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The Devil in the Details: Kenneth Anger, the Inventor of a Celluloid Avant-Garde, Nears 90

With his films moving from fringe theaters to MoMA, the director grants a rare interview at his old Hollywood haunts

Kenneth Anger photographed at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles on December 10, 2015. ©KATHERINE MCMAHON

Kenneth Anger photographed at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles on December 10, 2015.


Last December, my car left the apartment complex on North Hayworth Avenue where, in 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack and died. My driver took me up past Sunset Boulevard to Hollywood Boulevard, heading east, traversing the same road that, when it was just dirt, hosted horseback races between Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. The loser would pick up the tab at the Musso & Frank Grill, where I was headed. When I arrived, I asked the man at the front desk about a reservation for Kenneth Anger and his face went white.

Anger walked in 20 minutes later, and the waiters swiveled to see him—the whole room did. He was scowling, eyes glaring, and wearing a track jacket emblazoned on the back with the word “LUCIFER.” A host led him to a booth. Musso & Frank is the oldest restaurant in Hollywood, but only a few years older than Anger, America’s first avant-garde filmmaker.

“I went to Beverly Hills High School, and there used to be a red car, a streetcar—it doesn’t exist anymore—but I used to take that from Beverly Hills to Hollywood, and come to Musso & Frank,” Anger told me.

Anger is 88. He ordered a glass of red wine. The darkly handsome, mischievous face of his youth—Brando with a touch of evil—was still there, buried under slackened skin. He spoke slowly at the start, then sped up. He would look right at me, then look down at the table, in the direction of my phone, which was recording us. He kept caressing the cracks on the phone’s broken screen.

“So,” he said. “I’ve been coming here since I was a teenager.”

Slouching in the red vinyl booth, he looked around the restaurant, and talked about his childhood.

“My grandmother took me to see Al Jolson in The Singing Fool,” Anger went on. “Mostly it was silent with titles, then, suddenly, Al Jolson comes on and says, ‘You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!’ And this electrified the audience at the time.”

I asked him what he felt when he saw The Singing Fool.

“I wanted to be an individual artist making film,” Anger said.

Kenneth Anger, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, 1954–2014. (Click to enlarge.) ©KENNETH ANGER/COURTESY SPRÜTH MAGERS

Kenneth Anger, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, 1954–2014. (Click to enlarge.)


Anger pleasured himself for Alfred Kinsey’s sex studies, tipped off the Rolling Stones to the joys of the devil, published a scabrous Tinseltown tell-all that predated today’s celebrity gossip fetish, helped François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard shift from writing for Cahiers du Cinéma to rewriting the rules of cinema, saw his muses in the Hells Angels spark the riots at Altamont, and lived with a guy who would stab a man to death at the behest of Charles Manson.

For decades, Anger was quite literally a cult figure—a filmmaker with a strong affinity for the occult teaching of Aleister Crowley, known only from clandestine midnight gatherings. In 2010, Jeffrey Deitch, then the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, wanted to include Anger in a show about L.A. artists. He was told, “Kenneth Anger, he’s no longer alive.”

“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 said. “This guy is astonishing in his contributions.”

The rumors of Anger’s death turned out to have been overstated. His work has popped up in exhibitions ranging from the Whitney Biennial to last year’s Art Basel art fair in Switzerland, courtesy of his dealer, Sprüth Magers. The gallery just opened an outpost on Anger’s home turf, ensuring that he’ll be represented in Los Angeles for the immediate future. Long considered, however quietly, a founder of video art and underground film, Anger, as he approaches his 90th year, is doing something nobody would have expected seven decades ago, when he was starting out: stepping into the spotlight.

“The past five years have seen a general new interest in historic figures and the founding fathers and mothers of our contemporary art world. Kenneth Anger, rightly, has been identified as one such figure,” said Andreas Gegner, a director at Sprüth Magers.

Anger’s influence can be seen in the work of artists ranging from Martin Scorsese to Ryan Trecartin, and much of his work holds up as if it were made yesterday. But to say his films look like brand-new contemporary work would remove them from an age that, in many ways, he helped define.

Kenneth Anger, Scorpio Rising (stills), 1963. ©KENNETH ANGER/COURTESY SPRÜTH MAGERS

Kenneth Anger, Scorpio Rising (stills), 1963.


Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer was born in Santa Monica, California, in 1927. He made his first film at the age of ten, a frivolity called Ferdinand the Bull, now lost to time. His first mature work came at the age of 20 (he claims he was only 17): a 14-minute film called Fireworks (1947), shot over the course of a single weekend while his parents were out of town. Watching Fireworks now, it’s striking how the film predicts his work to come, both aesthetically—the shadow-slashed close-cuts, the images of the smoldering male form, the replication of images fading out like ghosts—and in terms of its ability to shock: the film depicts a dream sequence in which several male sailors appear to violently rape a bystander, played by a blood-splattered Anger, who seems to be enjoying himself.

As reels of Fireworks circulated around after its premiere at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles in 1947, the film’s notoriety was amplified—though Anger claimed that he was never arrested on obscenity charges, as has been reported. The film did provoke a fracas a decade later when the LAPD vice squad raided the Coronet, confiscated its copy of Fireworks, charged theater manager Raymond Rohauer $250, and levied three years of probation against him for violating the obscenity statute in the Motion Picture Production Code of 1934. The charge was contested, and the lawsuit made its way to the California Supreme Court, which upheld Rohauer’s right to screen Fireworks on the grounds that “homosexuality is older than Sodom and Gomorrah” and therefore a legitimate subject to tackle in art. Still, the film found little support in post-war Hollywood, or elsewhere.

“Even at that age, I was very aware that I was being avant-garde and pushing my way into making art films,” Anger told me.

He had at least two influential fans: Jean Cocteau, who wrote enthusiastically to Anger after seeing Fireworks screened at a film festival in Biarritz, and Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who naturally admired the frank depiction of carnal desire. In 1950, Anger left for Europe, where he would work with Cocteau at the Cinémathèque Française, and collaborate with Kinsey on his groundbreaking sexology studies.

“Kinsey interviewed me for his male volume, and we went into overtime and discovered we had been talking for five hours,” Anger recalled. “Among other things, he filmed me masturbating, as he did with all the people that he interviewed. I learned that my toes curled up at the moment of orgasm.”

It was during this time that Anger fell deeper under the spell of Thelema, the religion founded by occult hero Aleister Crowley, which focuses on the properties of Magick, to use the ancient occult spelling. “I wanted to hook up to that current,” Anger said.

After a few years in Europe, working on films and writing for Cahiers du Cinéma alongside Godard and Truffaut, Anger returned to Los Angeles for his mother’s funeral. At this time he reconnected with the self-proclaimed shaman Samson De Brier, who had helped foster Anger’s early interest in the occult by holding Thelemic ceremonies at his home, just steps away from Hollywood Forever cemetery. During Anger’s time abroad, such ceremonies had blossomed into full-on parties, which attracted artists such as Marjorie Cameron and Jack Parsons, the writer Anaïs Nin, and bright-eyed, curious actors like Jack Nicholson, James Dean, and Dennis Hopper. Anger chose De Brier’s as the location for Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954–2014), an entry in what would come to be known as his “Magick Lantern Cycle,” and the first of his films to embrace a color-saturated surrealist look that predicted psychedelia ten years before the fact. Cameron, Nin, and De Brier all appear in the film in outlandish costumes and garish, wild makeup.

The first edition of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, originally published in France 1959. COURTESY BURNSIDE RARE BOOKS

The first edition of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, originally published in France 1959.


“There was a Halloween party in Malibu called Come as Your Madness, and I incorporated some of the people who were there, because each one had different costumes reflecting their madness or obsessions,” Anger said. “And so I saw that it could be worked into an idea for a film.”

In 1956, after Kinsey died, Anger returned to Paris where, broke and despondent over his friend’s passing, he distracted himself with a potential money-grab: Hollywood Babylon, a book that would weave together all the salacious L.A. gossip he used to hear from his well-connected classmates at Beverly Hills High—the heroin habits of superstars, the power plays used to cover up drunken rapes and murders of young talents trying to get a foot in the door—and turn it into a grand history of his hometown’s golden era, with no sex or vice edited out.

“I was very conscious that I was collecting stories about Hollywood that definitely qualified as—well, they were history, but they were also definitely bizarre stories,” Anger said. “I figured I could work them into a book, and that’s what I did with Hollywood Babylon.”

The French cinephiles, obsessed with the filmmakers of the industry’s silent era, ate it up. (Anger mentioned to me that he was inspired to write it after Truffaut and Godard kept bugging him to share all his knowledge of old Hollywood scandals.) It wasn’t released in the United States until 1975, but it caused a sensation, and has since sold into the millions.

