Kenneth Anger with Pip Chodorov
While in a rare visit to New York to deliver a lecture at the Whitney Museum of American Art (he is included in this year’s Biennale) and to visit some old friends last month, the legendary Kenneth Anger was able to sit down with Pip Chodorov, the founder of Re:Voir in Paris, to talk about his life and work.
Pip Chodorov (Rail): How did you start making films?
Kenneth Anger: I started making movies because my family had a 16mm camera that was a home movie camera, mostly used only on birthdays or vacations. Like on one occasion we went to Yosemite, there were four rolls, 100-feet each, of 16mm left over and I noticed it had an expiration date on the film boxes, so I said to my parents, “Well, this won’t be good next summer, could I use it up and make something on my own?” And they said yes as long as you don’t break the camera. I learned quickly how to work the camera and that’s how I began making my shorts. They were silent but I always played music along with them. The first one was called Who Has Been Rocking My Dream Boat, which was named after one of the Mills Brothers. The film was my schoolmates playing war games. In the summer of 1941, right before America entered the WWII, war was sort of in the air. We used to pretend there was a gas attack from Japan, and we had smoke bombs that we were throwing around. It was about four minutes long, and it was cut to the rhythm of the Mills Brothers’ song, “Who Has Been Rocking My Dream Boat?”
Rail: Where can we see the film?
Anger: Well, I don’t even know where it is. I’ve moved around so often that things get lost. I was hoping that it might have been stored at the Anthology, but they couldn’t find it either.
Rail: How many films did you make before Fireworks?
Anger: At least five, and the year before Fireworks which was 1947 I made one called Escape Episode that was actually a half-hour long. It had a music track using Scriabin, and it was the same plot of an opera which was made several years later by Gian-Carlo Menotti called “The Medium.” It was about a girl that was living with her aunt in this spooky old house that used to belong to the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, a silent Japanese actor. And she was faking these spiritualist acts for the spiritualist church – she was doing the voices of the dead children, until she revolted against it and ran away with a sailor. So that was narration but with no dialogue. It was a narrative film, and I managed to tell the story with no intertitles, just in a visual way.
From that I went to Fireworks, which I made with students at the University of Southern California Cinema department, where I was auditing. I wasn’t actually attending the school, but they let me sit in on the classes and use some of the equipment. Actually, some of the students were from the Navy and that’s why they had their summer uniforms on. The uniforms then became my costumes for Fireworks.
Rail: Where do the themes and imagery in Fireworks come from?
Anger: It was a 15-minute film and I had just barely that much 16mm negative to work with. It was given to me by a few sailors who were trained to be cameramen for the Navy. Whenever Uncle Sugar, as they called it, is generous, whether he knows it or not, something’s liberated from the government.
The actual subject was inspired by a dream of mine, and its dream logic. Like Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, which is basically a film dream—the dream in Fireworks was inspired by a horrible event called the Zoot Suit riots that took place in the last years of World War II.
Rail: And the fire images are also from the dream?
Anger: Yes, the fire images are a reference to the fourth of July, and the Christmas tree is a reference to Christmas. It’s all about holidays, really.
Rail: You are also very much in distribution? You started a film co-op?
Anger: Creative Film Associates. At that time there really wasn’t any 16mm distribution so we, I and Curtis Harrington (both about the same age and both were starting to make experimental films) saw that at that time there weren’t really any companies to get them out there. We would just mail notices to various universities and film clubs and things like that, whenever we’d hear of some place, and I got them shown in San Francisco. It did work. Later, when Cinema 16 was founded in New York; I put my films with them and then years later it was Filmmakers’ Co-op in New York, and right now I’m with Canyon Cinema in San Francisco.
It was a very simple operation because it was so few prints and so few orders, I mean we were lucky if we got one or two a month. We only charged for the rental of $25 or something. It was welcome at the time and we saw that it could work. It then followed with people like Jordan Belson, then Frank Stauffacher who also got on the act.
