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Kenneth Anger

by Deborah Allison

Deborah Allison obtained her doctorate in film studies from the University of East Anglia in the U.K. and has taught there and at University of Kent, where she wrote a thesis on Kenneth Anger.


Kenneth Anger is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating of America’s independent filmmakers. His work has attracted enormous critical interest, although relatively little detailed analysis. His long career, spanning from the 1940s until the present, has produced few films, but each has been superbly realised and many are now regarded as defining texts of the filmic movements and cultural moments that they have come to represent.

Whilst Anger’s films have often been read as paradigmatic examples of different movements within the avant-garde, they are all bound to one another by the singular unity of vision of their now iconic director. Moreover, rather than gaining topicality by jumping on the bandwagon of fashionable film styles, Anger has invariably responded to the vagaries of contemporary culture from a cool ironic distance. Often prescient in both style and theme, his films include Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), which anticipated the psychedelia of the following decade and Scorpio Rising (1963), which was one of the first films to use a compilation score of contemporary pop songs to provide an ironic commentary on the visual imagery. Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) created a tour de force of potent iconography through its interweaving of documentary footage with staged events, mixing images ranging from rock music performance to political activism with occult symbolism and systems of representation.

Of the few films that Anger has made, fewer still are available. Many projects have been left incomplete whilst other finished films are reportedly lost or destroyed. The majority of his extant films have been grouped together under the title of The Magick Lantern Cycle, which encompasses nine films ranging from Fireworks (1947) to Lucifer Rising (1970-1980). A long career hiatus meant that it would be a further twenty years before Anger completed another film, Don’t Smoke That Cigarette! (2000). The years between represented still more abortive film projects, but also gallery exhibitions of Anger’s ‘Icons’, which comprised selections of some of the most striking images from the Magick Lantern Cycle. These images are foundational to Alice Hutchison’s recently published companion to Anger’s films.

This new book from Black Dog Publishing is stunningly produced, with 256 glossy large-format pages filled with numerous images, many in dazzling colour. Gaining permission to reproduce a huge range of film stills, many of them not previously published, is Hutchison’s triumph. The full and double-page spreads from the colour saturated Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) are especially magnificent, while the mosaic of images from Scorpio Rising (1963) effectively captures a sense of the rapidly edited montage so central to the structure and experience of the film.

This isn’t just a picture book, though. It also includes an extended discussion of Anger’s work, interspersed with reproductions of a range of fascinating documents, some of which have been published elsewhere whilst others appear here for the first time. Amongst the prior publications are accounts by Samson de Brier and Anaïs Nin of the making of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Carolee Schneemann’s contemporary review of Scorpio Rising. Two of Kenneth Anger’s own articles also appear: Modesty and the Art of Film and Application d’Artifice, the second of these being newly translated from the French original. The books or journals in which these documents previously appeared have been out of print for some time, so their collection here constitutes a valuable resource.

Even more fascinating for Anger aficionados is the reproduction of several of his letters. Most of these were written in the 1950s and 60s to Mary Meerson and Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française, the earliest describing research undertaken for a never-to-be-made film, as well as greatly illuminating his fragile psychological state at that time. Perhaps the most absorbing archival artefact is a copy of the first two pages of Anger’s scenario for the unrealised film, Hymn to the Sun. This project has not been mentioned in any of the three previous books on Anger, so its inclusion here represents an intriguing addition to the list of abortive projects that have previously been documented. What is especially noteworthy about the scenario is its description of plentiful dialogue, an attribute conspicuously absent from Anger’s completed films.

Given Anger’s proclivity for synthesising diverse fragments in his own work, it seems appropriate that the book also uses an assemblage technique. This methodology extends beyond the compilation of miscellaneous images, essays and archival documents, though, since it also lies at the heart of Hutchison’s own writing. She demonstrates an extensive knowledge of previous literature about Anger and many existing critiques and interviews are quoted at length. Yet unlike Anger’s films, in bringing together a range of often fascinating perspectives, Hutchison rarely produces any fresh critical insights.

