Kenneth Anger’s ghost haunts much of modern pop culture. Incongruous and sex-filled music videos, calendars with sweaty working class guys, a majority of queer cinema: a lover of the occult, of leather, of the codes of masculinity, writer/filmmaker/actor Anger’s work used a dreamscape to deconstruct masculinity outside of its social confines. He rubbed shoulders with Jean Cocteau and occultist Aleister Crowley, he made films that got him arrested on obscenity charges and he penned one of the most infamous collection of gossipy stories Hollywood ever saw.
Film historian Karina Longworth, the host and creator of You Must Remember This, has dedicated the latest season of her podcast to fact-checking Anger’s book, Hollywood Babylon. Originally written as stories and essays for Cahiers du Cinéma, then published in Paris in 1959 to minimal fanfare, then published in the United States in 1965 during the height of the Hollywood New Wave, the book details and contrives versions of scandals and salacious Hollywood tales that indicted (or at least smudged) the names of people like Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Fatty Arbuckle, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. Longworth calls the book a “Hollywood party game of telephone” with its inconsistencies, exaggerations and outright misinformation. It flourished, cementing Anger’s legacy as meta-fantasist deviant in history. Longworth has admirably committed to investigating what facts can be found about 19 of the stories featured in the book.
Anger’s role as an avant-garde filmmaker, though, is as intertwined with his work as his role as a libelous storyteller. Regardless of whether the accounts in Hollywood Babylon were true, Anger was fascinated with how Hollywood branded itself, how wealth, sex, drugs, etc. could run amok within a group of people with power, and what that represented in the rest of us. Without condoning his tales in Hollywood Babylon, we can still consider how easily certain people—or character versions of those people—fit easily within the archetypes that he would unpack in his films. Men, the power they had and how they used it in the context of desire was a favorite subject. Whether talking about Griffith, director of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, and his pedophilic predilections or Fatty Arbuckle’s rape scandal, Anger demonstrates a clear fixation on the relationship between male power and sex. He, for better and worse, mythologizes the kind of influence that these men have, mythologizes what sexuality means with respect to the gendered biases of both the Hollywood industry and the audiences dazzled by its mythmaking. Hollywood Babylon, its own kind of fan fiction, could look back and loosely use the fevered stories, some of which came from fan ’zines themselves, to morph, like a fun house mirror, audience and industry into the unrecognizable.
His earliest known surviving film is Fireworks, made in 1947 when his parents were away for a weekend. The sculpted men of the short are both recognizable and yet hyperbole, exaggeration—fantasy. Their actions and gestures (with sex, with violence, within communal circles) are captured in the abstract, Anger attempting to understand their phantasmagoric significance in engendering queer desire. The hands and bare chests, the backs and the sailor outfits: These code archetypes with intention, as if longing could be carved into their bodies. Anger astonishingly can present queer desire both as post-World War II reality (violence, gang rape, homophobia, baiting) and as euphoric unreality (sadomasochism, bukkake). It’s masculinity as dream and nightmare.
An easy line can be connected from Kenneth Anger to Jean Genet to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, artists for whom homo desire was not only rebellious and political, but was a key to understanding (white) maleness itself, in all of its gross and beautiful intracisies. The sailors of Fireworks nod to the prisoners of Un Chant D’amour (1950), while the strapping bodies of Querelle (1983) wink back, a threesome of untethered eroticism.
There’s a destructive and violent streak in Fireworks; read out of context, it could get called retrograde or dated. Chains are used to ravage the man’s body, blood is splashed on his face and what looks like a ticking time bomb is found beneath his guts. The scenes of grotesque brute force are Anger’s way of connecting the dots between desire and death wish. At 14 minutes, Fireworks presents a legible psychology to its main character, whose midnight cruising finds him in a liminal space of what homosexuality is and what it could be, exploring how trauma can be transfigured into catharsis and pleasure.
Anger’s films seethe and simmer with eroticism, asserting a language of desire that was dangerous, and not only because of the social and historical context within which his films were predominantly made. Anger had a keen understanding of desire as weapon, the body as tool and sex as an entire world to get lost in. The end of Fireworks, featuring a “man in uniform” with a roman candle sticking out from his fly like a phallus, suggests masculinity and queer desire explode with pleasure as much as with self-destruction.
If there was any doubt that Anger had a postmodernist sensibility, the first shot of Scorpio Rising (1963) should dispel such skepticism: A man in a tight black t-shirt and tight dark jeans walks up to find a motorcycle’s parts all laid on the ground, as if the tenants of maleness itself has been taken apart and laid on the floor. In the pile are black leather boots. Classic pop songs like “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels and “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton act as dialogue and dialectic.
Anger pays acute attention to the construction of the masculine ideal: putting together the motorcycle, putting together an outfit of black and leather, looking at itself without doubt, unphased by the prospect of death. Scorpio Rising is as critical of these pieces of masculine iconography, connecting them more directly with ideas of uniformity and fascism. The rebel cool of James Dean and Marlon Brando, whose pictures appear in the film, has its implications about power worship, performance and uniformity. Considerations of how sameness reifies hierarchies within queerness and male communities don’t explicitly exist just as Nazi garb, but as the construction of the archetypes of sameness as well.
Scorpio Rising and Fireworks have an edginess about how they conceived gender and desire primarily because social context made such assertions and images forbidden in the first place. Anger’s transgressive approach to sex without graphically showing sex has been built and riffed upon: Lady Gaga’s video for “Alejandro” heavily recalls the fascination with leather as signifier and masculinity in distress, and not only Fassbinder, but filmmakers like Gregg Araki, have recontextualized a sweaty death wish for the New Queer Cinema with the spectre of AIDS haunting/not haunting its leads in The Living End. João Pedro Rodrigues would also take an interest in spiritual/religious iconography as it connected to queerness and kink in O Fantasma and The Ornithologist. Bertrand Mandico’s directorial debut, The Wild Boys, would not exist without Anger, where gender and its erotic discontents are disassembled and remixed on an island that could be paradise or purgatory or inferno, depending on your preference. For Anger, maleness itself, reality or myth, occupies heaven and hell all at the same time.