(Hollywood Babylon is generally regarded as at least as much fiction as fact. Some stories—such as the anecdote that describes how pinup Clara Bow engaged in congress with the entire USC football team, including a young John Wayne, in a single night—are impossible to prove and roundly denied. But there’s no doubt that it’s all quintessential Anger.)

Kenneth Anger, Invocation of my Demon Brother 1969. ©KENNETH ANGER/COURTESY SPRÜTH MAGERS (2)

Kenneth Anger, Invocation of my Demon Brother 1969.


Arguably Anger’s most famous technique as a director was the pairing of sunny pop songs—“found music,” in his words—with intimations of menace. It proved influential at first, then iconic. Think of Robert De Niro’s swaggering entrance at the start of Scorsese’s Mean Streets set to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”; or Dean Stockwell as Ben, the pimp kingpin, singing “In Dreams” as the centerpiece of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet; or the kitsch-pop gore of Quentin Tarantino set to surf rock; or the dream-like violence of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers with Britney Spears playing in the background. I thought of all this as I watched Anger bite into a lamb chop with a side of mint jelly as he discussed Scorpio Rising (1963), the film where he introduced the found-music technique.

“I would take a piece of pop music and isolate it—I was very conscious of what I was doing,” he said. “I saw that it was parallel, that you could use the music as a kind of structure and build your film around that idea.”

Anger returned to California in 1961 to make Scorpio Rising, which, along with the snippets of popular doo-wop songs, features brutal images of a fascist, homoerotic biker gang. The combination of revving engines, buff silver-screen studs, Nazi imagery, and top-40 tunes still looks fresh 50 years later. And, unlike his previous films, Scorpio Rising proved to be a relative hit. Anger and his allies finally found a way to screen his work so that the more outspoken conservative viewers wouldn’t even know about it. They invented the midnight movie. Anger said he was “pleased that he had a time slot” that worked for him.

The screenings also opened up new streams of finance, as younger heirs to foundational American fortunes became entranced with the burgeoning hippie movement and wanted to participate, or at least invest. One such scion, John Paul Getty Jr., invited Anger to London, where he was scooped up by the demimonde and soon found himself at parties with the art dealer Robert Fraser, hanging with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and eventually living with Mick Jagger and his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, and later Keith Richards and his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg. Both couples soon became interested in the occult movement and devil worship, dabbling in it to the extent that Anger’s teachings pushed them to record a new song called “Sympathy for the Devil,” with new converts Faithfull and Pallenberg singing backup.

“It was a meeting of minds,” Anger said of his time with the Stones. “They were typical of a lot of musicians. They wanted to climb on the wavelength.”

Anger worked with the Rolling Stones in various capacities. Jagger recorded the score for the film Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) on a new electronic device called a Moog; it was, at the time, an experiment. Anger also briefly lived with Richards and Pallenberg at their estate at Hampstead Heath, and, according to various biographies of both Richards and Anger, was due to officiate the couple’s wedding in the pagan method. The story goes that Pallenberg and Richards awoke one morning to find the doors of their home off their hinges and painted gold, the color of Satan’s aura, according to Magick teachings. Richards, exhausted by the occult wedding preparations, called off the ceremony and kicked Anger out of the house. (“I don’t remember that,” Anger told me, when asked.)

Still, Anger cast Faithfull in his next film, Lucifer Rising (1970–81), shot like a Bible epic on location in Egypt. Getty was footing the bill. Faithfull was battling addiction. She hid her drugs in her makeup case, Anger said, “So it was like she was powdering her face with heroin.”

Kenneth Anger on set of Lucifer Rising, London, 1970.

Kenneth Anger on set of Lucifer Rising, London, 1970.


If Fireworks and Scorpio Rising suggested a loose interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah, the actual filming of Lucifer Rising was more like the real thing. Another actor Anger cast in the movie was Bobby Beausoleil, who lived with Anger for a time in San Francisco and would later go on to kill the first victim of the Manson bloodbath, Gary Hinman, a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA and a musician who grew mescaline in his basement. A motorcycle gang called the Straight Satans claimed that Hinman’s batch of mescaline was actually strychnine, and Beausoleil went to Hinman’s place with a knife and a handgun, asking for the gang’s money back. The encounter escalated from there. After Manson slashed Hinman’s ear, Beausoleil stabbed him twice in the heart and scrawled “POLITICAL PIGGY” on the wall in his blood. Two weeks later, Manson and his followers murdered Sharon Tate, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger—another heir to a foundational American fortune, Folger’s coffee—Jay Sebring, and Steven Parent at 10050 Cielo Drive. But all of this, Anger said, “had nothing to do with me.”

