Kenneth Anger & Scorpio Rising: Iconography, Identity & Hollywood Folklore

(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)

Motorcycles. Sadomasochism. Methamphetamines. Leather. Homoeroticism. Nazism. Occultism. Pop music. Christianity. Hollywood. Death. These are just a few themes in Scorpio Rising’s half-hour runtime. 

Shot around Coney Island in 1962, the short film’s voraciousness is still startling by today’s standards. A hyper-stylized refraction of the American mythos born from rock ’n roll and the “live fast die young” mentality, Scorpio Rising is a visual assault, projected through a kaleidoscopic lens of masculine bravado, emblematic popism, and a fetishism for flesh and gear. In its thematic ambiguity and graphic visuals, Scorpio Rising evokes a sinister feeling – this film is dangerous. But it’s chrome-tinted precariousness is nullified by the gritty modernism and fashionable aestheticism it employs in objectifying sexuality and machinery. To this day, it’s as alluring as it is alarming. 

Prior to its filming, Rising’s director, Kenneth Anger, had just returned to the US from France. While Anger had already made a handful of self-financed films that were respected amongst the avant-grade film community, he was not a bankable commodity. His prestige in the independent film world did not translate to financial stability within the Hollywood studio system, prompting here to relocate to Paris – a place where Anger felt his films had a better chance of success. 

Anger would quickly become the toast of the Paris art scene. While kissing cheeks and drinking cognac with the likes of Anaïs Nin and Jean Cocteau, Anger worked for the prestigious Cinematheque Francais. Despite being an ornate socialite, Anger’s artistic endeavors proved unfruitful. To make ends meet, the struggling filmmaker would beg local publications to pay him for old Hollywood-centric editorials. Creatively and geographically, Anger was a far-cry away from where he wanted to be: a director within the bustling studio system of Hollywood. 

To understand Anger – as well as Scorpio Rising – it’s important to trace his origins, which is no easy feat. The investigation into Anger’s past is littered with half-told truths, conflicting timelines, and an ever-changing cast of sentinel characters. This starts with Anger’s birth date, which changes from year to year depending on the interview (according to most sources, Anger was born in 1927). It continues to his first brush with Hollywood filmmaking, which also may or may not be a fabrication. According to Anger (as well as his unofficial biographer, Bill Landis), Anger was a child actor. His credits including the “Changeling Prince” in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 screen adaption of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Starring opposite James Cagney and Mickey Rooney, this would be the first and last time Anger would work within the Hollywood studio system. “I was a child prodigy who never got any smarter,” Anger would later say.

Anger’s inability to penetrate the commercialism of Hollywood would serve as his Achilles heel. It forced him to work outside the studios, allowing him the creative freedom to explore the fabric of cinema as an auteur as opposed to a contractor. But it also left him with a perpetual sense of artistic inadequacy and a chip on his shoulder, best exemplified by his decision to change his last name from “Anglemyer” to “Anger” early in his directorial career, a nod to his artistic temperament. To compensate, Anger would often lie about his accomplishments, embellish his past and creating his own hyperbolic folklore. Like the Mark Twain quote, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” Anger would sensationalize the details of his own life just as much as he did the tinsel-town icons he wrote about.

“Nobody in America, in the modern generation, has read their own mythology or legends.”

From an early age, Anger viewed himself as an outsider, struggling to fit in amongst his peers at Beverly Hills High School. He was forthcoming about his homosexuality at a time when being gay was considered both a mental illness and a punishable crime. He was highly creative, attracted to art and music in a straight lace household that was distinctly middle class and unintellectual. During his formative years, Anger found solace in his grandmother and her live-in friend, Diggy, who would regale Anger with stories from her past-life working on film sets (in subsequent interviews, Anger would often contribute these stories to his grandmother, negating the existence of Diggy. Diggy is one of many supporting characters from the cast of Anger’s past, entering and exiting the scenes of his life at the discretion of his narrative whims). Diggy’s half-remembered reminiscences of Hollywood, tarnished by passing decades and soaked in endless gin martinis, were meant as cautionary tales. But they became the seeds for Anger’s blossoming interest in Hollywood mysticism, instilling a lifelong infatuation with the sadistic shenanigans (allegedly) committed by silver screen sirens. These tales of drug abuse, sexual exploits, and hush-hush murders from the damaged lives of Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow cemented themselves within the mind of Anger, who envisioned a realm of celluloid pagan gods and goddesses. And Hollywood, perpetually on the verge of crumbling beneath the weight of its own decadence, became the enchanted pantheon in which these phantoms of vanity engaged in the unthinkable; their moans of pleasure and pain echoing throughout the canyons of past starless nights. It was a place of endless sunshine, casting dark shadows across mansions and penthouses where glamour and luxury spawned hedonism and mystery. In these shadows, Anger found inspiration and a career-long rapport with the dark side of Hollywood. “Hollywood is very good at producing scandals; it’s been producing them since the very beginning,” Anger would say in 2017 while being interviewed over cheeseburgers and Coca-Cola at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, moments before being an honorary speaker at an event for The Church Of Satan.

