martin Scorsese later citedScorpio Risingas the major influence on the use of music in his films.
Two men proved a powerful influence on Anger’s life. The first was Alfred Kinsey, the university professor who, in the Forties and Fifties, conducted groundbreaking surveys into sexual behaviour published asThe Kinsey Report. Kinsey and his team interviewed more than 18,000 everyday Americans – as well as authors Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, the world’s first sex-change Christine Jorgensen, and Marlon Brando – on their sexual behaviour.
Anger met Kinsey when the sexologist attended a screening ofFireworksin Los Angeles and bought a copy of it for his archives (Anger’s first film sale) for $100. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Anger became Virgil to Kinsey’s Dante, introducing him to LA’s gay underworld, while Anger and numerous friends, among them the playwright Tennessee Williams, contributed to Kinsey’s survey.
As well as interviewing subjects, Kinsey filmed various sexual activities in the attic room of his home in Bloomington, Indiana (with Mrs Kinsey downstairs, preparing iced tea and persimmon pudding for the volunteers). Anger was filmed there, he is quick to point out, “alone”.
Masturbating? “Well, that’s what they call it. I believed in what they were doing and I wasn’t going to refuse. It was over in exactly 10 minutes.”
Filming was somewhat problematic as Kinsey’s cameraman Bill Dellenback had only one arm. “He was trimming a hedge at home,” Anger says, “and the hedge-trimmer flipped out of his hand and cut off an arm. It was such a stupid, horrible accident, and for a photographer only to have one arm is kind of unfortunate.”
Anger toys with his food. “But why bother to trim a hedge? I mean, forget about the extra leaves, they’re not hurting anything.”
The second abiding influence on Anger’s life was Aleister Crowley. One of the most extraordinary Englishmen of the Edwardian – or indeed any other – age, Crowley was a poet, mountaineer, ritual magician and libertine who in 1904 claimed to have channelled from his “guardian angel” Aiwass a set of instructions and principles he calledThe Book of the Law, to form the basis of his own “religion” Thelema. Its key teaching was “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. (Thelema is Greek for “will” and Crowley gave a succinct definition of “magick”, his preferred spelling, as “the art of causing change to occur in accordance with will”.)
Crowley gained public notoriety in the Twenties when, with a small coterie of disciples, he established the “Abbey of Thelema” in a farmhouse in Cefalu, Sicily, energetically practicing ritual and sex magick, until deported by Mussolini. The British yellow press condemned him as “the wickedest man in the world”. Anger would have it he was one of the most misunderstood.
“That’s part of his aura, his halo,” Anger laughs. “His attitude towards sex being sacred and having mystic qualities, it’s not surprising he should have been controversial.” Crowley, he says approvingly, “was really like a diabolical little boy.”
Anger’s family were Presbyterian, but he rejected Christianity at the age of eight, when his parents tried to make him go to Sunday school. It was not an ideological position: “I just told them I wanted to read the Sunday funny papers.”
As a teenager, he had become interested in the occult through books such as Sir James George Frazer’sThe Golden Bough. He was introduced to Crowley’s teachings by one Marjorie Cameron, the only woman he’s ever known he says was “without any doubt” a genuine witch: “In a good sense. She had what you’d call ‘powers’.” Cameron was the widow of Jack Parsons, a pioneer in developing the rocket fuel that would take man to the Moon (he has a crater there named after him in recognition). He was also an occultist and leader of the US lodge of Crowley’s magical order Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).
In 1946, Parsons and Cameron practiced a magic ritual known as the “Babalon Working” to conceive a “moonchild” as the Thelemic “messiah”.
The “scribe” for this ceremony was a man Parsons had met only a few months earlier, but who – so Parsons told Crowley – displayed distinctly promising occult possibilities. He was a science-fiction writer named L Ron Hubbard. The Babalon Working failed: Cameron did not conceive. Hubbard ran off with Parsons’ former mistress, a substantial amount of Parsons’ money and a yacht both men owned in a business arrangement.
