Tonight at 7 PM PST at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum, artist, filmmaker, musician, and magick practitioner Brian Butler will be screening a selection of films that, as Aleister Crowley put it, explore the “science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will.” The frankly titled Magick in Cinema with Brian Butler will feature films by occult auteurs like Harry Smith, Curtis Harrington, and Kenneth Anger (who, along with Brian, makes up one half of the audiovisual brain-bender Technicolor Skull). I recently spent some time with Kenneth and Brian, interviewing the former for our upcoming April Showbiz Issue and conceptualizing its cover. The only thing I can say for certain is that my life hasn’t been the same since and, while I’ve never believed in such things, I find myself saying “fucking retrograde” over and over. So I called Brian to speak with him about his screening tonight and to ask him if I had perhaps been cursed. Full details for the screening are after the interview.
VICE: Were you invited to put together this screening, or did you reach out?
Brian: I spoke at an occult conference in Seattle last September, and someone there invited me. They gave me pretty much free rein. I came up with the idea of doing magick in general with the theme.
How did you first become interested in magick? Was it something that found you?
As long as I can remember I’ve been interested and had sort of strange experiences, but it wasn’t really until I was a teenager that I started to really seriously study it, when I got a book called Magick in Theory and Practice, by Aleister Crowley.
How old were you?
God, I don’t know. Maybe like 13 or 14.
Seems like a lot to chew on for a teenager, but I can also see how someone searching for answers at that age would be very attracted to Crowley’s writings.
That book is very complex. It references a lot of unpublished writings and you really have to know about the life of Aleister Crowley to understand a lot of it. So I felt something from the book, and I felt like maybe it was related to some of the experiences I had had that I couldn’t really put a label on or define. It seemed like it was addressing that same area. So I started to study it more in-depth.
Do you think there’s a big misperception about Crowley and his related beliefs and philosophies? Have they been coopted and misinterpreted by various sources, or are people just clinging to an aesthetic they don’t completely understand? And on the flip side, why are the films you’ve chosen for the screening exemplary of magick being used as a creative force?
Some of the films by other directors that I’m showing go back to the 50s and they’re very avant-garde and experimental. There’s no dialogue, and at that time there were not as many references to the occult in pop culture as there are now, so I think today it’s more difficult because there are symbols and things that have been coopted to other places by metal bands and horror films that don’t necessarily represent its true meaning. It’s just for shock value or to scare someone or whatever purpose they use it for. But I can’t start thinking that way when I create my own work, because it would be endless. I’ll have a vision and I’ll go toward realizing that vision. If there are obvious references that I think people will misunderstand or relate to something else, maybe I won’t go in that direction, but in general I just try to go with my vision.
At its essence magick is connecting to your natural state, right? Does it come from the gut, or is it even more basic than that?
Your intuition, you’re sort of tuning into a certain wavelength, and if you are aligned with that energy you’ll tend to attract things that are going in that same direction. It’s scientific in a way. In the system of Aleister Crowley, he addresses a lot of spiritual things in a scientific way—how it relates to the law of resonance or harmonics. If one thing is vibrating in a certain way, it tends to set off other things around it in a higher octave, or in harmony with that thing. You need science to classify and label these things because they’re so abstract. It’s like from a dream or a feeling or an energy—but if you can relate it to a color or a number or something like that, a system of correspondences, it’s easier to work with these energies.
Can science contextualize it all, though?
I think at this time a lot of it is unexplainable by the present state of technology or science. I feel in the future it will be explained, but now there’s a series of synchronicities and coincidences and signs that you’re going in the right direction—it’s almost like looking through a mirror; it’s not that it’s not real, it’s just that it’s reversed. You find these things as they happen—you read about them and you have a certain representation of what it might be like, but until you experience it, you really can’t know. And it’s always, in my experience, different than what I’ve read about. But when it happens I’m like, “Oh, that’s the changed thing, that’s what it really is.” That’s kind of abstract, but…
And I take it that applying these principles is something that needs to be practiced and honed?
In Magick in Theory and Practice, there’s a series of rituals that are mentioned that are a good foundation. Just reading isn’t enough. You have to actually take action and perform the rituals to really understand how these things work. Some writers or occultists, they just read and that’s as far as they go. They’re scholars, but they don’t actually have a personal experience. So I feel that it’s important to actually—if you want to find out what this is really about—practice these rituals.
Kenneth Anger is perhaps the most accomplished and noteworthy “occult filmmaker,” even if that’s a bit restrictive of a term. How did you meet him and begin your collaboration?
I was segment producer for a show called Disinfo Nation, and they wanted to track down Kenneth for a conference they were having in New York. This was over ten years ago and he was a bit more reclusive. I tracked him down, and from there we became friends and started to work together.
In Technicolor Skull he curates the video selection that serves as the backdrop to your shows, but he also plays the Theremin in a way unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. How did you approach him about collaborating on a musical project?
Music is very important in his work, so he’s strongly associated with that element. It just kind of happened organically that we had the opportunity to present a musical performance and project and it just seemed like the Theremin was the perfect instrument.
OK, I don’t want to keep you too much longer, but I have to ask you: I was in LA last month to interview Kenneth and work on the cover of our forthcoming Showbiz Issue with you two. The location where we conducted the interview was this 20s intricately detailed Art Deco restaurant called Cicada. The vibes there were heavy to say the least, and when Kenneth walked in he began relaying some of the history of the building—that it used to be a very posh clothing store called Alexander and Oviatt where the biggest stars in Hollywood used to shop. The manager told me that he spent thousands of dollars cleansing the spirits that haunted the place prior to his arrival, and that they still aren’t completely gone. He even took me into his office, which smelled like cigar smoke, and claimed he did not smoke cigars—that it was Oviatt’s presence and made vague references to me stirring something up there that was going to stick with me for a bit. I thought he was crazy and left, but ever since then I’ve had a series of inexplicable and pretty terrible things happen in my life. I was hoping you could offer me some perspective. What the fuck do I do to get rid of this bad juju?
That’s sort of what you could call—it could be related to Mercury, or in Voodoo it’s called Eleggua, the trickster god, who’s also the god of magick, which is Mercury. If you’re not really open or ready for change, it can really affect you. Like right now, we’re just getting out of a Mercury retrograde so it’s been really intense for a lot of people, and you have to be ready to… he’s also the road-opener, so he opens and closes doors. So when one door closes, you have to be looking for the next door to open rather than getting stuck on something that’s changed. That’s how magick works. It’s about change, and that’s how Aleister Crowley defined it. The art and science of causing change to occur.
Magick in Cinema with Brian Butler
7 PM PST
Northwest Film Forum
1515 12th Ave.