Invocation of My Demon Brother: not an essential film to see for Kenneth Anger fans

Kenneth Anger, “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969)

If like me, you’ve already seen a considerable number of films by Kenneth Anger, this one won’t add much that’s new to your knowledge: Anger creates what’s basically an extended rock music video with scraps from another film “Lucifer Rising”, shots of bikers, a group of people smoking from a skull and a Satanic funeral ceremony for a cat. Filming techniques such as the layering of images (a constant Anger motif), film speed distortion, placing the camera at odd angles and juxtaposing shots drawn from different sources to suggest a narrative and create unusual connections are combined so as to extract maximum shock and horror, and disturb viewers with intimations of occult evil. Bold red shades are emphasised to invoke Western stereotypes about devil worship. A multi-lens filming approach so as to suggest an insect’s point of view adds an extra sinister impression.

Some viewers will obviously find this film very dark and frightening, especially in scenes where a Satanic high priest flourishes a flag with the swastika symbol: this could very well be Anger in a cheeky mood, knowing that (in 1969) Western audiences were sensitive to the horrors of Nazism and Nazi flirtation with pagan religion and the occult, and so he uses a Nazi symbol in the context of an occult ritual to shock people. The joke is that the ritual is in honour of a dead cat! – in this way, Anger plays with images and their sequencing, and the cultural associations they have for Western viewers, to create a spectacle that makes fun of people’s fears and the things they avoid without understanding why they do so.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the soundtrack, composed on Moog synthesiser by famous Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger: it ain’t much to hear, to be honest, but it’s probably the most significant work of solo music he’s done in nearly 50 years.

The film is not essential viewing: you’re best directed to Anger’s other works “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, “Lucifer Rising” and “Scorpio Rising” if you want a psychedelic experimental film experience with occult themes.

The Man We Want to Hang: a subjective if not very experimental homage to Aleister Crowley

Kenneth Anger, “The Man We Want to Hang” (2002)

After over 20 years in which he made no films, the American cult underground film director Kenneth Anger released a visual homage to British occultist Aleister Crowley. The homage consists of a tour of drawings and paintings made by Crowley plus other artwork featuring Crowley, all of which were exhibited in The October Gallery in London in April 1998. Several if not most of these works came from British rock musician Jimmy Page’s private collection of art. In common with Anger’s other films, there is no spoken word soundtrack, only more or less continuous orchestral music by Anatol Liadov, and the film is short at just under 14 minutes.

Anger’s camera pans steadily over the paintings and for most of them he zooms in on a particular feature, such as a face, a group of figures, an erupting volcano or a scene within the painting that means something to him and which he wishes to share with the audience. The erupting volcano in one painting ties the whole film to earlier Anger works like “Fireworks” and calls attention to homoerotic themes that often flavour Anger’s films. Of course with the film being soundless, viewers might feel rather put upon having to view the paintings and drawings the way Anger does. There is not much scope for viewers wishing to see and interpret Crowley’s work for themselves. Crowley admittedly was untutored and his style of art is naif; he was rather better at landscape painting with lots of yellow shades than portraiture.

Seeing the paintings in close-up is intended to immerse the viewer in Crowley’s world, to see things the way he might have done (as interpreted by Anger). Though there are objects or figures in the paintings intended to reveal aspects of the Thelema religion that Crowley conceived and elaborated on, there are very few such things (like a group of devils) that appear sinister or malevolent to the adult viewers who see them.

It would have been good if Anger had given viewers some information about the paintings and why he chose to film some works and not others. What was the significance of the paintings for him, did they relate to something that occurred in his life, did they inspire him to do something special … these are questions some viewers may want to know. But it’s not Anger’s style to explain himself or the films he makes: whatever value the audience derives from his films depends very much on what viewers themselves bring to the film-watching experience. That the film is a very subjective one though comes across in one scene in which Crowley’s Law of Thelema, reduced to its first four words, suggests that Thelema is no more than a philosophy of self-interest and self-aggrandisement: the actual Law is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will” and is intended to encourage people to discover their true purpose and will in life, free of manipulation and oppression by external actors such as conventional organised religion, governments and institutions working to maintain conformist societies in thrall to unseen and opaque agendas.