The official Scientology version of Hubbard’s occult activities is he was working undercover to expose and destroy a “black magic cult”. But Hubbard, Anger says, was “a pathological liar, you can’t believe anything he said”. What Hubbard took from meeting Parsons, Anger says, was the blueprint of a hermetic brotherhood in which the acquisition of one layer of knowledge leads to the next. “The difference is, Scientology makes everybody pay. Hubbard told Parsons that inventing a religion was a good way to make money. But Scientology is a cult. The whole thing is what I call a racket.”
In 1952, Parsons was killed when fulminate of mercury exploded in his home laboratory. “There are various theories about whether he was responsible, or someone else did it,” Anger says. “Howard Hughes wanted Jack to go and work for him but Jack refused. And Howard Hughes was the kind of man you didn’t say no to, or if you did, there would be consequences.”
Following Parsons’ death, Anger lived with Cameron for two years, intensifying his study of Crowleyian magick. Anger describes his beliefs as “paganism” which, he says, “is just an appreciation of nature. It has nothing to do with so-called ‘black magic’”. For many years he has been a member of the OTO, but is reticent about his own “magickal” practices: the OTO, he points out, is after all a secret society. He is not, he says, “doing magic circles all the time, although I have done it on occasion”. But he follows Crowley’s practice of “Liber Resh”, a ritual meditation for greeting the sunrise. He affects a cheery wave: “Hello sun!”
Anger in 1984
For a while in the Fifties, Anger lived in Crowley’s former home Boleskine on the shores of Loch Ness. (When Crowley first moved there, he complained to the local council about the “prostitute problem” in the area.
A mystified official was dispatched to investigate and reported there were no prostitutes. “That,” Crowley replied, “is the problem...”)
In 1955, Anger and Alfred Kinsey visited Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema in Sicily. In the years since Crowley’s eviction, the farmhouse had fallen into a state of near dereliction. “It was owned by two brothers who hated each other. One was a communist and one was a fascist, so I had to pay an exorbitant amount of money to each to get access to the place.”
Local peasants, fearing a revival of Crowleyism, greeted them with a traditional curse – a mutilated cat on the doorstep. Anger spent a summer removing the whitewash that had been slapped over the erotic images Crowley painted on the walls, filming and photographing them. “There was a door to the kitchen, about 8ft tall, and on that he’d painted the image of the Scarlet Woman, nude, rather outrageously holding a golden phallus, and a cake – the Cake of Light – which was like his Eucharist. I photographed that.” Anger sighs.
“I wish I’d taken it [away] but it was just too complicated.”
There was, he says, “a distinct presence” about the place. “There were unexplained rattlings on the tiled roof as if someone was running back and forth on it. And on one occasion, my light just turned over and crashed. Just little things. I don’t need to be convinced, because I saw them. These things happen.”
The ruined “abbey” is still there, but the spectre of Crowley has been diminished by a new sports stadium that has been constructed behind it. Anger sighs, “It ruins the whole atmosphere.”
Cowley’s Thelemite teachings have been a major influence on Anger’s films, most notably in what is generally considered to be his magnum opus,Lucifer Rising. Ten years in the making, in it Anger intended to elevate Lucifer from his place in Christian belief as the fallen angel, to his pantheistic role as “the bringer of light”, or “the original rebel”, as Anger has it.
Anger began the film in the mid-Sixties. The first person cast as Lucifer was a five-year-old boy called Godot – the golden-haired son of Vito Paulekas and his wife Szou, two original LA hippy freak-scenesters – who died tragically after tumbling through a skylight.
Lucifer Two was a guitarist named Bobby Beausoleil, who had briefly played with the seminal rock group Love. Anger shot 30 minutes of footage before the pair fell out. “He was behaving like demons in people do,” Anger would later recall. Beausoleil vanished but reappeared with Charles Manson, and in 1970 was convicted of the murder of a music teacher named Gary Hinman, for which he is still serving a life sentence in jail.
