Thursday, June 18, 2009


The Films of Kenneth Anger, Volume Two opens with the pivotal picture of the artist's career. After returning stateside and encountering a gang of bikers at Coney Island, he created the most successful underground film of its time. "From the moment that Kenneth Anger's arachnid talents flashed on the silver screen," critic and director Gregory Markopoulos wrote of Scorpio Rising (1963; color, 28 minutes), "everyone knew, indeed felt, that an extraordinary motion picture was being unfurled." Scorpio Rising positively detonated in cinemas, sending shockwaves in every direction. Los Angeles theatre manager Mike Getz, who regularly programmed experimental movies, was found guilty of having exhibited "an obscene film" after an American Nazi Party nimrod was offended by Anger's eroticisation of Third Reich iconography. Prosecutor Warren I. Wolfe, as Hobermann and Rosenbaum recount the trial, "had taken pains to exclude all those who 'customarily enjoyed books and movies'" from his all-female jury, which never viewed the entire film, but was shown instead blown-up stills of Scorpio's male nudity. Susan Sontag, Martin Ritt, and Allen Ginsberg testified for the defense, but to no avail. Fortunately, as it had done for Fireworks, the California State Supreme Court overturned the verdict.

Partially dedicated to Jack Parsons, the Hell's Angels, and assorted celebrity suicides, Scorpio Rising reflects Anger's own astrological sign, functioning both as Triumph of the Will-styled propaganda and trickster machismo parody. The film follows a gang of motorcyclists from their obsessive work on their bikes to an orgiastic Halloween party and a deadly race. Scorpio (Bruce Byron), the central figure, is an impoverished man's Marlon Brando/James Dean, an absurd fellow with delusions of fascist grandeur. Scorpio devours comic strips, snorts crystal meth, pretends to shoot a menorah and a cross on his tiny television screen, and desecrates an abandoned church in Brooklyn Heights. He's the most fleshed-out of all the director's characters: adrift in dreamland, but with the power to cross over into the waking sleep of this world. Anger pulls no punches as the film accelerates towards annihilation, unleashing the full force of Ra Hoor Khuit, the vengeful wargod who concludes The Book of the Law. His masterstroke is the cultural appropriation of the low-budget Lutheran-produced biblical drama, The Last Road to Jerusalem, a copy of which was, he claims, accidentally delivered to his front porch by a confused postman. (Landis believed it was actually purchased in a camera store.) "With my Hawk's head I peck at the eyes of Jesus as he hangs upon the cross," Crowley wrote in Verse 51; thus does Anger juxtapose Jesus with the heretical Scorpio, the messiah in the temple with Dionysian revelers. It's a return to the Pleasure Dome, but Anger's scope is paradoxically wider here; the involution from gods to men like gods illuminates the madness lurking in the shadows of popular myth. Scorpio is youthcult in full, thorny flower, bringing down the temple of Jehovah and other "crapulous creeds." Ranting and raving to Nazi images, commanding his imaginary armies, he's the inevitable consequence of blind devotion--the dystopian death dance of all mass movements. (A split-second shot of Byron's masked eye powerfully echoes Anger's convulsive cyclopean appearance as Hecate.) The real-life fatal crash that climaxes the film (photographed by Anger on the bikers' last run from Brooklyn to Walden Pond), as startling as it at first seems, is in fact mere punctuation, a point brusquely emphasized by the silver-studded word "END" on a belt that is casually tossed to the floor. We're not, in the final analysis, the demigods we like to think we are.

Scorpio Rising marks the director's first ironic use of pop songs, a strategy that has provoked many commentators to proclaim this film the forerunner of the music video. Thirteen tunes simultaneously underscore and undermine the visuals, opening with Ricky Nelson's "Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)" as Anger unveils one of the most startling title sequences in motion picture history: Scorpio Rising studded on the back of a biker's leather jacket, with the director's name on his belt. The Randells' "Wind-Up Doll" accompanies shots of toy police cyclists traveling in aimless circles. When the Grim Reaper appears in a greaser's garage to the strains of "My Boyfriend's Back," the viewer understands who the real fatal lover is. The cyclists' party primping to "Blue Velvet" is as narcissistic as Puce's siren's (Anger's camera caresses and teases them), while Scorpio's amphetamine-fueled meltdown to "Point of No Return" and "I Will Follow Him" parodies Pan's Pleasure trip.

Fantoma offers a new internegative derived from the original reversal rolls, though the usual traces of grain remain. As with the earlier films, the sound is splendid. Scorpio Rising won numerous awards around the world, including First Prize for Documentary at the Poretta Terme Festival of Free Cinema in Italy; it also netted a Golden Mermaid at Rapello and First Prize at Foothill College's Third Annual Independent Filmmakers' Festival.

Byron wanted money and fame, but Scorpio took him nowhere fast. Powerless to turn the performance to his advantage--Landis depicts him as a clueless creature who "spent his life living up to Kenneth Anger's satirization of him"--vengefully obsessed with the director and his own lost shot at the Big Time, Byron haunted screenings of the film through the years, haranguing audiences. Anger doesn't address Byron's pseudo-stalking in his commentary, but he does complain about the intense smell of the ex-Marine's cat-filled bedroom ("I'm a dog person myself"), expresses amazement that the volatile soldier was ever honorably discharged, doubts the pistol Byron brandishes onscreen was legal, and wonders if the actor stole one of his Nazi flags that appear in the church sequence. (They went missing during production.) He also points out, as many others have, that David Lynch duplicated his use of the Bobby Vinton ballad, and reveals that the Lutheran Church sued him over his sampling of their Grade-Z epic, but the court ruled that he had "fair use" of it. "They should be ashamed to show such a corny film to their children," Anger sniffs. Apparently they are, as the picture has been permanently pre-empted by Scorpio Rising, and exists publicly only as framents in Anger's film. Discussing the climactic death sequence, Anger is unexpectedly defensive: "I'm sorry the fellow was killed," he says, "but it wasn't like I tripped him." He points out that the dead biker's arm tattoo, which has always been difficult to make out, most appropriately reads, "Blessed, Blessed Oblivion."