As an experimental film in Anger’s oeuvre, this visual montage makes no major demands on viewers and is the quietest and most accessible of the works of his that I’ve seen. The layering of images associated with Anger is reduced to an absolute minimum. He really does love the colour yellow too.

Puce Moment: a nostalgia piece that foresees the arrival of pop music videos

Kenneth Anger, “Puce Moment” (1949)

In the space of just 6 minutes, this short acts as a homage to Kenneth Anger’s grandmother, a dressmaker and designer who owned the flapper-style gowns displayed in the film, and as a nostalgic and whimsical celebration of Hollywood’s silent-film period of the 1920s and the glamour and mystique associated with the major celebrities of the time. In that celebration is a sharp and witty criticism of how far Hollywood had slumped by the late 1940s. This criticism would continue in Anger’s documentation in book form in his “Hollywood Babylon” series that began in 1977. In its idolisation of the silent film era, using no other audio soundtrack other than music (originally music from an opera was used, to be replaced by two pop songs in the 1960s), “Puce Moment” becomes a precursor of the pop music video: music and visual montages are juxtaposed in such a way that the music seems to comment on what the audience sees. The film sequences are arranged so as to suggest a narrative that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

What would merely have been a film of a young woman (Yvonne Marquis) choosing and putting on an evening gown, reclining on a chaise longue that moves of its own volition and later taking four borzoi hounds for a walk acquires a decadent and opulent lushness under the gaze of Anger’s camera. The film focuses hungrily and wistfully on the beautiful dresses and closely follows the woman’s hand fondling various coloured ornaments and glasses, and selecting her jewels. An air of languor and luxury surrounds the lady and the various objects. There is something quite jaded and even ritualistic as if this activity is all the lady lives for.

Originally intended as part of a longer film, “Puce Moment” is at once a fond romantic idealisation of a past era of popular culture and a portent of what was to come in the second half of the 20th century.

Scorpio Rising: an amazing concoction of film collages, music and themes

Kenneth Anger, “Scorpio Rising” (1964)

One of the most amazing concoctions of film collages and music soundtracks, “Scorpio Rising” is perhaps Kenneth Anger’s most famous and influential film. It’s a showcase of Anger’s interest in outsider and gay sub-cultures, homoeroticism, and ritual behaviour and activity that result in transformation usually through the medium of sexual violence and death. The juxtaposition of various visual sequences in parallel can have read into it a connection between and among Roman Catholic belief, the attraction of cults (religious and political) and Anger’s ambivalent opinion about them, the role of ritual in sustaining such cults, and the place of violence and sacrifice in ritual practice that helps to sustain belief and restrain and keep people in their place.

On a basic level, the film follows a young biker, Scorpio, as he customises his bike and lavishes love and care upon it. He later dresses, slowly and carefully, in full biker gear before going to the bar where he and his friends usually hang out. They subject one of their own to a hazing that involves stripping and humiliating him and then possibly raping him. They then engage in a mock celebration of Mass culminating in one of the guys pissing into his helmet and offering it around to his flock. The fun climaxes in a furious bike race in which someone falls and breaks his neck. The police are soon at the scene to cart everyone off to jail.

In amongst all that activity, Anger includes footage from an old Cecil B de Mille film (“King of Kings”) of Jesus restoring sight to a blind man and later mounting a donkey to enter Jerusalem, from which city we know he’ll never leave alive. Photographs and propaganda material showing Adolf Hitler as a saviour figure and Nazi swastikas also appear. It’s as if Anger wants his audience to infer that religious fervour for Christianity and its major figures is no different from Nazi fanaticism and that religion, political cults and youth sub-cultures are as one in celebrating their distinctive rituals, fetishising objects of worship, incorporating violence and death with sexual undertones in their most important celebrations, and using that violence and the transformation of sacrificial victims as a focus for releasing social tension and unease in a world that pays lip service to freedom and individuality but fiercely suppresses both.

About 13 deliberately chosen pop and rock songs of the mid-1960s, all used without permission, make up the soundtrack in a way such that they heighten the audience’s sense that a ritual is underway, that a sacrifice is being prepared and death (and the transformation that it represents) will be the crowning result of both the ritual and the film. The audience plays an active part in interpreting the music and the visuals to draw out meaning that would not exist with the music and the film apart and in isolation from one another. We are very much participants in the ritual when we watch this film.

