The avant-garde mythmaker on suicide, black magick and Hollywood Babylon
Occultist experimental film auteur Kenneth Anger grew up a movie fan in LA during Hollywood’s golden age, swapping tales of celebrity scandal, murder and suicide with friends that would later be collected into his notorious Hollywood Babylon books. He made his first film at ten; today, it’s hard to overstate the profound influence of the maverick, malevolent films he would go on to make over the next 70 years. The trippy, colour-saturated Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) and Scorpio Rising (1963) inspired Scorsese, Lynch and many others, and he was instrumental in the evolution of the music video. This year, artist Doug Aitken invited Anger to create an installation for Station to Station, a travelling cultural extravaganza supported by Levi’s that unfolded inside a vintage train winding its way across America. Anger’s work required audiences to sit on scarlet, pentagram-shaped seats as screens beamed his landmark films. When the train rolled into LA’s art deco Union Station, we met the now 86-year-old in a booth. “I still remember when this was Chinatown in the 1930s,” he said, gazing at the ceilings.
Dazed Digital: Your most recent series involves airships – what’s your fascination with them?
Kenneth Anger: Well, it’s an obsolete form of travel. The airship was unfortunately cancelled after the Hindenburg explosion in 1937. But as a little boy, I saw the Graf Zeppelin on its world tour. My grandmother took me out to see it from Pacific Palisades, where I was living at the time, because it was travelling down the coast from San Francisco to LA. It was like this great big silver fish in the sky, and it had a wonderful purring sound, like a cat.
Dazed Digital: Your grandmother was a costume designer in Hollywood – was it her who kickstarted your interest in art and making films?
Kenneth Anger: She helped. Although she was involved with silent films, which was before my time. We used to go together to the cinema – she had a favourite star, an English actor who is not too well remembered now, George Arliss.
Dazed Digital: You acted in Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a very young child. Do you remember that?
Kenneth Anger: Yes, and of course I know Mickey Rooney who was also in it. He and me, I think we’re the last two surviving members of the cast. It was on the largest stage at Warner Brothers, and I remember the ‘forest’ smelled like shellac – it had a very pungent aroma that I recall very well. They sprayed everything with shellac then to pick up the highlights for the camera.
Dazed Digital: You used to visit cemeteries as a child. What were you looking for, the graves of stars?
Kenneth Anger: There have always been stars buried at the Forever cemetery in Hollywood. I’d visit Rudolph Valentino, who has his crypt there. I have a big collection of Valentino memorabilia, which has travelled the world.
Dazed Digital: When you started making films, what were your references?
Kenneth Anger: I was working on 16mm with the home-movie camera my family let me use, hoping I wouldn’t drop it and break it. I just wanted to make my own films, like an artist. I work in visuals, not dialogue. They’ve always been basically silent films with music. But the film I made when I was 17, Fireworks, that’s basically my first film. The things before that I call my ‘apprentice’ films.
Dazed Digital: What was the reaction to the explicitly homosexual Fireworks when you screened it?
Kenneth Anger: I didn’t get arrested. (laughs) It was considered quite shocking at the time. But to shock is part of art.
To shock is part of art. I chose to be an outsider – an observer, looking in. I was always fascinated with the underside of Hollywood
Dazed Digital: You grew up around the Hollywood film industry and could have gone into the business. When did you realise you’d be working independently of it?
Kenneth Anger: I chose to be an outsider — an observer, looking in. I grew up in Beverly Hills, and Beverly Hills High is right next door to 20th Century Fox – they now call it Century City. And I could look out from the second floor from my chemistry class and watch the shooting of various films, like The Song of Bernadette (1943) with Jennifer Jones. But Hollywood was going through a ridiculous thing called the ‘red scare’ at the time, so when I had a chance to go to Europe and work for the Cinémathèque Française that’s what I did. Jean Cocteau wrote me a letter. He gave a prize to Fireworks at the Festival du Film Maudit (the Festival of Damned Films) in Biarritz. He wrote me a letter – I still have it, he signed it with a star – saying he liked Fireworks very much. So that was one of the reasons I went to France. I studied French at Beverly Hills High so at least I had a working knowledge of French. Because the French do not speak English. As far as they’re concerned, there’s only one language: français.
