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Scorpio Rising

Scorpio Rising(1963)

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The short films collected in the second and final volume of Fantoma's The Films of Kenneth Anger DVD series continue his experiments in expressionist cinematography. Easily one of the self-taught filmmaker's most notorious titles, the 28-minute Scorpio Rising (1964) was shot in Brooklyn Heights, after Anger returned to the United States from an extended stay in Europe. Intended as "a death mirror held up to American culture" and made with the participation of a Coney Island motorcycle club, Scorpio Rising is fascinating for the way it predates David Cronenberg's trademark fascination with the possible connections between man and machine and is rife with homoerotic imagery of beautiful boys in studded leather jackets (one of which impressively spells out the film's title) and pretend police regalia. Long a seminal text in American gay cinema, the short fetishes the images of Hollywood icons James Dean and Marlon Brando and concludes with a veritable bacchanalia, a March of the Wooden Soldiers of graveyard iconography and exposed penises. In his audio commentary (optional here and for all of the titles included), the now-grandfatherly Anger (perhaps best known for his two Hollywood Babylon exposes of the seamy and sad side of the Hollywood dream) informs us that the members of the motorcycle gang were heterosexual and that their girlfriends were both present at the time of shooting and cheering on their men, one of whom has his pants stripped off and mustard smeared on his genitals. "It looks queerer than it actually was," Anger allows of this startling bit of revisionist history, which at least speaks volumes for the evocative power of cinema.

Taking his man-and-machine fetish to its next logical level, Anger's Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) was intended to be a more entailed piece of movie-making ("an oneiric vision of a contemporary American... teenage phenomenon") until lead actor Sandy Trent was killed in a car crash resulting from an illegal street race. The 3-minute montage of the hardbodied youth buffing his "dream buggy" with a pink puff to an unlicensed soundtrack provided by the San Francisco girl group The Paris Sisters has the intentional shallowness of an album cover; it ain't much but it sure is pretty. The notorious Invocation of My Demon Brother remains notorious for the participation of Bobby Beausoleil, an associate of the messianic Charles Manson (but not involved in the heinous Tate-LaBianca murders). Anger had intended to make Beausoleil the star of a film he would call Lucifer Rising until a falling out between the two stalled the project and Anger reworked the fragments into Invocation of my Demon Brother. Shot in 1969 in San Francisco and London, the 11-minute short is, at the distance of forty years, the most dated of the works collected in both volumes of The Films of Kenneth Anger; its Satanic curlicues (which run to cameo appearances by Church of Satan potentate Anton Sandor LaVey and Anger himself as "The Magus") seem a bit silly, like embarrassing home movies of your parents when they "let it all hang out."

Filmed in a borrowed studio in Paris in August of 1950, Rabbit's Moon was another longer piece that Anger cut down in 1979 (by skip printing every other frame) as a birthday present for the 7-year-old son of American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Clocking in at only 7 minutes, the blue-tinted monochrome piece (the only one in this collection shot in 35mm) is a wonderful homage to Italian commedia dell'arte, Japanese performance art and pioneer cinema. For his recut, Anger scrapped the original do-wop soundtrack in favor of "It Came in the Night," a single released on the EMI label from the obscure Brit band A Raincoat (fronted by England-educated Australian record producer Andy Arthurs), which had sold only 1,000 copies. The closest thing in this collection to a narrative work, the classically structured Rabbit's Moon is (according to Anger) "a fable of the Unattainable." Anger's cast for his reconsidered Lucifer Rising (1981) is his most interesting, employing the presences of late filmmaker Donald Cammell, singer Marianne Faithfull, painter Sir Francis Rose (a familiar of Anger's hero, Aleister Crowley) and Mick Jagger's brother Chris, slated for a bigger role until he turned out to be a colossal pain in Anger's ass. The 28-minute piece was filmed over an extended period of time in Egypt, Iceland, England and Germany's Black Forest, where Anger made use of an ancient sun shrine also used by the Third Reich as an initiation site for its Hitler Youth. Financed in part by The English Film Bank and German television, Lucifer Rising boasts sumptuous location photography and some splendid in-camera effects (as well as some digital legerdemain) but its esoteric balls-out mysticism won't be for all tastes. "I'm glad I don't know what it means," Anger himself allows, "because it's a mystery."

The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 2 is rounded out with Anger's last known work, a visual montage of artwork by Aleister Crowley (portraits of his followers and associates, which focus fetishistically on diabolic eyes, and landscapes of phallic monoliths and volcanic ejaculations) or studies of The Great Beast by other artists. (These works were at the time included in an exhibition at London's October Gallery in April of 1998.) Again, Anger's audio commentary is priceless. Pointing out a human figure in a rendering of the eruption of Mount Etna, the filmmaker notes "you have to look closely to see the erect penis, but it's in there, I assure you." As with Volume One, a 48-page booklet accompanies the single disc presentation and offers rare photos, production notes for each title included and the testimonials of Angerphiles Martin Scorsese, Guy Maddin, Gus Van Sant (who perpetuates the myth that Kenneth Anger appeared as a child in William Dieterle's all-star 1935 Hollywood production of A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Bobby Beausoleil, still serving a life term in prison for a 1969 murder). All of the films included offer restoration demonstrations of how image and sound were given extensive tender loving care prior to the release of this milestone in the history of American cinema by the good people at Fantoma.

For more information about The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 2, visit Fantoma Films. To order The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 2, go to TCM Shopping.

by Richard Harland Smith