In any case, in 1949 I had sent my film, Fireworks, to a festival in Biarritz France and Jean Cocteau was on the jury and he gave it the prize for poetic film. In fact, he wrote me a very nice letter and luckily I knew French because I had studied it in high school. So I decided to go over to France to meet him, that was in the spring of 1950, and I was able to meet not only Cocteau, but Jean Genet and even Colette. At that time there were a lot of legendary people still around. I just missed meeting André Gide because he died when I was on the boat. I also met Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinematheque Francais, and he had a screening for some of my films, which led to him offering me a job as his assistant. It was sort of an informal job—it didn’t get a salary and I ended up moving in with Langlois and his partner, Mary Meerson, who I became good friends with. Their apartment was rather shabby, though elegantly designed by the famous René Clair set designer, in the same style of Lazare Meerson, so it was in this early French modern style, which was lovely. I had a good time in France and was able to make a film with the Cinémathèque’s help. Again, some Russian filmmaker friends of theirs gave me 35mm raw stock (they were commissioned by UNESCO). So I made Rabbit’s Moon on 35mm, with Tourjansky as my cameraman. He was the son of a very famous Russian director, (Viktor) Tourjansky who was working in France as a silent director—he made several famous films.
Rail: How long did you work at the French Cinémathèque?
Anger: It was basically 12 years from 1950 to 1962 that I was there. After that I traveled to Italy to make Eaux d’artifice in the gardens of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy. Soon after, I had to go back to America when my mother died to deal with her legal matters. She left me some bonds, including some Disney stock, which I sold so I could make the film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome in 1954, back in Hollywood with my friends there. We basically filmed in the house of Samson De Brier. So I’ve been sort of a traveling filmmaker ever since.
Rail: There were other American filmmakers in France at this time?
Anger: The Whitneys, John and James, their early films were included, were part of my original Creative Film Associates distribution. I had a little package. Half abstract and half psychosexual I guess you could call it. Puce Moment was made in 1949 just before I left for France. It was supposed to be a longer film, showing the homes and the clothes of the stars of the ‘20s in a fantasy style, not documentary style, because I found these wonderful homes—many of them are still there. I found these twelve girls who are supposed to be there twelve times of day, starting in the morning and then going through midmorning, then noon, afternoon, twilight and night. It was a wonderful idea and I did production sketches for the whole film, but I couldn’t get the money to do it. I even asked Albert Lewin and a few other people I knew, like Arthur Fried. Who I think stole some of my ideas for a couple of his films. At any rate, all I could film was five minutes of it that ended up being Puce Moment. Puce is the color of a flea, which is a green-purple color, a color that was popular in the 1920s. The only thing I filmed was this wonderful woman I found named Yvonne Marquis who looked like a Hollywood star of the 1920s, she was very ‘20s. She’s wearing the puce gown, which is a sequined sheath.
Rail: What is your relationship to Hollywood—do you feel part of Hollywood culture or counter-culture?
Anger: I grew up in Beverly Hills, I went to Beverly Hills High School, and my hobby was collecting gossip, stories, newspaper clippings, magazine write-ups and so forth about Hollywood scandals and tragedies. When I got to Paris I had to find a way to supplement my income, because I wasn’t getting paid by the Cinémathèque. I used to tell people like François Truffaut—when he was a rather belligerent film critic, before he started making films—stories about some of the Hollywood scandals, and he’d never heard any of these stories. He and I were getting articles published in the early days of Cahiers du Cinéma. Truffaut would tell me to write up some of these stories, about the death of Valentino or something like that for the magazine. The magazine publisher agreed to it. I think there were three articles about some of the Hollywood scandals that they’d never heard about over there. And of course they’re all very picturesque, lurid stories, sort of Fellini-type material before Fellini. The articles came to the attention of an independent publisher called Jean-Jacques Pauvert, who was doing a series on eroticism in cinema, by Lo Duca, which was this square book format. The publisher suggested that I write a book on Hollywood scandals that aren’t known in France. I came up with the title Hollywood Babylon, which I’ve copyrighted. No one else can use “Hollywood Babylon,” but it’s been stolen, I mean there’s been everything from “Rock and Roll Babylon” to “Nashville Babylon.” It’s out of my control. They’ve taken the idea for books on scandals from my original Hollywood Babylon. I’ve done two of those books; the second book was published in America. They’ve been a good source of income for me. It’s also amusing, I like doing picture books, they’re basically picture books. I have a large collection of both comic and lurid photographs. It’s black humor. That’s my specialty.
To go back to your question earlier, I luckily had indulgent parents who let me go at least once or twice a week to see films. Especially, the Hollywood serials that were shown every Saturday. There were things like Flash Gordon and Daredevils of the Red Circle, directed by people like William Whitney, an excellent director. That’s how I learned a lot about cutting and pacing and things by watching those serials, which is a wonderful film form. I’m sorry it doesn’t exist anymore because I would actually like to make some.