These second-hand fables of Hollywood’s dirty underbelly would become the basis for the editorial articles Anger peddled in Paris. Eventually, they’d be compiled into a short-run coffee table book before making their way to America in the form of a bootleg paperback. In 1975, a publishing division of Rolling Stone would publish the definitive version we know today: Hollywood Babylon. The publication would secure Anger as a scholar on the tawdry side of the entertainment industry. Within the pages of Hollywood Babylon, Anger depicts the entertainment industry as a ghoulish dreamscape, painting old Hollywood as a revolting caricature completely void of ethics or any semblance of a moral compass. In Anger’s words, Hollywood has always been a “synonym for sin.”

By the time Anger returned to America in 1961, he had begun pairing his star worship with the teachings of Aleister Crowley, a famed English occultist who had founded the religion of Thelema. Crowley’s teachings were loaded with symbolic imagery that would become insignia’s for occultism, iconic onto themselves as visual shorthand for black magick. Anger was drawn to the cryptic visuals associated with Crowley’s teaching, as well as the underlining message of magick: the act of creating change with one’s own will. This intendment deeply resonated with the frustrated filmmaker, who carried resentment that his foray into child stardom didn’t open up the proverbial gates to the majestic kingdom of Hollywood. Anger was driven to continue making films, with or without the recognition he craved from the entertainment industry.

Anger describes Scorpio Rising as “a death-mirror held up to American culture – Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans.” The name of the film refers to the eighth astrological sign in the zodiac: Scorpio, the god of sexuality and machinery. Coupling Anger’s sexual proclivities, his mystical belief in the occult, and the fierce machoism of its subjects, Scorpio Rising is a quasi-documentary that plays out as “a day in the life” of a Coney Island motorcycle gang.

The documentary feel of the film comes from the fact that it’s subjects were real-life members of a motorcycle gang. After befriending Anger, they allowed him access into their garages, apartments, and workshops underneath the guise that Anger was making a straightforward film about their subculture. They had no way of knowing that Anger was positioning his camera lens in a way that sexually objectified them, more focused on eroticism than on documentation. Throughout the first half of the film, we gaze at male torsos draped in leather through distinctly furtive angles. We watch the epitome of masculinity – the “devil may care” biker – engaging in full out pageantry: meticulously selecting skull rings, trying on silk scarfs, and zipping up freshly oiled leather jackets. More feminine than masculine, these sequences are soundtracked by bubblegum pop hits of the early sixties. While the lyrical content vaguely plays into the action occurring on screen, their specific selection is enhanced by the sexual nature of the cinematography and editing. While the abrasiveness of Link Wray or Duane Eddy would be more indigenous to the subjects on screen, Anger uses music that – in context of the time period – would feel most at home in the cotton candy bedroom of a teenage girl. These needle drops, coupled with Anger’s seductive lens, create a kind of kitschy, homoerotic daydream. This is best exemplified by the choice of Bobby Vinton’s 1963 hit, “Blue Velvet,” which serves as the score to a surreal montage of bikers adorning themselves and their motorcycles with leather and chains. What is supposed to be aggressive and destructive is treated as sexy and seductive. We’re bearing witness to hyper-masculinity through the lens of a flirtatious on-looker, enraptured more by the sensuality of the male physique than the heterosexual “tough-guy” costuming it’s dressing itself in.