Despite Beausoleil being charged with Hinman’s murder, as well as being an accomplice in the other killings perpetrated by the Manson Family, Anger visited him at Tracy State Prison. With permission from the guards, he recorded Beausoleil playing the score for Lucifer Rising, with help from his fellow inmates.

“I had no reason to cease being friends with him, Bobby,” Anger said. “My relationship with him was polite, cordial, not threatening in any way. We got along well together.”

Though his previous films had anticipated the trends and innovations of the ’60s, the making of Lucifer Rising waded deeply in them. The Manson killings happened months before the Rolling Stones played a free show at Altamont, California, near San Francisco, with members of the Hells Angels serving as security guards. During a performance of “Sympathy for the Devil,” the song partly born of Anger’s influence—“As heads is tails, just call me Lucifer”—unrest in the crowd prompted the Hells Angels to impose order. One of the Hells Angels was a man named Bill Fritsch, who acted in a number of Anger’s films: Invocation of My Demon Brother, Lucifer Rising. He was also an associate of Bobby Beausoleil’s—“What a coincidence,” said Brian Butler, the artist who serves as Anger’s studio manager, when I brought up the connection. You can see Bill Fritsch in the concert documentary Gimme Shelter, telling everyone to calm down, right before a knife in the hand of a Hells Angel goes into a fan’s neck.

“I had nothing to do with Altamont,” Anger told me.

From left, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins) and Lilith (Marianne Faithfull) in Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising, 1970–81. ©KENNETH ANGER/COURTESY SPRÜTH MAGERS

From left, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins) and Lilith (Marianne Faithfull) in Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, 1970–81.


The night after our dinner at Musso & frank I was sitting with Anger in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, the Sunset Strip hotel known for discreetly housing famous faces (the singer Lorde was sitting a table down from us) and having the ghosts of dead celebrities haunt its corridors. John Belushi famously expired in one of the bungalows. But the plush environs didn’t soften Anger on the subject of Beausoleil and the fallout from the end of the 1960s. At the mention of Manson, Anger grew visibly uncomfortable, almost violated. “Let’s just get this over with,” he said, and I was worried he would walk out of the interview.

He stayed, though. The streetcars that brought Anger as a child east from Santa Monica to Musso & Frank are long gone, as are many of Anger’s former collaborators, and the memories of the stars described in Hollywood Babylon. Beausoleil will die in prison. But Kenneth Anger is still here. Asked about what he thinks his legacy is, Anger offered little, saying, “I’ve done a considerable amount of creative work, and that’s my legacy.”

He added with a sneer: “I really. Don’t. Care.”

Still standing, too, is the house where Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome was filmed, Samson De Brier’s house. The day after I arrived in Los Angeles, before I met up with Anger, I took a car past the nostalgic grand movie theaters that stud the bottom edge of the hills to a strip of auto-body shops that run beside Hollywood Forever cemetery and toward Barton Avenue. On that street, a man with an eye patch over his right eye came out of a house. My intentions must have been clear, and I couldn’t have been the first person to embark on this Anger pilgrimage.

“Are you looking for the house?” the man said.

He wedged a finger underneath his eye patch, which revealed a dead socket, and pointed at a gate, where overgrown trees and rusted statues obscured a bungalow. The lock on the gate was jimmied, and there was a courtyard of stone plates and stone fountains.

I could hear a dog barking frantically, from some unseen location. There was another corridor leading to the bungalow where De Brier once hosted his parties, and then another gate to knock open. The barking got louder and louder. Above the front door was a wide-open French window on the second floor. I could now see the dog was standing on the edge, barking his face off.

I noticed the dog was missing his right eye, just like the man who directed me to the house, and then it disappeared.

Later, I relayed this strange serendipity to Anger, and he sat in silence, as he did after many questions posed. I asked if the Los Angeles that he evokes in his films, the Los Angeles where movie stars go to Occultist parties, is still there.

“If you believe in ghosts,” said Anger, his voice dropping, “the phantoms are present.”

Nate Freeman is senior staff writer at ARTnews.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 82 under the title “The Devil in the Details.”

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