In the late Sixties, Anger moved to London, bringing the troubled project with him. Through his friend the art dealer Robert Fraser, he was introduced to the Swinging London circle that included The Beatles, Rolling Stones and film director Donald Cammell, whose 1970 filmPerformance, about a spent rock star (played by Jagger) in search of his “demon” stands as the defining record of the darkening spirit of the times. Cammell, whose father had been a close friend of Aleister Crowley and written a biography of him, enjoyed telling friends how “The Beast” had bounced him as a child on his knee.
Cultured, erudite, exotic, mysterious – Anger became something of the presiding magus among Fraser’s gilded circle. He was a house guest at Redlands, Keith Richards’ house in Sussex, where Anita Pallenberg (“a very amusing girl”) would recall waking one morning and looking out of the window onto the lawn to see Anger furiously pacing a magical circle. Keith and Anita were said to be contemplating a pagan wedding ceremony with Anger officiating, but had a change of heart.
It was Anger who introduced Marianne Faithfull to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel,The Master and Margarita, a surrealist satire about the Devil wreaking havoc in post-revolutionary Moscow. (Written between 1928 and 1940, the book was not published until 1967). Faithfull, in turn gave it to Jagger, inspiring The Rolling Stones’ 1968 song “Sympathy for the Devil”.
Anger wanted Jagger to take on the mantle of Lucifer for his film but Jagger demurred, apparently happy to sing about Lucifer, but squeamish about the prospect of playing him. “I think he was just busy with other things,” Anger says diplomatically. Faithfull would later describe Jagger making a funeral pyre of all their occult reading in the fireplace of their Cheyne Walk mansion, and the singer was said to have taken to wearing a wooden crucifix for some time afterwards. Faithfull did appear in the film, as the demon Lilith, rising from a sarcophagus. Donald Cammell played Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld.
Jagger contributed a short piece of synthesiser music that Anger used onInvocation of My Demon Brother(1969). But the principle candidate for the soundtrack for Lucifer Rising became Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
Anger had first met Page in 1973 at a Sotheby’s auction, where both were bidding for a manuscript by Aleister Crowley: “He, of course, had more money than I did.” Page was able to indulge his interest in Crowley to the point of buying Boleskine and accumulating an extensive collection of his artworks.
Page provided some music forLucifer Rising, although it was not used in the final version. His interest in Crowley has reportedly cooled and he now keeps Crowley’s paintings, Anger says, “in the closet, which is strange... Jimmy is very skilled on the guitar, but I have no idea what somebody like him does with his life when not working. I hope he’s having a good time. But he has an unfortunate complex for someone who’s so rich – and he’s earned a hell of a lot of money – and that is he’s a miser. And I find that a very unfortunate trait.
“I’ve met a couple of rich misers, including the senior John Paul Getty [named in the 1966Guinness Book of Recordsas the world’s richest private citizen]. He got so annoyed at his freeloading Surrey house guests calling New York and talking for hours that he installed a pay-phone.” Anger laughs. “Well, who could blame him?”
The soundtrack for Lucifer Rising was eventually created by Bobby Beausoleil, from inside the Oregon prison where he is incarcerated.
The following day, I meet Anger again, this time at Hollywood’s oldest restaurant, The Musso and Frank Grill, which has occupied the same spot on Hollywood Boulevard since 1919. Anger seems more at ease here, seated in the twilit leather booth, with waiters in red and black uniforms, Duke Ellington percolating quietly in the background and the ghosts of old Hollywood crowding around.
Anger developed an interest in Hollywood macabre at an early age. The actress Thelma Todd lived just a couple of blocks from Anger’s family home, and when, in 1935, she was found dead in her garage of apparent asphyxiation (nobody could explain the blood on her face...), he went over to watch them take out the body: “I was always doing things like that.”