After my stay in Paris, I came back to New York to deal with my mother’s estate. I was invited to stay with Marie Menken in Brooklyn Heights who was working for Time Magazine, she was making very interesting little hand-held experimental films. Anyway, when I was there I went out to Coney Island on a Saturday and I saw this group of motorcycle riders who were sort of showing off their bikes, and these bikes were all sort of hand-customized bikes with dozens of extras added to them like surrealist shark-like tail fins and lots of lights and chrome. I asked them if I could film their bikes sometime—they were working class Italians who I found out later mostly worked in the Fulton fish market. They put all their money into their hobby, which was their bikes. The bikes were like handcrafted. You couldn’t go to a shop and buy this sort of thing. So little by little I worked my way into this group, and they accepted me as a kind of a camera nut, and also the fact that I worked alone, and they did love the attention. Of course I never signed any papers with them and I never had a release, and knock on wood, it’s been good up to now. Because you’re supposed to get releases when you film people, but it was all done in a casual way. I had a few lights with me, and gradually got even into their bedrooms. I mean that’s where I filmed the one that was called Scorpio who was sort of like an Italian Irish mixture and he also was half-crazy, Bruce Byron was his name, he’s since died. I filmed in his little apartment, which was full of Siamese cats, and luckily the film didn’t register the stink of the kitty litter that needed attention, which he neglected. Then it was his décor, which is like plastered with pictures of James Dean, Brando, his heroes and things like that. Then came the Halloween party after the last outdoor race. I remember having furnished four kegs of beer, and then the next morning we all drove off to this real dirt racetrack, which was the last of the season, in a place called Walden Pond in upstate New York. I mean I rode on the back with one of the guys, and I luckily got up there in one piece. It was an adventure to say the least. After all of that, I took all this material back to Hollywood where I had an apartment in Silverlake and began working on it for two weeks, before a mysterious package appeared on my doorstep, I thought it was a film being returned to me. But when I looked at it I realized it wasn’t my address but it was actually a couple of streets over. It was a mistake, and I took it inside. It was a 16mm film, and I saw it wasn’t my film but I thought it was kind of like a gift from the gods. It was, a Lutheran Sunday School film, called The Last Journey to Jerusalem, about the last ride of Christ on a donkey into Jerusalem, what’s called “Palm Sunday” with the palms being waved and everything. Then when I looked it, I thought well, I’m just going to cut this material into my film. I called it serendipity. That’s why there are these shots of Christ on the donkey and everything, from this rather infantile or naïve Sunday school style film. But it’s that sort of pious approach, which is basically, to anyone who’s not a believer, is comical. So that is my appropriation of something which arrived just at the right time.
I already knew more or less the music that I wanted like Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road Jack,” and “Blue Velvet,” and there were things that were popular and being played on the radio that summer. Once I knew which music I wanted about twelve individual pieces, I got a lawyer to get me the right to use it in a short subject. That cost me an additional eight thousand dollars, which was double my budget, but these well-known pieces of music, I can’t risk just stealing them, because I intended to show it around. It turned out to be a good investment. It remains my most popular film, has the most rentals, and even had a 35mm blow-up, and so was shown in 35mm in theatres around America.
The songs are in direct commentary to the images. They are like ironic humorous commentary on them, and they were integrated. There’s a thought behind everything; it isn’t just like blind luck. Blind luck does come into it, like the serendipity of having that Sunday school film delivered to me. And my choosing to keep it.
Rail: Can you speak of your involvement with Eisenstein?
Anger: I was always a great fan of Eisenstein and in fact I was able to see other early Russian films at the cinematheque. Langlois was going to take some films down to Antibes maybe around 1952 for a festival, because we had the script that was printed in a magazine, a treatment, and outline for Que Viva Mexico which was Eisenstein’s plan to make this feature-length film in Mexico with Tissé as his cameraman. It was paid for by Upton Sinclair, which turned out to be a disaster, because he sort of yanked the rug out from under them, when they went way over budget. So I said I would like to assemble from the various bits and pieces, because there was Time in the Sun and then there were two or three shorts that were available, like Death Day in Mexico, and then one was released by Sol Lesser, without Eisenstein doing the editing, which was called Thunder Over Mexico. Langlois had prints of all these and he gave me a dupe negative and then a copy basically of all of these various things. My idea was to assemble them, following as much as possible just the chronological sequence of Eisenstein’s script, because it was a very symphonic treatment that you never got in the way that these various other films had been made from the material were cut. At any rate, I cut them together as a silent film, never tampering with the original material—as those various French surrealists complained that I did. I was just assembling it, in a rough assembly, showing the way, the rough symphonic form that it would have had if it had ever been finished. It was shown at Antibes, and then Henri showed it again at the Cinematheque and that was the end of it. Because it was just a rough cut, it was never something, which I was going to release, and it never belonged to me anyway, it belonged to the Cinematheque. It was like an experiment, basically, made for the Antibes Film Festival.
