Kenneth Anger: Legendary Experimental Filmmaker Dies at 96

Admired by some, scorned by others, he courted controversy and scandals with his fetishized films ‘Fireworks’ and ‘Scorpio Rising’ and his gossipy Hollywood Babylon books.

Kenneth Anger, the avant-garde filmmaker whose surrealistic queer compositions Fireworks and Scorpio Rising made him a pioneer of underground cinema and a target for censorship, has died. He was 96.

Anger’s death was announced Wednesday by the Sprüeth Magers art gallery. “Kenneth was a trailblazer,” it said in a statement. “His cinematic genius and influence will live on and continue to transform all those who encounter his films, words and vision.”

No details of his death were immediately available.

Anger’s work spanned the years 1941 to 2013 yet totaled just eight hours, a kaleidoscope of symbolism, homoeroticism and the occult found in his 36 dialogue-free short films (some complete, others fragmented) by THR‘s count.

His collage Scorpio Rising (1963), a pastiche of pop songs plastered over homoerotic biker imagery, pulp cartoons, Nazism and paraphernalia, was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in December.

His other Registry entry is Eaux d’Artifice (1953), a 13-minute film inducted in 1993 for the fifth class of honorees.

Anger could be potent or dazzling. Fireworks (1947), filmed when he was a teenager in his parents’ home while they were at an uncle’s funeral, chronicled a gang rape by sailors, with a blood-splattered Anger in the lead, and featured exploding phallic Roman candles. It quickly caught the attention of the LAPD vice squad.

The openly gay filmmaker from Santa Monica also directed, shot, edited and starred in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) opposite occultists Samson De Brier and Marjorie Cameron.

He carried a similar supernatural theme into Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), scored by Mick Jagger on a Moog synthesizer over footage of a satanic funeral ceremony. It reused footage from Lucifer Rising, a composition Anger shot in 1967 and completed in 1972 before its 1980 release.

(Bobby Beausoleil, a Charles Manson associate and former roommate of Anger’s, wrote and recorded the soundtrack while serving a life sentence for murder.)

Anger’s résumé reads as absurd to a layman movie fan. But many experts regard his body of work as a pioneering oeuvre, one that predated music videos and influential musical cues and montages found in Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and John Waters films.

Scorsese first saw Scorpio Rising in the mid-1960s when filmmaker Jonas Mekas screened it at the home of writer-director Vernon Zimmerman.

When watching Scorsese’s six-minute student film The Big Shave (1967) — an allegory for the Vietnam War — audiences clearly can see the influence of Anger when a jazz trumpet is heard over scenes of a sterile white bathroom and its chrome fixtures.

The connection seems more apparent in Mean Streets (1973), which layered ’60s pop music over its opening images.

Always an opportunist, Anger inserted segments from a 1948 Sunday school film, Last Journey to Jerusalem, into Scorpio Rising after it was accidentally sent to him rather than the Lutheran church down the street.

“I immediately saw the parallel between the disciples following Jesus and the ‘disciples’ in the motorcycle gang following some idea,” he said. So, into his film the sequences were cut.

But while Anger’s work was embraced by many filmmakers, it also courted controversy.

The Love That Whirls (1949) was sent to Rochester, New York, to be developed but was never seen again, destroyed by an Eastman-Kodak lab technician who objected to its depiction of a naked man (Ernest Lacy) climbing a mountain to sacrifice himself to the sun.

One late-night screening of Fireworks at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles long ago never materialized, an irony not lost on those who read Jean Cocteau’s program introduction that said: “An art in which youth is barred from practicing freely is sentenced to death in advance. The moving picture camera should be like a fountain pen that anyone may use to translate his soul onto paper.”

In 1957, after another screening at the theater, distributor Raymond Rohauer was fined $250 and given three years’ probation for violating an obscenity statute. An appeal to the California Supreme Court reversed the sentence, ruling homosexuality was a legitimate subject on which art can be created.

Michael Getz, manager of L.A.’s Cinema Theater, in March 1964 was charged for “exhibiting an obscene film” — Scorpio Rising — and a month later, another copy of the film was confiscated before a late-night screening. Getz was found guilty, but an appeals court overturned his conviction, too.

That same week, the Ford Foundation awarded Anger a $10,000 grant, which he used for his next film, Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), which featured good-looking guys seductively buffing a hot-rod car for three minutes.