The subjects of Scorpio Rising did not know that their candid exploits were being framed to invoke sadomasochism; that the 16mm footage of their day to day existence would be cross-cut with footage of Jesus and Nazi flags. One of the film’s main subjects, a biker named Bruce Byron (dubbed “Scorpio”), reads comics in bed beneath photos of James Dean and posters of skulls. His bedside table is a mess of Lucky Strike soft-packs and viles of methamphetamines. The Wild One plays on his tubed television as he takes bumps of meth, suiting up for a night out on the town: aviator sunglasses, chain belts, and steel tip boots. During this sequence, Anger cross-cuts to inserts of Brando in The Wild One and Bela Lugosi in Dracula as “You’re The Devil In Disguise” by Elvis Presley and “Heatwave” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas score Byron’s ceremonial routine.

Decked out in leather and denim, Byron leaves his apartment, hops on bike, and makes his way to a warehouse party (Anger would later reveal that this was a Halloween party for the gang. This is never explained in the film, so the skeletal masks and gothic decorations ornamenting the warehouse only adds to the film’s esotericism). Once at the party, Byron helps inaugurate a new member into the gang. The initiation is nothing more than frat-boy antics, but it’s never given context. Through Anger’s camera lens, the tomfoolery takes on a masochistic edge. As the ceremony continues, we follow Byron into an empty church. Lit only by flashlight and pulsating with amphetamines, Byron scales the church’s altar and makes an impromptu speech. Instead of hearing what Byron is saying, “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March plays, and we’re shown inserts of Nazi memorabilia and religious paraphernalia. Again, Anger does not give context for any of this.

So what is Anger doing here? What do we make of all this? Is Scorpio Rising an extreme case of style over substance, or is there a deeper meaning to Anger’s intentions? By juxtaposing a motorcycle gang with the early disciples of Christianity and the Nazi party of World War II, perhaps Anger is drawing comparisons about the aestheticism of identity and iconography. In the world of Scorpio Rising, the avatars of death and danger – James Dean, Adolf Hitler, Dracula, Jesus Christ, The Grim Reaper – occupy the same space. They all have a uniform, a mythos, symbolic imagery, and dedicated followers obsessing over their iconicism. The motorcycle gang in Scorpio Rising are disciples of American pop culture, followers of Brando and Dean. Their hymns come from the FM dial, their bible the Sunday comics. Like any form of groupthink, there is a signature fashion that supersedes the ideology: the robe, the cape, the leather jacket. Attached to this faddism is correlating symbolic imagery: the cross, the swastika, the smoking skull. The inherent sense of badass masculinity in biker subculture becomes so amplified – so fetishized – that it becomes erotic. The film weaponizes this eroticism and turns it into total fascism. Brando becomes Christ and motorcycles become a religion and straight becomes gay and death becomes a lifestyle. The parallels between the archetype of the rebel, the prophet, and the fascist become jumbled and manic. A Nazi, a homosexual, a vampire, a biker, a martyr – these identities all share symbolism that resonates with a perceived sense of self. The biker gang in Scorpio Rising serves as a microcosm for the tenets of identity, exposing the irony of individualism by showcasing the predisposition to conform to a group, to dress the part, to use the language, to promote the symbols. Whether it’s the altar of a church, the oil stained floor of a garage, or the twilight glow of a television set, these are all places of worship. Depending on who we perceive ourselves to be and what uniform we decide to costume ourselves in – a devoted Christian, a hell-raising biker, a glamorous Hollywood star – we are participating in the cult of personality. The film doesn’t place judgement on any specific ideology, favoring aestheticism over dogma–fetishizes them equally as a shared collection of symbols and fashion, bound together by their ability to influence identity. 

Anger’s sexual objectification of biker subculture in the film was met with heavy backlash, especially from the motorcycle gang who appeared in the film. Byron, who was never paid by Anger, was known to show up at screenings of Scorpio Rising demanding that the film be pulled from the theater. Other members of the gang would spend years trying to distance themselves from the film’s political and religious overtones, vehemently denying any involvement with nazism or occultism. Scorpio Rising would also be chastised by the Hell’s Angels, furious over the homoerotic depiction of their culture. Hunter S. Thompson would write about this in his 1967 book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange And Terrible Saga Of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs: “Scorpio Rising played in San Francisco in 1964 at a North Beach theater called The Movie, where Anger was living at the time, upstairs, which advertised the film with a side-walk montage of Hell’s Angels newspaper clippings. The implication was so obvious that the Angels made a pilgrimage to check it out. It didn’t groove with them at all…they were genuinely offended. ‘It didn’t have anything to do with us,’ said Frenchy (a member of Hell’s Angels), ‘Man, it was a bummer, it wasn’t right. A lot of people got conned, and now we have to listen to all this crap about us being queers? Shit, did you see the way those punks were dressed? And those silly goddamn junk wagon bikes. Man, don’t tell me that has any connection with us.”