An unusual hobby….
“Well, other boys collected stamps… The fact was, I was in Hollywood and all these things were happening. I thought they were bizarre and interesting.”
He began to assemble an unrivalled collection of newspaper reports and photographs – gossip sheet tittle-tattle, police blotter notes, publicity stills, morgue shots, etc.
In 1959, living in Paris and in need of film-making funds, Anger dove into his collection, shaping the hair-raising catalogue of drug abuse, debauchery and premature death that becameHollywood Babylon.
The book begins with DW Griffith’s recreation of ancient Babylon for his silent 1915 epicIntolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages. Built on the dirt road that Sunset Boulevard then was, the mile-long set was the biggest yet seen in Hollywood, a phantasmagoria of palaces, hanging gardens and soaring columns surmounted by sky-high elephants. Its streets were thronged with thousands of extras (paid $2 a day plus lunchbox) playing warriors, priests, handmaidens and harlots: a metaphor of Hollywood’s flagrant excess, hubris and artistic license. “I assure you,” Anger says drily, “ancient Babylon never had elephants sitting on top of columns. I don’t think they even knew what an elephant was.”
This is Hollywood as the city of sin, an early laboratory in the corrosive effects of common fame. Here is John Wayne lining up as the 11th man when the actress Clara Bow (the “hottest jazz baby in films”) entertained the entire University of Southern California football team with a gang bang; the MGM producer Paul Bern blowing his brains out with a .38 revolver after trying to solve his impotence by introducing an artificial penis into the bed he shared with Jean Harlow; and Lou Tellegen, a leading man in the Twenties but by 1935 a has-been, committing suicide by ritually disembowelling himself with the personally monogrammed gold scissors he’d once used to cut out his press notices.
There is a sense, Anger says, in which he considers the movies evil. “Although, of course, my definition of evil is not everybody else’s. Evil is being involved in the glamour and charm of material existence, glamour in its old Gaelic sense meaning enchantment with the look of things, rather than the soul of things.”
The book’s epigraph is a quotation from Crowley: “Every man and woman is a star”. “Well, he meant that every individual has the potential to be a blazing star, but not in the Hollywood sense. I twisted it around so it was ironic.” (Crowley himself visited Hollywood in 1916 taking note of its denizens as “the cinema crowd of cocaine-crazed sexual lunatics”. He was one to talk…)
The base metal of gossip is malice, however, the prevailing tone ofHollywood Babylonis a kind of rueful affection. The malice is reserved for the studio bosses – philistines, slave masters and desecrators of talent – the censors and the gossip mavens like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, “the Paganini of piffle”.
Anger likens his role to Seutonius, the Roman historian who chronicled the doings of the Caesars with unflinching candour. The moral is the oldest of all: Hubris and Nemesis; fame as a Faustian bargain, in which the price of worldly success, of living like gods, is shame, horror and degradation.
No story is more tragic and in its way more emblematic, than that of Lupe Velez, “The Mexican Spitfire”. The wife of Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller and lover of Gary Cooper and sundry cowboys, stuntmen and gigolos, Lupe was a va-va-voom girl whose career had hit the skids by 1944. She planned a Snow White suicide, to be found by grieving friends and admirers, lying on her bed in a satin robe, surrounded by gardenias, tuberoses and altar candles, borne heavenward on an overdose of sleeping pills.
Alas, at the last moment, the pills reacted with the Mexican meal she had eaten earlier. Rushing to the bathroom, she slipped in her own vomit and smashed her head on the toilet bowl – an “Egyptian Charteuse Onyx Hush-Flush Model DeLuxe” (Anger is ever the stickler for detail).
“Poor old Lupe... I just see it as a bizarre, colourful, funny and tragic at the same time story. That’s why it interests me, because it has all these elements.” He pauses. “Also over the top, which, of course, I like.”
