Saturday, 20 February 2010


Last night I attended a talk and screening from legendary filmmaker, visual magus and raconteur, Kenneth Anger, at the Tate Modern in London.

I have been eagerly waiting for Dr Anger to return to the UK, and let’s face it, he’s 83 now - even though he’d swear blind he’s only 80 (he’s not) - so the chances of him making frequent visits seems pretty slim these days.

Held in the Tate’s tiny cinema, it was a great night. True, some of the classics were left off the bill – most notably Fireworks and Scorpio Rising, but I still enjoyed it.

First up was Mouse Heaven, Anger’s ode to the darker side of Disney, back in the early days when Mickey Mouse had a more devilish grin and evil glint in his eye. Although Anger claimed to have shot some 16mm footage in the 1980s, this version is strictly digital. A kaleidoscope of dancing Mickeys coupled with gaudy chroma-key backgrounds, this is the best Anger film of the 21st century, so far. Along with Rabbit’s Moon, it is probably the only Anger film you could label ‘fun’.

Then came Red Witch, a truly great piece of film. This one wasn’t actually by Anger, but a found footage piece constructed by his ‘producer and collaborator’ Brian Butler (who was also in attendance). Red Witch is a re-cut 8mm home movie of Marjorie Cameron, but not like any homespun footage you’ve ever seen before! She sits like a cat in her living room, surrounded by her grandchildren, who watch as she applies layer after layer of magickal make-up. As this mystical process progresses, the kids laze around and climb over their grandmother, who seems to be in a trance, as the soundtrack and thumping visuals build to a psychedelic climax.

Cameron – who preferred to be known by the mononym – was a fascinating character, who surely deserves a biopic all of her own. A real life witch, artist, underground movie star, wife of the famous rocket scientist Jack Parsons (who blew himself up in the shed one day) and friend of Kenneth Anger, she is the original ‘Scarlet Woman’ and the best part of the classic Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.

It’s strange that the most memorable film of the night wasn’t actually by Anger, but it was this film I kept on thinking about as the evening wore on. Cameron is such a big part of the Anger legend, so to see a completely different side to her, and to see how very old she looked, was more than fascinating. The soundtrack (also by Butler, I believe) was pretty good too. If you want to see more of Cameron – albeit just a glimpse – then I highly recommend Night Tide, a little-known cult classic by Anger’s chum Curtis Harrington – in which Cameron has a creepy little cameo role. It’s also a good little reminder that Dennis Hopper was actually really sexy back in the day (look out for the not-so-subtle homoerotic subtext in the ‘massage scene’).

Invocation of My Demon Brother was next on the bill. Visually, this film is unique, with a dark streak that makes it just a little disturbing. Like all of his work, Anger had a number of dubious stories concerning how this film came about: he has always claimed that the original footage for this film was stolen, and so what we have here is ‘scraps from the cutting bin’. Whether or not that’s true – and it seems doubtful, as some of the film’s striking images are hardly stuff you would throw away – it’s just another part of the Anger legend which I love. Also, Mick Jagger’s bizarre and headachey synthesiser soundtrack has a way of keeping you alert and fixed on the screen.

Next up on the film programme was Brush of Baphomet, which is basically a sequel to Anger’s 2002 film The Man We Want To Hang. Another straight rostrum camera-type catalogue of Crowley paintings. Not exactly my cup of Chai, but there you go.

Finally, we were ‘treated’ to the Jimmy Page version of Lucifer Rising. This version is slightly shorter and was never officially released, giving it star status in the eyes of many Anger fans. Sadly though, I am not one of them. I don’t care for Page or Led Zeppelin or anything like that, so although I’m glad I saw this curious piece, I wouldn’t rush out to see it again. Page’s soundtrack is truly ear-splitting. And it’s no poetic simile to say the ‘music’ sounds like nails scraping a blackboard – it actually DOES sound like nails scraping a blackboard – all 25 minutes of it! It was something to be endured rather than enjoyed – and I kept thinking of those experiments on my fellow homos in the 60s, where they were tied down in medicinal viewing rooms and forced to watch porn while being electrocuted – a cinema experience dealing in pain rather than pleasure. What a shame, because Lucifer is a truly excellent film. It has a polished look and such great locations, you can’t help but be mesmerised by it. But give me the ‘real’ Bobby Beausoleil version any day. At least you can enjoy that one without Advil.

In the Tate cinema I noticed that some of the (very young) crowd seemed a little boorish, a bit distracted. I got the impression they had read the Hollywood Babylon books and not much else. They weren’t proper Anger mainlining smackheads like me. That’s why I wish the great man had put Fireworks up there on the screen. That would surely have given them a shake.

During the obligatory Q&A which followed the screenings, there was a rather uncomfortable wall of silence from the audience – save for the sound of their backs sliding down into the chairs. But thankfully it was all kept very brief, so wasn’t too painful, thank Thelema.

I had brought with me my prized promo editions of the Fantoma DVDs for Anger to sign, if I got the chance to ask. I also had a DVD with a couple of my films on it – now I don’t know if Anger has a DVD player, even if he does I’m sure he couldn’t give a rat’s arse about my films, but hey, it was worth a shot. So while I was planning how to approach this subject and cajole him into autographing my DVDs without looking like some fawning fan, I noticed that the talk was over, and Anger was stomping up the staircase with the agility of a nubile moonchild half his age.

So realising that my idol was very soon to exit stage left, I made a beeline for the doors. Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet him – as I entered the lobby I just saw him stepping into the lift while some pretentious gallery assistant flitted around with a clipboard and poked at the buttons. So that was how my night ended – with the elevator doors sliding shut, then Kenneth Anger rising… up into the towers of Bankside.

Ben Barton

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