In an ironic twist, Scorpio Rising has since become one of the most influential pieces of art in the commercial world, despite never being a commercial success itself. The film is credited as the first music video, as Scorpio Rising marks the first time popular music was employed as the sole audio for a film. Its use of juxtaposition and graphical editing would serve as a new kind of template for commercial advertisement, specifically in the fashion world. It would have a major influence on artists ranging from Marilyn Manson to Dennis Hopper to directors such as Martin Scorsese, who claimed that Scorpio Rising was the catalyst for his decision to use pop songs in films such as Mean Streets. Photographer and fellow scorpio, Robert Mapplethorpe, used Scorpio Rising as a reference point while shooting some of his most famous and controversial work in the underground BDSM scene. “He was a genuine pioneer,” claims director Elio Gelmini, “People are influenced by him who don’t even know they’re influenced by him.”

After the release of Scorpio Rising, Anger would continue to make films, straddling the line between high and low culture while pushing the envelope of occultism and sexuality in filmmaking. He would exist outside the mainstream, ever conflicted and frustrated by the trajectory of his career: “I reject this term underground,” Anger would tell The Guardian in a 2006 interview, “I don’t live underground. What am I, a gopher? These labels! Avant-garde – do you know what that is? It’s a military term for soldiers who are sacrificed, who die for the risks they take going first. I’m independent. I have never worked for another company, never had a boss my whole life. I am not beholden to anybody.”

Anger would spend the rest of the sixties into the seventies cultivating his mythos and folklore, leaving behind some of the most bizarre and star-studded rumors to ever circulate through the Hollywood hills. They include – but are most certainly not limited to – Anger claiming that he put a curse on Bobby Beausoleil, who he cast in his film Lucifer Rising. Bobby would later go on to join the Manson family, murdering Gary Hinman and setting off the “Helter Skelter” murders of 1969. During a protest march on Washington, Anger unsuccessfully attempted to use his magick powers to levitate the Pentagon, leading to a fight with novelist, Norman Mailer. Anger became close friends with Mick Jagger – who would score Anger’s film Invocation Of My Demon Brother – and claimed to be the inspiration for The Rolling Stones song, “Sympathy For The Devil.” The stories go on and on, featuring musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, actresses such as Marianne Faithful, scientists such as Jack Parsons, and pop culture oddballs such as Anton LaVey, the founder of The Church Of Satan. The through line in all of these fantastic tales is Anger, his own unreliable narrator.

He would continue to perpetuate his loner, rebel without a cause demeanor throughout his career. Much like Johnny Strabler in The Wild One (“Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” “Whaddaya got?”), Anger constantly battled acceptance from anyone and everyone, caught between craving recognition and combatting acknowledgment: “If the gay community wants to make me an icon, fine, but for years, I’ve never got any help from them. Oh yes – wait. I received an award from something called “Outfest”…it’s a lifetime achievement award. A hunk of plastic. You could kill someone with it. I use it as a doorstop. I don’t need a piece of plastic.”

One can’t help but wonder if Anger, now 94 years old, is satisfied with the post-modernistic iconography he created in his cinematic distortion of pop culture. Is he content with his cult status? Does he still shudder at the classification of “underground filmmaker?” Perhaps he is still the angry young director who never got his shot at the mainstream, romanticizing the sordid lives of Hollywood ghosts while fictionalizing his own narrative arch, forever drawn to symbols and insignias that help him better understand who he is, and who he envisions himself to be.

”I haven’t really thought of where I’ll end up as a corpse,” Anger told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017, “I really don’t care, but I’ve got lots of friends at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and I go visit there from time to time.” Anger pauses, a devilish grin appearing across his face. “You know, oddly enough, Paramount Pictures, right next door, is constructed over an ancient cemetery. Under the soundstages are hundreds of bodies. They built right on top of it. It’s like a secret that Hollywood doesn’t want people to know.” After the interview was published, Paramount released a statement disputing Anger’s claim. |Eric Hehr, March 2021

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