Originally published in French asHollywood Babylone, Anger’s book became an immediate succès de scandale. In 1965, a pirated version was published in the US by a huckster named Marvin Miller. Sold in a plain brown wrapper, it shifted thousands of copies. Anger was obliged to bring a lawsuit to halt the publication, and was never paid any royalties. “Then, fortunately, Marvin Miller died. I won’t say that I cursed him and then he died – but he didn’t live more than a few years beyond that.”
It was not until 1975 that the book was published legitimately in English. A sequel followed in 1985 with pictorial proof of what Carmen Miranda wore under her frocks – nothing – and a colourful litany of Hollywood deaths, written in Anger’s crisp authorial style: “His body rotted in Chihuahua before his family turned up to claim it…” “He died after four days of agony as the chemical gnawed through his guts…”).
Anger has a third volume in his bottom drawer, but has no plans to publish it. A number of the stories involve Tom Cruise and his association with Scientology, “and the Scientologists,” Anger says, “will sue you at the drop of a hat. If he dies, I’ll publish it.”
Modern celebrity holds little fascination for Anger. The currency of Hollywood gossip has been debased by its ubiquity – who cares about Lindsey Lohan’s season ticket to rehab? – and the cinema has lost its magic.
“I’m sure there are talented people working now, but I can’t get excited about any of the current crop of actors or directors. I prefer to honour my past geniuses. The past is very living to me.”
During the Eighties, Anger lived on New York’s Upper East Side in a four-room, walk-through apartment. I visited him there once. The rooms were painted in alternate red and blue, the colours reflected in the walls, ceilings, furnishings, the blinds that shut out the slightest glimmer of daylight. One room was devoted to Valentino memorabilia including posters, dolls and a drug-store display box of Sheik contraceptives (unopened). In the corner, electric candles twinkling, sat a shrine to the dead actor that had once belonged to Ditra Flamé, the mysterious “Lady in Black’, who’d leave roses at Valentino’s LA crypt each year on the anniversary of his death. (Valentino begot shrines. According to Anger, the actor Ramon Navarro kept one in his bedroom, containing a black, lead dildo embellished in silver with Valentino’s autograph, “A present from Rudy”.)
Another room was a shrine to another of Anger’s heroes, the German actor/writer/director Erich Von Stroheim, whose “orgy scenes” in films likeMerry-Go-RoundandThe Merry Widowwere the talk of Hollywood, with the extras emerging from the studio “as if having spent a weekend in Sodom”, girls bearing the evidence of “whip marks or bites”.
In the kitchen, the refrigerator was covered in a black shroud. Anger would not allow food and drink in the apartment. He was the curator, he explained, of his own museum and much of his memorabilia now comprises a touring exhibition. But much too has been lost in break-ins and burglaries in the numerous places where Anger has lived.
He is a man who seems to magnetise the volatile; by his own admission, he can be “a rather difficult person”. Beneath the courteous, gentlemanly demeanour, lurks a particularly dark sense of humour. On one occasion, after a spat with Robert Fraser (a difficult man himself, with whom people were forever falling out then falling back in again), Anger sent his friend a razor blade with the note: “The final solution to your stuttering.”
He can be unpredictable. Six years ago, at the open-casket memorial service of long-time friend and fellow film-maker Curtis Harrington, he disconcerted fellow mourners by providing an alternative running commentary during the eulogy and then planting a kiss on the lips of the corpse.
When I suggest to Anger that his reputation encourages people to treat him with a certain caution, he shakes his head.
“I’ve never had any indication of that.”
Does he think he’s a good person?
“Not always. I have a few dark marks about cruelty to people that maybe didn’t really deserve it.” He pauses. “I had a couple of friends who committed suicide. I had a feeling it was coming but didn’t do much to influence them one way or the other. Perhaps I could have done more to encourage them to go on with life.”
