The Films of Kenneth Anger

Kenneth Anger died earlier this month at the fine old age of 96. Flipping the script on my usual soundtrack review concept of highlighting film composers, Anger was not a musician but a short film director who filmed his projects without live sound or dialogue, then completed them by adding in recorded music. 

His music choices usually function as ironic or subversive commentary to the visual material. However, this style and concept that he pioneered was so groundbreaking for its time, and was so imitated that he takes on the role of a film composer, so I wanted to reflect.

Anger was a truly original talent who, for good or ill, was the first experimental filmmaker to unapologetically fill his work with contemporary pop music as film scoring. In his films the concept throws the role of music in film off-kilter and acts as bizarre counterpoint to the visuals. 

His early films from Fireworks, Eau d’Artifice, and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome use classical music selections as soundtrack material. With later works like Scorpio Rising, Kustom Kar Kommandos, and Puce Moment – all silent films – he pivoted and used rock/pop songs of the day strung together as counterpoint to the iconic imagery. In the process Anger discovered that something fascinating happens when two art forms with dueling rhythms and separate purposes intersect and the final result of his subject material mixed with the music is greater than the sum of the two parts.  

On a technical basis, the production values of his works are no better than the average student film, but it matters little in the basic impact. In fact the fuzzy, low-budget look and feel of his productions adds to the strangeness of them and makes them more memorable.

Anger’s influence was almost immediate and over the course of time the concept has been done to death, though most of the directors who employ this technique (like Martin Scorsese, the most flagrant offender, who throws pop songs into his films willy-nilly without regard to relevance) have little of Anger’s spark or inspiration.

Which is not to suggest that his visual style wasn’t arresting on its own. Viewing Inaguration of the Pleasure Dome is a memorable event, striking in its vibrant colors and in its wild, surrealist depictions of cast members consuming ropes of semi-precious stones and walking about with their heads encased in bird cages.

There is as much to disdain about Kenneth Anger the man as there is to admire for his early film work. By all accounts he possessed a feeble work ethic and no interest in seeking a financial source for his creative livelihood, both of which which hobbled his ability to maintain any consistent output of filmic art. And he was adamant about not taking ownership of these weaknesses, always deflecting criticism of his erratic output by building a moat of obfuscation and myth around himself to continue promoting himself as auteur on the basis of a rather slender body of work. Add to this his habit of referring to himself as a shaman conjurer of the black arts, occult specialist, and freelance son of Lucifer, and you have a portrait of a major league hall of fame bullshitter. 

Outside of his nomadic self-promoting lifestyle and sporadic activity as experimental filmmaker, Anger accounted for himself to great advantage by penning the wildly popular Hollywood Babylon, a passionately subjective review of the history of Hollywood from the first popular silent films to the demise of the studio system in the early 1960s. The book is compulsively readable with a unique writing style that fascinates with stories of larger-than-life luridity without the result resembling crude tabloid hack work. Commenting on the overall effect of the narrative surveying the tales of decadence, opulence, desperation, and kinky grandeur that permeate the book, one reviewer remarked that “Kenneth Anger has fashioned a delicious box of poisoned bonbons”. 

Since Hollywood Babylon was published in 1965 much of the stories Anger penned has been held up to scrutiny and declared either partially true or in some cases whole fabrications. But the sleuths who take it upon themselves to call out half-truths are missing the point of what makes the book such an enjoyable classic. 

When considering the accuracy of Hollywood Babylon‘s narrative, Ernest Hemingway’s comment that “great novels are more true than if they really happened” come to mind. As an inveterate escapist and fanatic for the fantastic in the art of moving pictures, Anger understands what gets us in front of the screens to watch films, and that impulse is not to study factual history. As someone who lived in the belly of the Hollywood beast for 15 years I can tell you that Hollywood Babylon nails the experience of existing inside that madhouse of human dreams better than any quality investigative journalist could document in a non-fiction volume with 20 times the word count. 

By ignoring the man’s lack of artistic staying power and myth-making feints you can get a picture of a talent that was a lighthouse to show the way forward to a new era of putting music to moving image. When I heard that he passed away in Yucca Valley in May of this year and his escaped soul flew over the dirty brown Southern California smog dome, a lyric from his Puce Moment – penned by the mysterious Johnathan Halper and added in raw demo tape form – came to mind:

I’ve learned quite a lot
Shooting through my mind
Things I never guessed at before

And so I’ve decided to leave my old life behind
I don’t need it anymore

Gonna learn to fly the clouds
Gonna learn to ride the rain
I’ll learn what lies beneath the earth

Gonna learn to fly the clouds
Gonna understand the space
I’ll even go back beyond birth