- An Interview with Kenneth Anger
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Kenneth Anger is everywhere—on MTV night and day, in gay leather bars, and in the poetic narratives of experimental films. Anger’s seminal works—Scorpio Rising (1964), Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), and Fireworks (1947)—resound with cultural and historical events of the postwar era: queer politics, obscenity trials, and youth culture. He has had tremendous impact on both experimental and Hollywood filmmakers. His association with figures such as Aleister Crowley, Dr. Alfred Kinsey, Anais Nin, and Mick Jagger have made his biography as legendary as his ribald, best-selling chronicles of Hollywood Babylon. When Kenneth Anger responds, he speaks as a historian and as a producer—witness his expansive knowledge of both experimental and Hollywood cinema.
Anger’s films demonstrate an intense awareness of, and a conceptual agility with, filmic language. Each is an experiment of a different order. In Eaux D’Artifice, the dissolve creates a sense of space and time unique to the material properties of cinema. In Scorpio Rising, Anger successfully reappropriates pop culture—B-grade Jesus movies, Elvis, and Coney Island bikers—to create a heat-crazed, erotically vibrant, sexually ambivalent portrait of American masculinity. Watching Fireworks, the viewer apprehends the story through an astute awareness of the frame—its ability to release and to withhold information. The frame, in its hermetic exhibitionism, maintains spatial integrity and [End Page 75] temporal continuity while portraying action. Anger uses the consistency of his framing to engage the audience with the specificity of his plot, drawing the viewer into the frame—into the details that belong to his narrative and that become visible to the audience only through a dialogue with the film. In Fireworks, what appears to be a morning erection is actually an African statue waiting behind the sheets, a mere allusion to the protagonist’s desires.
The decadent and ecstatic quality of Anger’s work—the opulent sets, the young and muscular forms, the narrative climaxes—resides in the tension between the visual structures of Hollywood and the unpredictable beauty of experimentation. Formally, Anger’s films are orgiastic. He uses Hollywood conventions, such as shot-counter-shot and establishing shot, not to create filmic order. Rather, he subverts these visual codes by confusing the protagonists’ fantasies with the reality of their settings. By rendering the internal desires of his characters in a Hollywood style, he makes the landscape chaotic and irrational. In the visual fusion of fantasy and reality, the logic of Hollywood convention is dislocated into Kenneth Anger’s own cinematic vernacular.
I interviewed Kenneth Anger on April 26, 1996, the day following a screening of his film work at the University of California, San Diego. The program included Fireworks (1947), Rabbit’s Moon (1950), Eaux D’Artifice (1953), Scorpio Rising (1963), Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), and Lucifer Rising (1970–80). Kenneth Anger’s presentation was part of an ongoing film series, titled GLARE 96, that I curated in the Spring of 1996 at the University of California, San Diego. I would like to extend my deepest appreciation to Kenneth Anger, Caroline Koebel, and John Welchman for their contributions to this interview.
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In Scorpio Rising, you focus on the motorcycle subculture of the 1960s and do not use professional actors. The film is shot on location. It seems that you employ some conventions of documentary. But for Kustom Kar Kommandos, even though you are interested in car-customizing as a real, rather than fictional, phenomenon, you specifically say it’s not a documentary. What are your thoughts about documentary?
Well. They’re my vision of the subject. It’s the equivalent of Cezanne doing the painting or a sketch of a landscape. In a sense, the mountain in the South of France that he painted many times is a documentary of the mountain, but he turned it into his own vision. Or Van Gogh painting sunflowers in the fields. But “documentary” is a term invented by John Grierson in England, and his concept was...