The beauty (if such a thing can be said) about Kenneth Anger’s films is that they are precise enough and vague enough that audiences can read a myriad of messages that all overlap. One can read nostalgia, a love of dressing, fun and teenage rebellion into the film; darker themes such as uncritical hero worship and the close relation of sexual violence, death and repression also appear.

 

Rabbit’s Moon: two very different films in mood and themes in spite of superficial similarities

Kenneth Anger, “Rabbit’s Moon” (started 1950: long version 1972, short version 1979)

Based on a Japanese myth about a rabbit on the moon, this film comes in two versions: a longer 15-minute version released in 1972 with a soundtrack of love songs laid over the action and a short 6-minute version with just one song “It Came in the Night” by a group called A Raincoat playing twice. The short edited version is quite cute with the bouncy song but I prefer the longer version as the songs seem more appropriate to the story-line and their mood aligns readily with the emotions of the main character Pierrot. The film is done in shades of almost neon blue and purple-blue in the long version and in a narrower range of blues in the short version.

The story is fairly basic: Pierrot (Andre Soubéyran) is enraptured by the full moon and tries to capture it. A friend, Harlequin (Claude Revenant), tries to dissuade him by dancing, juggling and somersaulting and then by bringing over a delectable fairy, Columbina (Nadine Valence), onto the scene to distract the clown. At this point the two versions diverge: in the long version, Harlequin claims Columbina for himself and Pierrot resumes his quest, only to be thwarted violently; in the second version, Pierrot is shocked to discover the object of his desire has been mutilated. Both versions are completely without sound save for the music soundrrack.

As with his other films, there is a lot of symbolism especially in the long version in which mediaeval illustrations of the moon and an eye are inserted into the film as though to convey an esoteric message.  The characters possibly represent archetypes that demonstrate some aspect or aspects of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy, possibly a lesson in the use of magic to achieve certain goals. The use of blue filters puts the film into dreamland territory which suits the actors’ miming and lifts it into the experimental film realm for adults to watch without feeling they are watching a film for children. Characters are borrowed from Italian Commedia dell’arte and conform to that genre’s stock roles of master (Harlequin), servant (Pierrot) and lover (Columbina). The drama that plays out is stagey but very beautiful to watch.

The short version is a light-hearted piece with rapid action and the looping soundtrack and might be considered a family-friendly copy; the long version is darker in tone and message with Pierrot undergoing a major soul-changing transformation. Elements of horror and possibly sadomasochistic homoeroticism can be found in both films, particularly in the longer film where Harlequin assumes a demonic appearance at times. That the same material is used for two very different films in spite of their superficial similarities demonstrates Anger’s skill as a story-teller and educator of sorts as well as his technical abilities in telling a story visually.

Fireworks: an ambivalent and powerful celebration of sexual attraction, submission and sadomasochism

Kenneth Anger, “Fireworks” (1947)

Quite a remarkable debut film this is from a 17-year-old Kenneth Anger which is a coming-of-age piece recreating a dream he had: the film explores homosexual attraction, submission and sadomasochistic violence. A young man (Anger himself) wakes up from a dream about being saved by a sailor in a large room of objects: among other thing, several photographs of a sailor carrying an unconscious man who could be Anger’s character himself, a hand with its middle finger amputated, a clay figurine. He dresses and goes out into the night; at a bar, he picks up a sailor who struts and poses for the enthralled youngster. The sailor beats up our man who then goes back outside but is accosted by a group of sailors who strip him, gang-rape him and thrash him with chains. The scenes of violence are extreme and painful to watch but are skilfully done so that the viewer imagines the worst being done to Anger’s character, but not actually see any torture or punishment.

The 14-minute film appears to be ambivalent about celebrating gay sexuality: Anger’s character experiences liberation but it looks extremely degrading and you wonder how much suffering he undergoes is necessary. Sure, scenes at the end of the film suggest the youngster is fulfilled – the photographs can be disposed of, the hand is mended and the visual narrative hints at an important rite of passage being completed – but all the same, you feel the young man will keep going back for more of the same punishment. Still, the depiction of raw sexual attraction, willing submission, violence and pain leading to transformation and fulfillment is very powerful, even beautiful at times, especially as it’s coming from a very young film-maker. There is humour both bawdy and witty, particularly in scenes featuring the pouring of milk over the young man (hint, hint) and some fireworks being set off from an unusual launch-pad!