One was the singer/songwriter Elliott Smith, who committed suicide in 2003 aged 34. Anger sighs, “It was over a fight with his girlfriend, which is ridiculous.” Anger made a film in tribute to him which is his most stylistically conventional, and emotionally touching, work.
The other was Donald Cammell. AfterPerformance, Cammell moved to Hollywood and made a series of similarly extreme films, but with diminishing critical and commercial returns. In 1996, after his last film Wild Side had been taken off him by producers and released in a cannibalised version, Cammell took his own life by replicating the climactic scene in Performance where the rock star (Jagger) is killed by a single gunshot to the forehead. It reportedly took him 45 minutes to die.
“It was kind of pathetic in a sense,” Anger says. “Grotesque. But I warned him. Get out of Hollywood; this place is not working out for you. Go back to England.”
Death by Hollywood.
Anger has proved immune to the temptations and betrayals of Hollywood. Commercial success, and the fame that comes with it, was never in the picture. “If it had been, I would have gone into commercial films. I always considered myself an artist.”
Anger’s work is in museums, institutions and private collections around the world. But financing was ever a problem. TheHollywood Babylonbooks have helped, and the support of interested patrons. Jean Paul Getty, the scion of the oil family, and a generous patron of the arts, was a close friend.
Like Anger, he was a Mickey Mouse fan and financedMouse Heaven(2004), Anger’s tribute to the cartoon character, featuring vintage wind-up Mickey Mouse toys. The film manages to be whimsical, amusing and, in characteristic Anger fashion, sinister at the same time. Getty died in 2011.
“Unfortunately for me, and about a dozen other people, he didn’t leave a will,” says Anger. “His widow Victoria was a nice lady, but she didn’t go along with spending money on the arts.”
Anger has also been supported in his work by the French fashion designer, Agnès Troublé, better known as Agnès B, who first met Anger in 1959 in the Cafe de Flore in Paris. “He was like an apparition,” she remembers. “He had this very short hair, black, like a priest, and he was dressed all in black leather like
a biker. He was very beautiful.”
Over the years, she has exhibited his work in her Galerie du Jour in Paris, and featured a Kenneth Anger T-shirt in her last Agnès B collection.
“He’s like a myth for young people,” she says. “His work has stayed so strong and contemporary. His films have not dated, because they are so unique.”
A couple of months before my LA meeting with Anger, the ICA in London staged a weekend screening of his works. Anger was there (dressed, he pointed out, in an Agnès B suit). The audience was predominantly young, in many cases young enough to be Anger’s grandchildren, the mood adoring.
Among the titles was one of his most recent filmsI want!(2009). For this, Anger assembled propaganda footage of the Hitler Youth in the Thirties, perfect Aryan specimens engaged in character-building outdoor pursuits, then assembling in one of the displays of carefully orchestrated mass hysteria at which the Nazis were so balefully accomplished. The film bears familiar Anger hallmarks, a mirror of his obsessions about male beauty, violence, the roiling depths of the unconscious. It is deeply, hypnotically, disturbing. You leave it feeling you have peered over the abyss into something evil.
Anger prefaces the film with a quotation from Shakespeare’sThe Tempest: “Oh God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should, with joy, pleasance, revel and applause, transform ourselves into beasts.”
But one thinks of another quotation, fromA Midsummer Night’s Dream, the film of which Anger appeared in more than 80 years ago: “What fools these mortals be...”
Afterwards, I fell into conversation with a young girl. “Didn’t I think it was shocking?” she asked. What Anger had clearly intended as indictment, she took as approval.
Sitting in Musso and Frank, I tell Anger this. “I’m surprised someone can be that naive to take it that way.” He raises a mocking eyebrow, then says, “After all, we do know a lot about our defeated enemy.”
Duke Ellington is still playing in the background. The waiter is hovering with the bill. And another, more disturbing set of ghosts seem to be present.
“But I don’t mind stirring up a little controversy,” he says.