Dazed Digital: Was it at Beverly Hills High that you started collecting the stories that became Hollywood Babylon? All the kids had parents in the industry...
Kenneth Anger: Yes, I was always fascinated with the underside of Hollywood. Along with the glorious films they made, there was always a sidebar of scandals and tragedies, and so I put together Hollywood Babylon of all these understories of Hollywood. The criteria was, they had to be lurid and bizarre. And true. In other words, I didn’t make any of them up.
Dazed Digital: Do you have a favourite?
Kenneth Anger: I like the story of Carole Landis, who committed suicide in 1948. Not that I approve of suicide, but actors tend to overdramatise things, and so there’s a history of actors that have committed suicide. I put them together and made a pattern out of it.
Dazed Digital: What do you think about today’s Hollywood? Could you write as riveting a book about the personalities we have now?
Kenneth Anger: I’m a historian of the past, and frankly, the present group of actors... There are some very talented actors and directors, but frankly they don’t have that charisma that interests me. Maybe I just can’t see it. But people like Clara Bow in the silent days were just dynamite.
“I was always fascinated with the underside of Hollywood. Along with the glorious films they made, there was always a sidebar of scandals and tragedies, and so I put together Hollywood Babylon of all these understories of Hollywood”
Dazed Digital: When you cast non-actors like Donald Cammell, Bobby Beausoleil or Marianne Faithfull, was it because they had a certain screen charisma?
Kenneth Anger: Oh, definitely. Marianne Faithfull, I cast her in Lucifer Rising as Lilith, a female demon. So in a sense I was showing that side of her. And in Scorpio Rising for example, you could call it similar to documentary. I’m using real people, not actors. They were a real motorcycle gang. I use reality, but I shape it my own way. Donald Cammell was a close friend of mine. He’s another suicide. Shot himself in the head, which he showed in his film Performance – it ends with somebody shooting themselves in the head. I’m sorry about it, but that’s the way he chose to go.
Dazed Digital: You once described the medium of film as ‘evil’ – do you still see it like that?
Kenneth Anger: I’m teasing! It’s evil because it’s very tempting, but on the other hand it can get you into a lot of trouble. And it can also make you go way over budget if you’re not careful...
Dazed Digital: You used digital for your Elliott Smith film, Elliott’s Suicide. was he a friend?
Kenneth Anger: Definitely. He was a neighbour of mine in Silver Lake. I always knew he was preoccupied with death. When he stabbed himself, he was having a fight with his girlfriend. But that’s such a ridiculous reason for a 34-year-old to commit suicide. I love his music. Sometimes he would play for me and just 20 others in a little Sunset Junction place. It’s a loss.
Dazed Digital: What are you working on now?
Kenneth Anger: I want to do something with dialogue for the first time, which will be filming one of Aleister Crowley’s rituals. It’s called the gnostic mass, and it’s 40 minutes long. I’ve chosen my high priestess and priest and so forth. The actual mass is a little bit similar to a Catholic mass, except there’s a nude lady lying on the altar. That Catholics don’t have. I visited Crowley’s house in Sicily, rented it for a whole summer. Crowley was kicked out when Mussolini heard he was some kind of black magician in 1923. But he’d lived there for three years and painted the walls with wonderful murals, but they’d been covered with whitewash. So I spent the summer removing the whitewash and photographing them.
Dazed Digital: What were the murals of?
Kenneth Anger: Erotic scenes with a sense of humour. For example, one was a lady having an affair with a goat, which is kind of special! Crowley was a little bit... diabolically humorous.