The piece looks conventional enough and Anger hadn’t yet learned how to layer images one over the other and edit shots to enhance the narrative and bring the film to a climax. Instead the orchestral music score, sounding very typical melodramatic Hollywood of the period (1940s), is put to work creating the appropriate moods, ratcheting up tension, bringing suspense and celebrating the protagonist’s sexual awakening. Though there are a couple of scenes where the joins in the musical soundtrack are awkward, overall the marriage of music to plot and mood is well done. Close-ups at critical points in the film, taking place during the rape and torture scene, bring out the protagonist’s pain and the brutality of sailors beating him with chains as he suffers without protest. There’s a little bit of a religious element here: the young man is Christ-like in his willingness to suffer and the pouring of milk over his body could be construed as a resurrection.

Even at this early stage of his career, Anger was demonstrating a unique vision and a style of filming quite unlike what his film-director contemporaries were making. Sound is completely unnecessary: the protagonist is never named and so he might be considered representative of all young sexual novices who must undergo necessary ordeals to become fully adult and sexually aware.

Lucifer Rising: a heartfelt expression of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy

Kenneth Anger, “Lucifer Rising” (1981)

Begun some time in the 1960s but not fully completed until 1981, with the music soundtrack having to be revamped completely, Kenneth Anger’s “Lucifer Rising” is an eye-popping visual cornucopia of ancient Egyptian and Celtic Druidic mythological figures and ideas mixed with elements of the natural and the supernatural to detail a lesson about the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and the transformations that occur therein. The ultimate message is that all such myths and the forces of nature and beyond-nature are emanations of the power of Lucifer, in this film portrayed as an Angel of Light. The actual workings of the film’s plot, if such a thing exists, are a mystery to me, I who have very little knowledge of Aleister Crowley, that English occultist, astrologer and magician who founded the religious belief system known as Thelema. Even though for many years I was a Led Zeppelin fan and my favourite member of the band was Jimmy Page who was much impressed by Crowley’s life and works and even owned Crowley’s Boleskine House estate from the 1970s to 1991, Crowley’s philosophy largely passed me by; I frankly wasn’t interested in something that to me seemed a hodge-podge of bits and pieces of various unrelated religions bolted on and stuck together with nails and duct tape. Crowley was a rebel against many of the religious, moral and social restraints in early 20th century English society, a society still struggling under 19th century Victorian conservatism, and in some ways his life-style and the philosophy he practised and preached with its slogan “Do what Thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” are phenomena that can still resonate with people tired of contemporary social, political and economic hypocrisies in a new century.  It has to be said also that Aleister Crowley worked for intelligence agencies, in his case specifically British intelligence units MI5 and MI6 and British naval intelligence – meeting future spy thriller writer Ian Fleming along the way – and possibly had ties with secret elites in the British and US governments who may have an interest in spreading Thelema philosophy with its notion of an elite ruling over the masses through Western mainstream popular culture media such as the music and film industries.

There is a vague narrative starting with spectacular volcanic eruptions leading into scenes of a priest and priestess in pharaonic garb welcoming the dawn of a new day. A woman (Marianne Faithfull) is killed by a young man (Chris Jagger, brother of the more famous Mick) and while he purifies himself of his act, the woman is reborn with bluish skin in a forest. Images of nature at its most beautiful, savage or repellent are inserted into the story structure in which rituals are performed, UFOs start to appear and the way is prepared for the arrival of Lucifer on Earth. The style of filming matches the narrative: fairly relaxed at first with several static images, steady tracking or panning of the camera and slow edits. The camera pauses over postcard scenes of Stonehenge and Egyptian pyramids and sphinxes. Any layering of two or more images is done very sparingly and close-ups of nature scenes emphasise colour or texture. As the film progresses, the scenes get shorter and the editing speeds up in anticipation of the great event. Somehow the appearance of spaceships doesn’t seem all that incongruous in a film that whacks together Egyptian and Druidic myths and symbols regardless of whether the two belief systems have anything in common.

