Kenneth Anger, an experimental filmmaker who found a loyal cult following with his works that elucidated the dark side of pop culture, has died at 96. His gallery, Sprüth Magers, announced his death on Wednesday.
Anger’s influence is vast, with filmmakers and artists of multiple generations having drawn on his lurid depictions of violence, fascism, and homoeroticism.
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In Anger’s films, Nazis proliferate, and the threat of carnage—of physical, mental, and sexual varieties—is ever-present. Pop music proliferates, and references to quasi-religious sects and celebrity worship are pervasive.
“Anger’s films exploit Hollywood’s elaborate costumes, fantasies (both violent and erotic), otherworldly sets, and the peculiar mixture of magic and vulgarity that Anger himself dubbed ‘Hollywood Babylon,’” the film scholar Tom Gunning once wrote. “His détournement of Hollywood tropes helped Pop art emerge from the biting irony entwined with affection that defined American homosexual camp culture.”
His images were often highly stylized, in ways intended to provoke and stimulate. His 2008 film Ich Will!, a meditation on Hitler Youth, featured color film from Agfa, a German company popular during the Nazi era, as a means to assault the viewer. “In Ich Will!,” he told Artforum, “I have included brief flashes of Agfacolor for shock, to remind my audience that, yes, these madmen were made of pink flesh and blood. The red autocar is my favorite stroke here!”
His 1963 film Scorpio Rising is a classic. Its loose plot concerns a gay neo-Nazi biker gang that moves closer and closer to a fateful act of violence. This is no Hollywood film: there’s no dialogue in the course of its 28 minutes, which feature a soundtrack loaded with pop music by Bobby Vinton, the Crystals, and more, and pictures of skulls and Christ appear frequently.
Even those who hated underground filmmaking of the era could not resist its jaunty charm. “When Establishment film critics attack the Underground for sloppy craftsmanship, self-indulgence and perversity-for-perversity’s-sake, they usually make an exception of Kenneth Anger’s ‘Scorpio Rising’” the New York Times reported in 1967.
The film retains every bit of that intensity today, and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2022.
Other works would push the outré content of Scorpio Rising even further. Kustom Kar Kommandos, a short film from 1965, features muscular men who suggestively buff a hot rod car as the Paris Sisters song “Dream Lover” plays. The camera slowly traces their movements, which are shot in cute shades of pink that recall teen movies and advertising.
Lucifer Rising (1970–81) features an array of rituals that appear to contain magical elements. One of its crew members was Bobby Beausoleil, who had killed a musician during an incident connected to Charles Manson. Anger visited Beausoleil in prison and successfully got him to supply Lucifer Rising’s score, along with the aid of other inmates.
A gossip, a mythmaker, and a fabulous thinker, Anger has loomed so large that he has at various points become the subject of rumors. Around 2010, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles director Jeffrey Deitch wanted to mount an exhibition devoted to Anger. Deitch had erroneously heard that Anger was dead.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say he’s the inventor of independent cinema, he’s the inventor of gay cinema, and my friend David LaChapelle says he’s the inventor of the music video,” Deitch told ARTnews.
Born Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer in 1927 in Santa Monica, California, Anger was the third child of Wilbur Anglemyer, an electrical engineer, and Lillian Coler. The Presbyterian family had moved to Santa Monica to be closer to Lillian’s mother, Bertha, who became a strong influence on Kenneth, and financially supported the Anglemyers during the Great Depression.
According to Anger: The Unauthorized Biography of Kenneth Anger by Bill Landis, Bertha encouraged Kenneth’s artistic interests; she took him to the movies for the first time, a double bill featuring The Singing Fool (1928) and Thunder Over Mexico (1933).
Anger created his own first film in 1937, when he was ten. Titled Ferdinand the Bull, the short used 16mm film and features Kenneth dressed as a matador. His second film, Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat, was made several years later, in 1941, and comprised footage of kids playing during the summer.
In the 1940s, Kenneth shortened his name from Anglemyer to Anger. He attended classes at the University of Southern California, where he studied cinema, experimented with drugs, and decided to make a film directly addressing his sexuality despite the fact that homosexual acts were illegal at the time in the United States.
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 Sergei Eisenstein and Luis Buñuel.
Anger made the 14-minute Fireworks in 1947. “It’s a dream-like, homoerotic, masochistic fantasy in which a young man (Anger) is brutally beaten by a group of sailors,” wrote Esquire UK writer Mick Brown. “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.”
After the release of Fireworks, Anger was arrested on obscenity charges but was acquitted after the Supreme Court of California deemed the film to be art and not pornography.
In 1950 Anger departed the US for Europe, where he linked up with Jean Cocteau, who had seen Fireworks at a festival in Biarritz and become an avowed fan. That same year, he also worked with the sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who used Anger as a subject in his studies. At one point, Anger even masturbated for Kinsey—for the sake of science, Anger said—and was surprised to learn that his toes curled up when he reached orgasm.
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He became increasingly interested in religions such as Thelema, which was launched by Aleister Crowley and purports to harness occult powers. Its tenets would often find their way into Anger’s work.
In 1956 Anger released Hollywood Babylon, a book that overflowed with gossip about members of the Los Angeles elite. The stories it tells are tough to verify, and some featured players have explicitly denied them. One such tale involves actress Clara Bow’s having allegedly slept with the entire USC football team, including John Wayne (he is noted as Number 11).
Although much of Hollywood Babylon has been dismissed as fiction, the book has many admirers. Filmmaker Damien Chazelle said that he read it when making his 2022 Babylon, a 3-hour-long epic that likewise deliberately takes liberties with the Hollywood historical record.
Anger’s films have long been influential on directors far and wide, but artists too have closely followed them. During the past couple decades, his work has been firmly absorbed into museums and galleries, having appeared at the Whitney Museum and MoMA PS1.
Anger did not seem to mind much that he accrued legions of fans and a lot of clout. Asked by ARTnews about his legacy in 2016, he said, “I’ve done a considerable amount of creative work, and that’s my legacy.”
Then he added: “I really. Don’t. Care.”