Rail: Eisenstein’s techniques seem to play a part in your own work.
Anger: The use of shock cuts, and the fact that you can put things together that have no particular meaning separately, but when you put them together they assume a third meaning. I mean that’s in the basic film grammar, but he was the first person to articulate it. Of course, the excitement of Eisenstein was basically motivated, when you read his writings, which was motivated initially by his radical and early red bolshevism, but all of that very soon turned very dark and sour indeed, when Stalin took over. Mary had friends in the theatre who were executed by Stalin very early on. Eisenstein, on the other hand, played a very dicey game, not going too far to be shot like some of his friends while managed to make some wonderful films. But yet all of his films, I mean after October, and then when Bezhin Meadow was taken away from him, and ruined and doesn’t survive except as still fragments that were made into a film by somebody else, he basically came back into favor again with Alexander Nevsky which was a kind of patriotic statement against outsiders, the Russian people have to stand up against these outsiders, a very exciting film, but it’s also very simplistic, more from an ethic standpoint but I mean it works. It’s just black and white. You have your villains, who happen to be all in white and then the good Russian people who rally against them. If you take away this idealistic background to Eisenstein’s theories, all that’s left is an empty technique, like you see in the flash cuts and the little short pieces that are considered so trendy with MTV. To me, personally, I can’t watch MTV because it’s nauseating. It’s like a perversion of a technique for empty purposes like selling songs, and not very good songs, most of them are terrible. Someone once said, “Why haven’t you made MTV?” I said, well they never asked me, except once, and I was asked once by a group to make something and they sent me a tape and I said well, yeah, but I don’t like the tape, so forget it, and I didn’t make it. That was the only time.
Rail: How about the use of music and montage in Lucifer Rising?
Anger: Bobby Beausoleil who’s a talented musician, composed the original score for Lucifer Rising. Around this time he fell into an unfortunate criminal episode and ended up with a life sentence in prison after being on death row for awhile. I got permission to film him in a California prison, with twelve other criminals who were talented musicians. They were all basically in there for things like serious drug busts and so forth. And it was arranged by the head psychiatrist of the prison system, a wonderful woman named Dr. Minerva Bertholt, and she said it was better that they be playing music than rioting. In addition, I had another original score by Mick Jagger for my short film, Invocation of My Demon Brother, made from the first version of Lucifer Rising.
Rail: Your filmography is full of uncompleted projects.
The brutal truth is that this is the story of my life and work. I intended to do more, but I always ran out of money, except in the case of Lucifer Rising where I had money from German television and the Film Finance Corporation in England, which was quite generous of them, to make Lucifer Rising in the second version, most of my other films were either shorter versions than I intended, and then cut from that. Like in the case of Invocation of My Demon Brother, it originally was to be the first version of Lucifer Rising. After I had a quarrel with Bobby Beausoleil over the misappropriation of some of the funds I gave him to buy some music equipment, and he ended up buying a key of marijuana instead. I said forget it, take your marijuana and leave, but he put it in my house. If I’d been busted with that in my house, this interview would be in jail I suppose, under California law. That’s how Bobby got mixed up with the Manson gang, because he stole my van, and then with the marijuana drove to Southern California from San Francisco, the van broke down in San Fernando valley right in front of the Spahn ranch where Manson was living with all these girls. So there he was with his broken car trying to get it working and the girls came out and said, “Well, move in with us,” and so he moved in with this murderous hippy family. Then of course he did kill one person, Gary Hinman, a musician, over some botched drug deal. But I didn’t know at the time when I was living with him that he was a murderer. As you can see my life has been a very complicated story.
Rail: Yes, but it feeds into your films and we’re grateful for it.
Anger is an American underground experimental filmmaker, actor and author.