For the most part, Hutchison’s account neither evaluates nor comments upon the observations and readings of other writers, nor does it add much new factual data. Thus the films of The Magick Lantern Cycle are discussed at some length whilst such recent pieces as Don’t Smoke That Cigarette and The Man We Want to Hang (2002) are barely mentioned. Indeed, readers who are already familiar with the previous literature on Anger – notably Jayne Pilling and Mike O’Pray’s anthology book, Into the Pleasure Dome (BFI, 1989), Bill Landis’s biography, Anger (HarperCollins, 1996) and the recent Moonchild (Creation Books, 2002), edited by Jack Hunter and centred on critical essays by Anna Powell and Carel Rowe – will no doubt be frustrated by Hutchison’s failure to tackle some of the longstanding mysteries surrounding the director’s life and films. For instance, lists of both Anger’s film work and his written publications have often included items about which very little information has been provided.

Two books attributed to Anger, both in Hutchison’s bibliography and elsewhere, have always proved elusive: Atlantis: The Lost Continent (1970) and A History of Eroticism (1961). A check through the catalogues of some antiquarian booksellers reveals very good reasons for difficulty in obtaining these titles: Anger did not write Atlantis at all, merely contributing an introduction to a book that was, in fact, penned by Aleister Crowley. Similarly, whilst Hutchison’s bibliography notes that A History of Eroticism was adapted from the French, it fails to make clear that the original author was not Anger but Lo Duca. At the same time, even though the list of Anger’s writings has clearly not been limited to works consulted, it remains incomplete; for instance, no reference is made to the forwards he penned for two books by Anton LaVey: The Devil’s Notebook (Feral House, 1992) and Satan Speaks! (Feral House, 1998).

Citation of certain films proves even more puzzling. Press releases announcing two ‘limited edition’ films, Senators in Bondage (1976) and Matelots en Menottes (1977), were quoted as ‘a salacious footnote’ to the filmography of Into the Pleasure Dome. Hutchison reproduces them in the filmography of her own book, without affording them further comment. Similarly, Denunciation of Stan Brakhage (1979) and Ich Will! (2000) are listed without details. These titles have long been a source of mystification to many Anger fans, due to the apparent impossibility of discovering any detail of their content. In researching his own book, Bill Landis was able to find no evidence of the existence of either Senators nor Matelots aside from their press releases, whilst the only tangible documentation of Denunciation of Stan Brakhage were copies of an advertising flyer in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art. Hoping to answer this mystery once and for all, I sought the advice of Robert Haller, Director of Collections and Special Projects at Anthology Film Archives and author of a monograph on Anger. His prompt response echoed my own suspicion that, although the projects were publicly announced, they were never actually produced.

Hutchison’s failure to address such curiosities as these may well be an oversight, yet the most curious feature of her cited sources is the absence of any reference to the Landis biography. It is evidently a book with which the author is familiar since she quotes from it in her article, ‘Courting Anger’, which appeared in Afterall in 2003. Given that Landis scrutinises Anger’s life with a level of tact and sensitivity that rivals Anger’s treatment of the subjects of his own Hollywood Babylon books, it is tempting to speculate about the compromises Hutchison might have made in order to secure Anger’s permission to reproduce the images around which her book is centred. Certainly the publication toes the official line, keeping biographical information to a minimum whilst bypassing evidence offered by Landis to debunk some of the mythology with which Anger has long surrounded himself.

If Hutchison’s writing lacks both the detailed depiction of Anger’s life and career that Landis provided and the critical insight of authors such as Tony Rayns and Carel Rowe, it is nevertheless an estimable resource, which will doubtless prove a very pleasing reference work for neophytes. For the die-hard fans, the archival documents provide a valuable addition to the previously available materials and it is hard to imagine that any reader will feel the cover price unjustified by the book’s stunning range of images and the magnificence of its production values.


Kenneth Anger

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