Kenneth Anger, influential avant-garde filmmaker and author, dies at 96

May 24, 2023, 8:40 AM | Updated: 9:12 am

Kenneth Anger, the shocking and influential avant-garde artist who defied sexual and religious taboos in such short films as “Scorpio Rising” and “Fireworks” and dished the most lurid movie star gossip in his underground classic “Hollywood Babylon,” has died. He was 96.

Anger died of natural causes on May 11 in Yucca Valley, California, his artist liaison, Spencer Glesby, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Few so boldly and imaginatively mined the forbidden depths of culture and consciousness as Anger, whose admirers ranged from filmmakers Martin Scorsese and David Lynch to rock stars such as the Clash and the Rolling Stones.

He was among the first openly gay filmmakers and a pioneer in using soundtracks as counterpoints to moving pictures. Well before the rise of punk and heavy metal, Anger was juxtaposing music with bikers, sadomasochism, occultism and Nazi imagery. When the Sex Pistols and the Clash appeared on the same bill at a 1976 concert, clips from Anger’s movies were screened behind them.

Anger had his greatest commercial success, and notoriety, as the author of “Hollywood Babylon.” Scandal and Hollywood practically grew up together, and Anger assembled an extraordinary and often apocryphal family album, whether pictures from the fatal car crash of Jayne Mansfield or such widely disputed allegations as actor Clara Bow having sex with the University of Southern California football team.

Completed in the late 1950s and originally published in French, “Hollywood Babylon” was banned for years in the U.S. and was still adult fare upon formal release in 1975, when New York Times reviewer Peter Andrews labeled it a “306-page box of poisoned bon bons” written as if a “sex maniac had taken over the Reader’s Digest Condensed Book Club.”

“If a book such as this can be said to have charm, it lies in the fact that here is a book without one single redeeming merit,” Andrews concluded.

Like a studio head trying to build a franchise, Anger released a sequel, the less popular “Hollywood Babylon II,” in 1984. He had said he was working on a third book in recent years, with a chapter dedicated to Tom Cruise and Scientology.

A balding, dark-eyed man with a frozen stare and a “Lucifer” tattoo across his chest, Anger made films for much of his life and knew everyone from the poet Jean Cocteau to sexologist Alfred Kinsey. He was close enough to Keith Richards that the Rolling Stone would claim that Anger called him his “right hand man.” Mick Jagger and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page wrote soundtrack music for Anger, who in turn helped bring about a Rolling Stones classic by lending a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s satanic satire “The Master and Margarita” to Marianne Faithfull. Faithfull passed the novel along to her boyfriend, Jagger, who cited it as the basis for “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Anger himself rejected Christianity in childhood, saying he preferred reading comics on Sunday. He later joined Thelema, an occult society which urges members to “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will,” and for a time he lived in the house of Thelema founder Aleister Crowley, a friend and mentor.

Born in Santa Monica, California, Anger was the son of aircraft engineer Wilbur Anglemeyer and cited his grandmother, a costume designer, as an early source for prime Hollywood dirt. He was a child actor who, to much skepticism, claimed to have played the Changeling Prince in a 1935 adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Anger also began making movies as a boy and was a teenager when he completed “Fireworks,” a noirish 13-minute silent starring Anger as a young man who fantasizes — in sexually graphic detail — that he has been beaten by a pack of sailors. By this time, the filmmaker had shortened his last name to Anger.

“I knew it would be like a label, a logo. It’s easy to remember,” Anger told The Guardian in 2011.

Among the film’s early viewers was Kinsey, who liked it enough to purchase a copy for $100 and ask Anger to help with his landmark research on sexual behavior.

Anger’s best known works included the surreal occult short “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” and “Scorpio Rising,” a 28-minute production from 1963 in which footage of motorcyclists is accompanied by such hits as Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” and Elvis Presley’s ”(You’re the) Devil in Disguise.” In one especially provocative sequence, the Crystals’ hit “He’s a Rebel” is played to images of Jesus and his disciples from Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic “King of Kings.”

“Like many people, I was astonished when I saw Kenneth Anger’s ‘Scorpio Rising’ for the first time,” Scorsese once wrote. “Every cut, every camera movement, every color, and every texture seemed, somehow, inevitable, in the same way that images of the Virgin in Renaissance painting seem inevitable.”

Scorsese would emulate Anger’s style in “Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas” and other movies, and Lynch featured Vinton’s drowsy ballad in the 1986 cult favorite “Blue Velvet.” John Waters would praise Anger as one of the directors who “dirtied” his mind.

Death preoccupied Anger and he was a frequent visitor to Hollywood Forever, the burial site for everyone from Judy Garland to Johnny Ramone. Actor Vincent Gallo, a friend of Anger’s, told the filmmaker that he had purchased a plot for him next to Ramone’s.

“They’re peaceful,” Anger said during a 2014 interview with Esquire when asked about his affinity for cemeteries. “They’d better be…”

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Kenneth Anger, influential avant-garde filmmaker and author, dies at 96