The Sordid Secrets of Babylon
Kenneth Anger Knows Them All
Apr 17 2012
Portraits by Mike Piscitelli and Jason Henry
A few days before I was set to interview Kenneth Anger, I started feeling weird. I kept imagining a terrible scene: sitting across from the 85-year-old filmmaker in a dimly lit, very old room while he grows increasingly frustrated with my line of questioning. And while I don’t believe in such things, I began worrying that if I annoyed him enough he’d cast a Thelemic curse on me. He’s done it before.
Whether or not I’ve been doomed is still unclear, but regardless, I got what I came for. I wanted to speak with Kenneth because, as I see it, he has transfigured the Hollywood aesthetic into some of the most emblematic and striking short films ever made. Much of his work—especially Rabbit’s Moon, Scorpio Rising, Kustom Kar Kommandos, Lucifer Rising, and Mouse Heaven—runs along a twisted continuum of American iconography, societal norms, and belief.
Kenneth also wrote Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II, books that detailed hushed celebrity scandals from the silent-film era through the late 60s. Some critics have cast doubt on claims made in the book, but who are they to say they know better? They weren’t there. And before the existence of societal scourges like People, TMZ, and Us Weekly, it was much easier for famous people to get away with sordid deeds.
Six years after its initial publication in France, the book was released in the US in 1965. Within days it was banned and pulled from bookstores until a new edition was printed in 1975. A review in the New York Times famously stated: “If a book such as this can be said to have charm, it lies in the fact that here is a book without one single redeeming merit.” In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth.
During my visit to LA to interview Kenneth, his name kept popping up seemingly at random. When I visited the Museum of Death on Hollywood Boulevard and mentioned my upcoming interview to the nice couple who run the place, they told me they’d been friendly with “Ken” for years and that he had cursed them no fewer than three times (in one instance via their answering machine). He also continues to send them all sorts of mail on an almost daily basis—letters, notes, books, and other packages—apparently because he likes the post office and enjoys mailing things to people.
Another strange occurrence happened during a free afternoon when I made the poor decision of taking the Dearly Departed Tour, a bus excursion to locations around LA where infamous celebrity scandals and deaths took place. The guide kept angrily referring to Kenneth, calling him a “tyrant” and a “liar.” He even accused him of fabricating the circumstances surrounding the death of 1920s starlet Marie Prevost.
During a lunch meeting with author John Gilmore (see his piece, “This Is Hollywood, Isn’t It?” soon on VICE.com), Kenneth became a point of conversation yet again. John put it more eloquently than anyone when he said the director has been “the iconoclastic, ancient, experimental filmmaker and thorn in Hollywood’s groin since childhood, a self-proclaimed spiritual magician who predates the glamour days.” He went on to recount the time Kenneth showed up at fellow director and mutual friend Curtis Harrington’s funeral at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery wearing a black raincoat, eyeliner, and fingernail polish. His shirt was opened to his navel, revealing the giant lucifer tattoo emblazoned across his chest, and he was accompanied by a boyish photographer who took pictures as Kenneth kissed Curtis’s corpse before its cremation. Before he was ejected from the premises, Kenneth handed John a small plastic vampire figurine that contained mint candies inside, clarifying its original use by saying, “It’s actually a dispenser for tickle-ribbed rubbers.”
But in the end, our interview did go well, or at least I thought it did. Kenneth was very polite if somewhat reserved, and throughout our chat, the only awkward moments were when he would pause after answering a question. A few times he had something to add and would pick up again, but mostly he would just look at me in the eyes and say, “OK?” to signal that he was ready to move on. By the end, it was clear that he is truly a walking treasure trove of history; he has lurked at the core of Hollywood longer—and knows her better—than anyone else.
VICE: Would you say that you lean more toward loving or disdaining Hollywood?
Kenneth Anger: I have a certain amount of ambivalence about it, but basically I am fond of it. And so whatever vices it has I appreciate; it is colorful. And it used to be a lot more colorful than it is now. This is sort of a mellow period, but there were days in the 20s and the 30s when it was having a different scandal every week, practically. I appreciated that as a historian, but we haven’t had any juicy scandals recently.
Does this have anything to do with the way the press covers celebrities? Are too many people famous nowadays?
No, it was the personalities, sort of larger-than-life personalities. And they were genius. Like Charlie Chaplin, for instance. At the same time, they had a propensity for pushing the boundaries and getting in trouble. In his case, he liked young girls, and that still is sort of a no-no.
Have there been any recent scandals that particularly interested you?
I have a pretty good antenna about what is happening in Hollywood, and it has just quieted down. In the 60s there was a flare-up with the Manson crowd and all that, but that has all quieted away.
And you would know because you lived through most of it. You were making films before you were even a teenager, right?
I was a kid, yes.
When was the last time you watched anything you filmed from that era?
I haven’t looked at them; they are filed away. I do have most of them, and I was working on 16 mm. Now I prefer to work in digital.
Why short films? Have you ever been tempted to make a feature?
Well, I could manage a shorter film with my own personal budget, and I compare my films to poems—I consider myself a poet of films. And something like 15 minutes or half an hour, I can manage that myself quite well as far as the budget goes. I have made films of up to 40 minutes, but oddly I never felt attracted to going into feature-length films.
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