Faithfull and Jagger do fine as non-actors in a film that doesn’t demand much of them or of the other actors who appear. One of them is Bobby Beausoleil who also wrote the music for “Lucifer Rising” and an outstanding work this is, perhaps the best part of the film overall, when I consider that while composing the music he was in jail for his role in the murders of Sharon Tate and four other persons in 1968 by various people under the influence of Charles Manson. The music is a psychedelic orchestral opus with layers of organ, synthesised brass and electric guitars, the last of which become more obvious in the last half of the film; it’s a rich tapestry of shimmering sounds that suits the film’s subject matter. I have heard the original music soundtrack that Jimmy Page, who also briefly appears in the film, composed while I watched an early 20-minute version of “Lucifer Rising”: the music is a dull droning affair devoid of guitar so Anger was right to reject it.

The film might be loopy to most people but it does have an inner logic and power. It might not be totally serious and there are scenes of high camp but overall “Lucifer Rising” is heartfelt and passionate about the Thelemic philosophy it illustrates.

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome: celebration of a religious ritual that imprisons as much as it liberates

Kenneth Anger, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” (1954)

A lush creation by famous underground avant-garde film-maker Kenneth Anger, this film of a celebratory religious ritual mixes several of Anger’s favourite themes and obsessions while remaining mysterious enough that it can be interpreted on a number of levels depending on the viewer’s background and opinions. I can see here a fascination with the occult and its symbols and trappings, many of which look like deliberate parodies and send-ups of Christian ritual and symbolism, into which Anger has inserted his own interest in the work and philosophy of English mystic Aleister Crowley. There is also a sense of people creating their own selective mix of mythology and ritual. Coming from another angle again, I can see criticism of formal religion, a suggestion that ritualistic religious ceremony can be corrupted and rotting from within, as much a prison from which there’s no escape except death, as it is a source of comfort and affirmation for its followers. In the midst of ecstatic communion, laughter and joy, there is also violence and an offer of a sacrifice to dark gods. The sacrifice could be interpreted as liberation as well, a release into a new clean world without sin and corruption. If we interpret the symbolism of “Inauguration …” very broadly, the film also becomes a critique of Western culture and people’s subjective notions of what is culturally acceptable and what is not.

The actual film itself is set to the music of “Glagolitic Mass”, a composition for solo voices, choir, organ and orchestra by Czech composer Leos Janacek, and could be seen as a very long music video. There’s no dialogue at all, no background or other ambient sound. The film builds up steadily with static diorama-like scenes up to the moment where various participants consume an intoxicating drink and then the visuals explode into layered scenes of bursting, flaming colour and strange superimposed juxtapositions and combinations of repeating images, Hindu-god figures with green skin (a symbol of death), Egyptian gods and maenads (female acolytes of the Greek god Dionysius, lord of ecstasy) tearing apart a young man. The film’s close, near-fetishistic attention to objects, the actors’ elaborate costuming and studied appearance, and the staged, mannerly look of scene set-ups recall the equally camp kitsch film classics made by the Armenian film-maker Parajanov in the 1960s and 1980s.

This is obviously not a film for everyone: much of it up to the 20th minute is slow and appears quite remote, not at all concerned about drawing viewers into its ritual and secrets. Characters are preoccupied with consuming rosary beads, a snake and a jewel. Religious rituals have never been about entertaining or informing viewers of their purpose after all; you’re always assumed to have undergone some training or education in the religion’s basic practices and knowledge and to receive further knowledge you have to be selected by the religion’s standard bearers whose expectations of you and your conformity to its precepts may be severe. Eventually the film does immerse viewers into its realm but you need to interpret its goings-on for yourselves: there’s no attempt to explain what’s happening for the benefit of first-time participants in the ritual. Is the death scene of the young blond man a send-up of Christian Holy Communion ritual as well as a literal interpretation of Dionysian ritual? Is it a reference to the destruction of a particular worldview or civilisation? Is there the possibility of rebirth, that the death is but a necessary initiation step he must take into another (and better) plane of existence?

People with no interest or appreciation for arcane religious ritual, veiled symbolism and the eclectic mixing of deities, figures and stories from different religious and folkloric traditions will be bored by the film and perhaps should pass it over but they will miss its layered symbolism and message of initiation, celebration, ecstasy, death and the hope of new life.