Standing outside his parents’ Beverly Hills home, a 17-year-old Kenneth Anglemeyer looked to the sky and hoped it wouldn’t rain. His parents were away for a long weekend, giving Anglemeyer the chance to turn the house into his own private movie studio. He’d feverishly moved all of the home’s antique furniture into the back garden.i If a rainstorm came, the furniture would be ruined---his parents would be pissed. It was 1947. While some rebellious teens might have used an empty house to do some “heavy petting” while smoking “reefers,” the young Anglemeyer made “Fireworks,” a fourteen-minute avant-garde movie that film historian Scott MacDonald called, “not just a landmark in what has come to be called Queer cinema; it is, so far as I am aware, the first openly gay American movie.”ii
After “Fireworks,” Anglemeyer would forever be known by his adopted name: Kenneth Anger. And while his output since “Fireworks” hasn’t been prolific---he’s made about two dozen short films since 1947, each clocking in at an average length of 13 minutes---Anger’s experimental work has influenced directors as diverse as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and Roger Corman. Despite the few minutes Anger’s accumulated on film, he’s a difficult man to put into a critic’s convenient one-size-fits-all box. He’s explored his homosexuality in many of his films, but his work is also deeply inspired by an esoteric religion created in the early 20th Century by the occultist Aleister Crowley--- one which Anger’s followed since his teens.
In this collection of seven Anger films, you’ll see both of those inspirations throughout. Absent, however, will be what he may be even more famous for: spreading celebrity gossip so filthy it could make even the perverts at TMZ blush (see his books Hollywood Babylon I and II). Nor will you see Anger’s notorious, blind fits of rage. (Just one example: During an interview in 2004, he walked across a restaurant to tell an excessively boisterous speaker, “You have the ugliest voice I’ve ever heard in a woman!”)iii But if all of Anger’s personas aren’t exactly encapsulated in his films, what ties them together is his ability to hypnotically draw you into his images, whether it’s the billowing dresses in the opening to “Puce Moment”---an incomplete film originally intended to follow a full day of a forgotten 1920s film star---or the myriad, almost hallucinatory images of “Lucifer Rising”---which has a soundtrack recorded in a prison.iv Despite the apparent darkness here, what might also tie these films together is a search for light, or, a light.
In his lead role in “Fireworks,” Anger dreams about entering a bar and asking a sailor for a light, which, in the end, leaves Anger unmercifully beaten by a mob of chain-wielding Navy men. “I knew not to do what the young man in the film does,” Anger later said, “which is to ask them for a light for their cigarette. Back in the 40s, that was an old pick-up line. Among subterranean gay culture at the time, that was a way to get picked up.”v Anger said that “Fireworks” is “about being attracted to something you’re afraid of.” It’s about repressed desire and the need for a release. As Scott MacDonald wrote about the era, “being gay was fraught with danger: at any moment, desire could lead to disaster.”vi In the film’s prologue---which you’ll hear in this clip but was later edited out by Anger in subsequent versions---he explains that needed release in baroque detail: “In ‘Fireworks,’ I released all the explosive pyrotechnics of a dream. Inflammable desires dampened by day under the cold water of consciousness are ignited that night by the libertarian matches of sleep, and burst forth in showers of shimmering incandescence. These imaginary displays provide a temporary relief.” So, yes, the movie is basically about a wet dream. But for 1947, it was an audacious beginning to his career. Jean Cocteau loved it. So did Dr. Alfred Kinsey. Anger was then ready to search out a far stranger light.
He was no longer searching for it, however, so much as he was waiting for somebody to bring it. That somebody was… well, it was Lucifer.
People who follow Aleister Crowley’s religion believe that the world is directed by a series of gods and goddesses. Crowley said the age governed by the Egyptian god Osiris was at its end. The next age would be led by Horus, or Lucifer. But Lucifer, to Crowley’s disciples, has a different persona than what’s generally accepted. “Lucifer is the Light god, not the devil, that’s a Christian slander,” Anger has said. “I’m an artist working in Light, and that’s my whole interest, really.”vii To Anger, Lucifer is the Bringer of Light. You can see it in “Invocation of My Demon Brother,” which incorporates a droning Moog synth line by Mick Jagger, who was a friend of Anger’s in the 1960s. But the storyline of the coming age of Lucifer is somewhat more discernable in “Lucifer Rising,” which is roughly based on Crowley’s poem “Hymn to Lucifer.” The poems ends:
He blessed nonentity with every curse
And spiced with sorrow the dull soul of sense,
Breathed life into the sterile universe,
With Love and Knowledge drove out innocence
The Key of Joy is disobedience.viii
There’s an incredible amount going on in this film that’s never really explained, but just to give an idea for what’s happening: That’s Marianne Faithfull playing Lilith, the goddess of destruction. And the guy playing Osiris is Donald Cammell, who is another director. But Osiris’s age is about up. So a Magus magician is enacting a bloody ritual to conjure Lucifer. Lucifer’s going to bring the light, the Key of Joy and whatever else. There’s just… a lot.
Like an Idiot’s Guide to a Thomas Pynchon novel, each of these films could warrant explanations far longer than the original works. As Anger’s said: “My films are enigmas to be figured out. My films are based on my lifelong research.”ix So for the uninitiated, perhaps it’s best to just get lost in the images and follow another quote from Anger: His films “are close to being dreams---and in dreams, you don’t have to analyze what everything means.”x
i Danielsen, Shane, “From Furniture Mover to Film-maker,” Sydney Morning Herald, Pg. 27, June 18, 1992.
v Hays, Matthew, “Kenneth Anger, Director: Fireworks at Sixty; Interview,” The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, March 1, 2007.
Eric Magnuson is a freelance writer. His journalism has appeared in numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The Nation, and Spin.com. His fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review.