Of Kenneth Anger and Hollywood Babylon

Unthinkably, blasphemously, through some apparent pact with Satan, film-maker, author, fabulist and provocateur Kenneth Anger (Kenneth Anglemyer, b. 1927) still lives. At the time of the present writing he is 96 years old, kept alive no doubt through a diet of tanna leaves and prayers to Anubis. Like the Temple of Dagon, Anger’s reputation rests on two pillars: 1) his Hollywood Babylon trilogy of lurid tinseltown gossip books, and 2) his life’s work of over 40 ground-breaking and influential experimental films, a couple of which are especially notorious.

We start with Hollywood Babylon, it being more relevant to the themes of this blog. The first volume (ghostwritten, or cowritten by Elliott Stein) was produced in 1959, although not published in the U.S. until 1965, and the second edition in 1975 was the one that finally broke through to the mainstream public in that time of nostalgia we wrote about here. Hollywood Babylon II was published in 1984. A third volume was apparently written many years ago, but remains unpublished due to fears of retribution from the Church of Scientology on account of “revelations” about Tom Cruise. Hollywood Babylon is a sui generis. Ultimately, it belongs, I think, in the great American hoax tradition and should probably come with a warning label, although I’m pretty sure it’s not actually conceived that way. A better bead may be gotten on it by thinking of it in the exploitation tradition, consisting as it does largely of salacious and unsubstantiated rumor and gossip, with no pretense of historicism or journalistic integrity. The books make Hollywood scandal sheets such as Confidential magazine look like The Washington Post. Sordid stories of murder, suicide, drug abuse, rape, and so forth are told with an unbecoming yet somehow infectious glee, accompanied by truly horrifying news photos which are by definition the truest thing about the book, though every bit as objectionable as the text.

I called Anger a fabulist in the first sentence. His business is myth, and I’m quite certain he doesn’t know what objective truth is, nor would he care a fig about it if he did. His own personal myth starts with the story that he played the Princeling in Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), a claim that has been satisfactorily debunked by many. Anger began telling this story long before such lore could be checked; nowadays, it is impossible to get away with such stuff, which I find lamentable in the extreme. Thus: many in my line (people who write about the history of movies and so forth) tend to hate and disparage Anger’s writing, and take a sort of almost sadistic pleasure in refuting his whoppers, which misses the point entirely. While I certainly try not to perpetuate falsehoods (or when I repeat them, I always include qualifiers or warnings), Ye Gods, I certainly appreciate a good story. Isn’t that what Hollywood is supposed to be ABOUT? Good stories? The people who have nothing better to do than fact check entertaining bullshit artists and yelp “Gotcha!” are so OUTSIDE the spirit of show business I wonder that they’re interested in it all. Why don’t they go study lizards or igneous rocks or something?

So, Anger tells tales out of school about scandals and sex lives and early deaths of the long dead likes of Fatty Arbuckle, Rudolph Valentino, Lupe Velez, Marie Prevost, William Desmond Taylor, Olive Thomas, Wallace Reid, Thelma Todd, Jeanne Eagels, Jean Harlow, Peg Entwistle, etc and later ones like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Sharon Tate. And yes, there is something wicked in the joy Anger appears to take in the misery of others. But again, isn’t that baked into humanity and the artform of cinema? Tragedy, spectatorship, voyeurism? Why do you watch stories? Bad things happen to people in ALL stories. That’s what stories ARE. The objection, I take it, is that Anger’s liberties go far beyond exaggeration into outright fabrications, but I assure you that 99% of all Hollywood bio-pics sacrifice truth to storytelling. Anger’s is a difference of degree, not of kind.

And at any rate, much of what Anger tells or suggests is true enough. The reality is sordid enough, and that aspect is NOT a lie. Wallace Reid WAS a drug addict. Judy Garland WAS strung out on pills. William Desmond Taylor WAS murdered in his bungalow. Why dwell on Hollywood’s subterranean evil, you ask? Because it is THERE. And there is something fundamentally true about THAT. Hence the book’s title. Hollywood hedonism is a REALITY. It bubbles beneath the surface like lava escaping from hell. In No Applause I wrote about how Christian leaders banned theatre for centuries. Cinema compounds the vanities and exhibitionism of theatre by allying it with the mass distribution of graven images! I say this without judgment, I’m obviously on the side of cinema. But why be a Polyanna about it? This, too is Anger’s stance, and he went all the way over to the other side. Anger is a literal Satanist and Pagan, a follower of Aleister Crowley and a co-religionist of Anton LaVey. He is down with evil. It’s his jam.

I find it interesting that a lot of the stuff that attracts Anger’s attention has to do with the silent era, around the time of his birth (I am just as obsessed with the era of my own birth, the 1960s). The 1920s was when cinemas literally emulated Egyptian temples, almost as though the industry was announcing itself as a Pagan enterprise. The worship of the ancient Gods is a constant theme throughout Anger’s films going all the way back to the early 1940s. Yes! Kenneth Anger’s earliest extant films were made 80 years ago! He started as a teenager, studied at USC and later spent a decade in Paris where he worked at the Cinémathèque Française, collaborating with the likes of Henri Langlois and Jean Cocteau. Heavily influenced by Maya Deren, Anger’s films are silent, assisted by musical soundtracks. His most notorious, Lucifer Rising, starred Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil, although his murder conviction meant a revisitation of the project, resulting in two films, Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), which features Beausoleil, Anton LaVey, the Rolling Stones and their girlfriends Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg; and a new version of Lucifer Rising, which was finished in 1980, with a soundtrack by Beausoleil and a cast that includes Faithfull as well as Chris Jagger (Mick’s brother) and Led Zepellin’s Jimmy Page. (After the Tate-LaBianca murders and the murder at Altamount, the Stones backed away from associations with Satanism per se in the ’70s).

Lucifer Rising riffs on the title of his earlier film Scorpio Rising (1963), which starred a bunch of bikers Anger encountered near a Coney Island roller coaster. Forgive us for not yet having mentioned that Anger is considered a pioneer of gay cinema, dating back at least to the time of his 1947 film Fireworks. Many of his films have been banned or destroyed, which has only resulted in the enhancement of Anger’s celebrity. Other notable projects included Puce Moment (1949), which was shot by Curtis Harrington; The Love That Whirls (1949), based on Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and destroyed by the film developers for its alleged obscenity; Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (1953), based on a Cocteau ballet; Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), which drew inspiration from Coleridge and the triptych of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, and boasted a cast featuring Anaïs Nin , Samson de Brier, Marjorie Cameron, Anger and Harrington; Thelema Abbey (1955), a documentary showcasing Crowley’s titular Satanic Temple and its erotic murals, and a 1961 adaptation of the sadomasochistic novel The Story of O.

Money was always a problem for Anger. Ironically, this lover of Hollywood culture was perversely allergic to commercialism. The Hollywood Babylon books were written explicitly to raise dough. The last two decades of the 20th century were a period of retirement for him. But then, unexpectedly, he returned to make a bunch more films between 2000 and 2010.

Fans of Hollywood Babylon may enjoy the True Crime section of Travalanche. Fans of Anger’s films may enjoy my posts on Jack Smith, Taylor Mead, and John Waters.