The son of a Douglas Aircraft Co. engineer, Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer was born in Santa Monica on Feb. 3, 1927. He attended Beverly Hills High School, studied French and watched the films of Jean Cocteau, Jean Delannoy and Julien Duvivier at the Esquire Theatre on Fairfax Avenue to improve his dialect.

Anger always claimed that he portrayed the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), though records credit an actress named Sheila Brown for that.

He said his artistic influence was Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), voted the 16th greatest film of all time by Sight and Sound in December 2022. “I thought it was very daring of her to have her films silent,” he told Scott MacDonald for Interviews With Independent Filmmakers.

Of all his family members, Anger said he was closest to his maternal grandmother, a costumer in the silent era who would regale him with stories of Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino. She gave him a 16mm Bell & Howell camera for his birthday, which he used to shoot Fireworks across 72 hours.

Anger recalled that at its first screening at midnight at the Coronet, the audience included directors James Whale (Frankenstein) and Robert Florey and Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who offered to buy a print for his Sex Research Institute in Indiana.

“Kinsey interviewed me for his male volume, and we went into overtime and discovered we had been talking for five hours,” he told Artnews in 2016. “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.”

Fireworks won the poetic film prize at Cocteau’s 1949 festival Le Film Maudit (“The Cursed Movie”). Quite rightfully sensing that Europe was more accepting of his work than the U.S., he moved to Paris and worked under Henri Langlois at the Cinémathéque Française.

One project for the noted archivist was using the original scripts to reassemble Sergei Eisenstein’s Thunder Over Mexico and Death Day (both made in 1934 from the Russian director’s incomplete ¡Que viva México!) for a festival screening.

For his 1950 film Rabbit’s Moon (not completed and released until 1971), Anger used an 18th century magic lantern from the Cinematheque’s collection and 35mm film stock left over from an UNESCO shoot in Paris. He had only four weeks to make the costumes, build the set and film in Pierre Braunberger’s Pantheon Cinema soundstage before the French producer returned from vacation.

Eaux d’Artifice, scored with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concertos, was shot in the Villa d’Este — now a UNESCO World Heritage site — in Tivoli, Rome. To his surprise, the Department of Antiquities granted him permission to film there, cordoning off parts of the famed gardens from tour guides.

It was while in Paris that Anger began work on his salacious Hollywood Babylon book at the urging of editors at the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, who were agog at his stories of old Hollywood.

It was a confronting look at alleged scandals from the Golden Age of Cinema through police photos, morgue shots and lots of rumors and fictionalizations.

First printed in France in 1959, it received a U.S release in 1965, with an update 10 years later after copyright disputes. A second volume was released in 1984 covering the decades 1920s to 1970s. There was even a 4-minute film version released in 2000.

Due to lack of money, many of Anger’s films were never fully realized.

Puce Moment (1949) was to have run about 40 minutes, with each color segment representing a Hollywood silent starlet — the morning would evoke Bow (embodied by Anger’s cousin Yvonne Marquis), the afternoon by Barbara La Marr and so on.

After piecing together a chapter of Marquis trying on ’20s flapper gowns and lying on a floating chaise lounge, Anger unsuccessfully sought out financing after showing it to director Albert Lewin (The Picture of Dorian Gray) and producer Arthur Freed, who was starting work on Singin’ in the Rain.

“Later, it seemed to me that I saw some glimpses of the fashion parade I had used in Puce Moment in Singin’ in the Rain — maybe not,” he said. “Maybe it’s just coincidence, but it seemed like some moments in Singin in the Rain paralleled my idea pretty closely.”

In the 21st century, Anger’s work included Don’t Smoke That Cigarette! (his longest film at 45 minutes); The Man We Want to Hang (2002), about a 1995 exhibit of English occultist Aleister Crowley’s drawings and paintings; and Elliott’s Suicide (2007), a sentimental tribute to singer-songwriter Elliott Smith.

“I’ve always had parallel projects going on at any one time, for a very simple reason: I was never able to make anything approaching feature-length because that always involved more money than I could round up,” he said.

His 11-minute Mouse Heaven (2005) is a montage of Mickey Mouse memorabilia and a homage to the character he adored growing up.

“He was a mischievous little demon — that’s why I liked him.” he said. “I think Mickey Mouse is one of the most important icons of American pop culture, though the real Mickey has been lost. He was sentimentalized from Fantasia on.”