Invisible Ink: No 221 - Kenneth Anger

 

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If ever there was a case of adopting an apt pseudonym, Kenneth Anglemeyer had it. Born in 1927 into a middle-class family in Santa Monica, California, he quickly became the author of his own legend and rechristened himself Kenneth Anger. Setting out to become a child actor and then a film-maker, he was acquitted after facing obscenity charges for his first self-directed short at the age of 20. What had he done to draw down such wrath?

Anger’s 14-minute film Fireworks conflated homoeroticism, mysticism, surrealism, and sado-masochism, and set the tone of his work for decades to come. He never made a feature film, but his 40 independent shorts (nine of which were grouped together as the “Magick Lantern Cycle”) proved unique and highly influential. Anger was a fan of Aleister Crowley and other self-styled magicians, and formed a lifelong friendship with the sexologist Dr Alfred Kinsey, who became something of a father figure.

Soon he was turning sexuality into a political act and testing the boundaries of acceptability, producing his strangely poetic films in Paris and Rome, befriending another experimentalist, Stan Brakhage, hanging with Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger, and regularly facing obscenity bans. Although his films are tame by today’s standards, they continue to exert a peculiar power.

While he was broke, Anger ventured into writing. In 1959, he produced Hollywood Babylon, a collation of outrageous Hollywood tittle-tattle (with unsavoury photographs) that could only be published in France because it was stuffed to the gills with uncorroborated scandal, suggesting that Walt Disney was addicted to opiates and that Rudolph Valentino was sexually submissive with dominant women. As slimy and salacious as it was, the failed child-star’s prose touched on a truth that had not until that time been stated in print – that the studio heads rigorously controlled the behaviour of their stars and misrepresented them in publicity. Babylon perfectly captured Anger’s love-hate relationship with Hollywood and became an underground classic, but was hastily disavowed and remained unavailable in the US until 1974. It was followed by a sequel, but by this time the public had become less easily gulled by Hollywood publicity, and it bombed. But Anger had opened the floodgates; muck-raking volumes poured out, each more prurient than the last, thanks to US libel laws which provided more extensive defences for those accused of making derogatory statements. Surprisingly, the original book is still in print, and Anger remains an iconoclast.

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